Liberia: past, present, future

An Interview with Laura Berlinger, William Jacobs and Garretson Sherman

Garretson Sherman and Laura Berlinger, 2014, during a visit to Staten Island four years after their work together. The two walked around Park Hill and saw a number of the kids she has worked with previously. This photos was taken on the Staten Island ferry terminal. / William Jacobs directing a meeting of Liberian Dance Troupe youth and families that had relocated from Buduburam, Ghana to Monrovia, Liberia and surrounding areas. The meeting was to discuss ways to maintain the work of LDT in Liberia, discuss possible sources of funding, practice spaces, etc. This group of LDT members in Liberia would later rename their group One Dream Liberia.

Garretson Sherman and Laura Berlinger, 2014.  This photo was taken on the Staten Island ferry terminal. / William Jacobs directing a meeting of Liberian Dance Troupe youth and families that had relocated from Buduburam, Ghana to Monrovia, Liberia and surrounding areas. The meeting was to discuss ways to maintain the work of LDT in Liberia. This group of LDT members in Liberia would later rename their group One Dream Liberia.

Laura Berlinger and I[1] met while volunteering with a new after-school initiative at African Refuge on Staten Island, New York, in 2009. The non-profit, created to provide community support and resources to immigrants, refugees, and other marginalized groups in the area, focuses on community engagement, social justice, community health, and youth development. African Refuge is located in an African-American community that, following the First and Second Liberian Civil Wars (1989-2003) and the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002), also began to include a large enough number of resettled refugees to be nicknamed “Little Liberia.”

Laura would go on to be employed by the organization as the Program Coordinator for the Youth and Family Center at African Refuge. Previously, she completed her BA in Religious Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and volunteered with the Liberian Dance Troupe (now One Dream Liberia) in Ghana and Liberia. Laura now lives in New Orleans, where she works within the Orleans Parish Drug Court and is a Licensed Master of Social Work (Tulane University).                                      .

She and I reconnected to talk about the work we had done some years ago and what we are focusing on now. We did this as a way of getting at the question this edition of the journal asks of practitioners, scholars and all those who work with issues around forced migration. In this case, the subtext of the questions I asked Laura was: How can we look at our past to re-conceptualize our line of thinking for the sake of all that lies ahead?                                 .

We realized quickly that, as good as our conversation was, there was something missing when we went about transcribing it for a public audience. Our memories had left gaps in the past that we thought would best be filled by reaching out to those who made our work possible. We also decided that the conversation should be wider, and we began to hope it could include some of the influential people that Laura had met and been inspired by over the years. Thus the conversation you are about to read is one between four people, rather than just two.

Laura invited someone we both knew, Garretson Sherman, to the conversation. Garretson has volunteered and worked at the African Refuge Youth Center as a youth mentor for many years, soon after he arrived in the United States from Liberia. Laura also invited William Jacobs to the conversation. William is the Executive Director One Dream Liberia, Inc., initially a group of Liberian traditional dancers and musicians who entertained refugees in Buduburam Refugee Camp in Ghana in the early 1990s. He was also the facilitator of Laura’s work in Ghana and Liberia.


Refugee Review: Can you set the scene of coming to work on Staten Island, Laura and Garretson? Who you were then, and what brought you to this work?                        .

Laura Berlinger: My experiences in Ghana and Liberia gave me a glimpse into the struggles of Liberian refugees and internally displaced people, as well as the incredible potential for community mobilization and empowerment during recovery from these struggles. Although I had imagined that my internship there would be focused primarily on dance instruction and facilitating workshops, I had the immense privilege of witnessing community outreach that included counseling and basic needs assistance among parents and children involved in the program. I had volunteered with a dynamic grassroots organization in Buduburam[2], a Liberian refugee settlement in Ghana, and upon my return to the U.S., I felt inspired to continue working with children and families. I sought work with organizations with values that emphasized community-driven solutions. African Refuge offered just this kind of experience, along with an opportunity to continue working with, and learning from, Liberians.

Garretson Sherman: If I should take a moment to reference my thoughts as to what drew me to African Refuge as a Volunteer, I must begin by quoting the scripture from the Bible, Psalms 97:11. Light is sown for the righteous and gladness for the upright in heart. As a Liberian and a victim of the 21 years of civil conflict headed by the former President Charles G. Taylor (who is now serving a 50-year prison sentence in a British prison for crimes against humanity, Thank God), our struggles began with my father, who was a member of the Liberian Armed Forces during the late President Samuel K. Doe era. His position within the military created person[al] hate that directly affected not only him but all his families. Due to such a threat, I also suffered direct pain, which resulted in my being shot at several times, but I was always blessed to come through. Today I really don’t talk about this a lot because I don’t dwell on any negative but all positive chances that can help me forge ahead.

In 2006, I fled Cuttington University as a junior student in Gbarnga, Bong County for safety in Monrovia. In early 2007, I was blessed to obtain a visiting visa to the United States of America, but couldn’t travel until November because I needed to distract my enemies/perpetrators. When I finally made the trip, it happened that I encountered a family friend who was already a resident of Staten Island. She hosted me and worked with me as I transitioned into a stable and reliable person. It was during my transition period that I observed a small, red small car perform a drive-by on Bowen Street, Staten Island and three people were victimized, but survived. I was stunned and surprised to know of the three victims; two were children. At that moment my life changed and I wondered what difference it would make if I could work with these children, and tell my stories of encountering bullets and why I preferred for them to think positively. The question that disrupted my thoughts was what [alternative] to offer in exchange. It was then I understood that African Refuge did exist, but was guided by principles which allowed [the organization] to select the beneficiaries of the program (a particular age range, a particular kind of kid). But their mission and goals spoke of them working with low-income and immigrant families.

RR: I wonder how much you knew about the resettlement of refugees within the African-American community at the time you worked with African Refuge, Laura, and upon your arrival, Garretson. What was your perspective of working with different communities that were living in the same neighborhood, and how did it affect the work you were doing or hoped to do?                                     .

LB: The history of conflict in the community between Africans and African-Americans was presented to me at my interview at African Refuge as a key component to working with the community. I remember being told that promoting understanding among the children could be instrumental in promoting more peace and understanding in the community as a whole. I know I also came in with a preconceived notion that this is often what happens when marginalized populations intersect. One piece of literature that strongly influenced my perspective on this, prior to any personal experience, was Luis J. Rodriguez’s memoir Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. I remember being struck by the author’s description of truce efforts among Latino and African-American gangs of Los Angeles, and how quickly these efforts could be thwarted and deteriorate due to both internal and external factors. These factors included, I would argue, societal repression of already marginalized groups that became associated with violence, which encouraged increased tension and more violence.                 .

During my time at African Refuge, I’m sure this initial perspective informed much of the way I saw community interactions. But continued experience lent a lot to this, too. The most serious conflict I ever witnessed in Park Hill was actually between a group of teens—whether African or African-American, I’m not sure; I didn’t know any of them—and an older Latino man. This was during a time of hypervigilance in the Port Richmond community, about a fifteen minute drive from Park Hill, over a wave of violent attacks against Mexican immigrants. I had just arrived at the bus stop to go back to the ferry [which travels from Staten Island to Manhattan], and saw the end of a fight that looked like this man was jumped by the group of teens. The man finally pulled away and ran, leaving his shoes behind on the sidewalk. I have no idea how his shoes came off, but I remember that image so strongly. The boys lingered awhile, talking to those who had stopped to watch, and then left shortly before the police arrived. Everyone around me appeared pretty unfazed, except for one woman with me at the bus stop who told me how she used to live in Park Hill but had moved uptown [to Harlem or the Bronx] to get away from this kind of foolishness. She commented on how the community had become so volatile towards the Mexican population in the area, and how those (Mexican) men needed to stop walking through the neighborhood because the violence wasn’t going to stop. This conversation caused me to take a step back and think about a larger radius of community and with it, a broader impact of division and misunderstanding.

GS: I realized that there was a problem and it needed to be addressed. I politely discussed my observation and interest to the manager of Africa Refuge at the time, but nothing positive came out [initially]. Knowing how blessed I was to have survived those brutal hands of Former President Taylor and his gang, I had to do something and not wait until another child got shot at or murdered. I visited the same building where those children got shot at and spoke to the building Security Management about hiring me as a security guard. In three weeks it paid off. I worked the night shift to study all the transactions that occur at night and who was involved. In December of 2008, my phone rang and it was the manager of African Refuge on the other end, asking for my help. I was once again stunned, but excited that he called. I immediately ran to the office of African Refuge and my volunteering began, and I love every moment of it.

With sincere honesty, I must say I had no knowledge of the resettlement of Liberian refugees within the African-American community in Staten Island until I became one, and such a transition never affected my services at African Refuge in a negative way, but rather a positive way. My beginning at African Refuge was voluntary. Having you all[3] join our community and perform the services you did was awesome and timely.

RR: Both of you mention an event that occurred in the community shortly after your arrival that profoundly affected you, and both of these events involved a community that was new to you and not your own. There has been a lot of discussion recently about coalition building between refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants or other ‘marginalized’ people. I wondered if you believe that type of coalition can be a possible positive coalition builder, or whether it might be comparing people and situations that actually need their respective differences built in to be effective?                                .

GS: Before speaking of any coalition(s), I’ll speak of us separately, the types of immigrants. A refugee travels very quickly against their will, leaving everything behind, most often without any personal identification to identify their country of origin. This leaves them with one option; wait on international aide coming. Asylum seekers come with their personal identity, but are afraid for their lives and need help to regain some sense of personality and human dignity. Most of the time they are granted only work authorization, a condition that prevents them from furthering their education because they are not qualified for financial aid. Based upon my real life experience, I deeply believe that the focus should be placed on the needs of their respective differences, with education for all and not the few. Whenever I look at this term re-conceptualization, I see one thing: Educate everyone regardless of borders. If we are educated, we hold and owe our total loyalty. Remember, even though we are safe…we are not free. About 35% of all immigrants’ income is wired by Western Union or Money Gram to support, aide, and maintain our relatives and friends we left behind. This is something difficult to keep living with, when we need to survive, we ourselves.                                    .

I went to African Refuge to work as a teacher, to teach our children morals and values as we help them with their school work. I was denied the teaching position because they needed a college/university graduate with a degree in a specific discipline. I wasn’t a graduate, but had had a 2 year and 8 month stay in college, and dropped out due to my opportunity to travel to the United States (the reason I’m still ALIVE). However, I was called back to perform the difficult task of outreach, a job that I volunteered to do for free. I then brought up activities like graphic design, self-video recording and t-shirt printing, sketching and canvas painting. These were activities African Refuge admired but never sponsored—I did them anyway using my own resources. Let me state this: the arrival of Laura just blew it up…with dancing for the girls. So having you people join African Refuge just eased most of the tensions and hate that was built up for all African immigrants over the years.                              .

LB: Overall, I think there are extremely meaningful overlaps, and I think collaboration is crucial. This is not to discount the value of cultural groups advocating for themselves within the large community; in Park Hill, the Liberians must have their voice, and the African-Americans must have theirs as well. I believe they also must be able to meet in separate spaces when needed or wanted, to embrace and celebrate their differences and their uniqueness, without feeling pressure to assimilate or compromise their values. But when people in a community are concerned about similar issues, such as safety in the immediate community, or discrimination outside of the community, their voices might be better heard when joined.

One primary goal with the youth in Park Hill at African Refuge was practicing respectful language. Derogatory terms related to African heritage were used not just by African-American kids to tease those kids that had arrived from Africa, but among those African children who wanted to show a greater distance from Africa than the rest. Kids would be teased for being born in Liberia versus America, or for having spent more of their childhood there. Toning down the language was a huge factor in decreasing conflict among the children, and made a big impact (at least within the youth center) once they started to get in the habit of holding back certain insults.

RR: Laura, I wanted to make a connection between the differing Liberian situations that you worked in, first in Liberia in the Buduburam refugee camp, and then in New York, where some Liberians resettled.                             .

LB: One thing I noticed both in Park Hill and Buduburam is that people are very hesitant to discuss any violent role they played in the war, including as a child soldier. Aside from avoidance as a possible reaction to trauma, this also stemmed from fear of being ostracized by the community. Refugee communities blended people from different tribes and regions of the country, people who fought one another during the conflict.

I was privileged to visit a home in Voinjama, Liberia for young men and women who had been child soldiers and were living together to finish school, learn employment and general life skills, and engage in spiritual and peacebuilding activities. That was a beautiful experience, to observe the close and tangible support in this community. I was also invited to help out with a couple of sexual health discussion groups for preteens and teens in the area. Although I didn’t hear many stories of conflict during this time, the discussion groups prompted a lot of proactive communication about moving forward and rebuilding life after the war. Through this experience I also got to know a former commander of child soldiers, who was later my guest in New York during a visit. What he had to share was how committed he was to the peacebuilding process, and to helping young adults rebuild their lives after spending years fighting. His dedication to this process, coming directly out of his firsthand participation in the conflict, was so humbling to me and was truly my first encounter with restorative justice, although I wouldn’t have called it that at the time.                                  .

The stories of conflict I have heard firsthand from Liberians are more about what was witnessed than any more direct experiences. Those who I had been told had committed violent acts would listen and nod, but often didn’t share. And truthfully, Liberians are such a resilient, proactive people that even when I got to know someone well, most of the discussion was about the here and now, what needs to be done, what possibilities the future might hold. Not to minimize the impact that severe trauma had truly caused in so many of the people I met, but I think it’s important to note that the day-to-day struggles are just as real, and often more pressing. I heard more details about current community violence, the woes of ongoing hunger, or the desperate search for funding for positive programming than I did about war crimes.

In Park Hill, I didn’t hear many war stories either, although I am now reading Little Liberia, featuring many stories about Jacob Massaquoi, the Executive Director of African Refuge during the time I was there. Jacob’s is an incredible story of survival and resilience, and gives such depth to his commitment to serving the Liberians of Park Hill. However, the children I worked with, for the most part, didn’t see the war; they were children of those who had fled. Along the lines of what I described earlier—the sense of pressing day-to-day struggles—I noticed a difference in the tension among Liberians settled in Park Hill and those I met in Buduburam or Liberia. In some ways, there are more resources in the United States, more jobs or benefits for some. I heard less talk of hunger in Park Hill than Buduburam, although I know it exists in both places. At the same time, the Liberians of Park Hill walked into a community already struggling with violence when they arrived in New York, and I felt among them a guardedness and a weariness that I hadn’t noticed in Ghana.                             .

Now that I’m working in a more clinical role, I hear more detailed stories about traumatic experiences with violence in New Orleans, and in part this is because I’m asking different questions. Sometimes these stories stick with me a bit longer than I’d like or always think is healthy, but I think that I’ve continued to focus as much as possible on the here and now, and perhaps this is due to my experiences with Liberians and what they taught me about moving forward. I’m not a trauma therapist, and right now I’m involved in the legal struggles of clients, so I like to focus on what’s in front of us: what can we control right now.                         .

RR: William, could you introduce us to Liberia by first telling us about the Liberian Dance Troupe, and the environment in which you were organizing it?

WJ: The Liberian Dance Troupe (LDT), now One Dream Liberia, Inc. (ODLIB) was formed in Buduburam Refugee Camp, Ghana in 1992. It started with a group of Liberian traditional dancers and musicians who used old buckets, wooden benches and other scrap metals as instruments to provide entertainment. Some of the artists themselves were ex-combatants. In the evening, they would come together to sing, drum and dance away their painful past. As the war back home showed no signs of ending, the artists mobilized themselves to give birth to the Liberian Dance Troupe. To the nearly 7,000 refugees living in the camp in those days, these evening performances were not just entertainment, but also consolation and therapy in their difficult circumstances.

The need to reconnect Liberians back to their cultural heritage was pivotal and profound to the LDT. The reason was simple. The inception of the gruesome war in late 1989 broke down the social structure and destroyed the economy of the country. Worst of all, the culture of the nation was now badly desecrated. We needed to mend the broken pieces, revive our culture and preserve it. Youth and children became combatants and families were displaced during the war. There was a painful loss of relatives and lack of cohesion in the family, among other grievous psychological problems, that haunted everyone living as a refugee in Buduburam Camp. Respect for elders was an integral aspect of Liberian way of life, but this too was no more because of the traumatic experiences young children suffered in the war. I knew that we needed to help everyone overcome the trauma that they were experiencing. We also wanted our hosts to know that Liberia, like other West African countries, has a very unique way of life. What I didn’t know was how to do it in the midst of the insurmountable problems that we were faced with as refugees.

In February 2003, the answer came. The LDT entered an agreement with the Canadian charity War Child Canada to establish a Trauma Recovery and Cultural Awareness Program. The aim was to help war-affected children and youth reconfirm their identity, dignity and restore Liberian cultural values and national pride. Consequently, emphasis was placed on unifying the community that was basically comprised of people from all political sub-divisions of Liberia – a country that was now hugely divided by what many termed “tribal conflict.” There were five components to the Trauma Recovery and Cultural Awareness Program: Health Education, Peace Education, School Fees payment, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and the Cultural Awareness programs. We were also doing psychosocial counseling. The project was conducted in five primary schools where trainers were sent to teach Liberian traditional dances, songs, drumming and history[4]. Over 150 children both from the target schools and the community benefited from the program. The LDT looked at real issues that were relevant to the larger community, such as HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy, and drug abuse. By 2007, the LDT became a household name recognized by the United Nations High Commissions for Refugees (UNHCR), Ghana.

The Liberian Dance Troupe became the sole custodian of Liberian culture in exile, prompting a United Nations representative from Geneva, Switzerland visiting the camp to describe the community as a “small Liberia in exile”. The LDT project was rather a cultural revivification theatre program that promoted Liberian traditional dances and songs to audiences that only knew Liberia as a country that did western things or were Americans. Prior to our arrival, many Ghanaians only knew Liberia as a country where Americo-Liberians that live American life-styles belonged. The LDT changed that mentality when it began reaching out to various Ghanaian communities, mounting performances that were infused with important social messages.

RR: I want to ask a question about working with particular people on an individual basis, within the context of working with a community. How do you balance these particular relationships with your more ‘general’ work? What does it mean to know someone, and to better understand larger situations as they affect that individual over time? How do individual people affect how you advocate (or don’t)? What have these relationships taught you to do differently?

LB: When you ask about relationships, I think about relationships with colleagues who might also be part of the community I am working with. For example William facilitated my work in Ghana and Liberia, and along with that was my continuous cultural instructor and liaison. I can’t imagine what I would have done without him! He taught me how to be respectful, how to approach difficult topics, how to stay safe, and what was delicious to eat (….everything!). We spent so much time focusing on the youth and families in the program that I would often forget that he, too, had fled the war and had his own struggles. He also really took on a paternal role with me, which I’m grateful for, and so personally and professionally this is a bond that has lasted. Similarly, Garretson was my coworker at African Refuge, and we frequently spent a long time talking after the kids would leave for the day, and developed a great respect for one another. I know that he used to vouch for me in the community, when I was new and no one knew me nor knew whether to trust me. He also commanded the attention of the kids when they were restless and I had lost them; I never could have competed with this strong community leader they looked up to, nor would I have wanted to. Garretson and I liked to debate our differences in opinions, and these conversations were invaluable for opening my mind to the realities and possibilities before me. To me, it’s incredible how these relationships can continue to develop, both professionally and in terms of friendship, over time and despite difference.

William Jacobs: Let me start with the balance between personal and professional relationships with particular reference to my relationship with Laura. I guess I was very protective of Laura. She was the first “outsider” to volunteer with the Liberian Dance Troupe (LTD), so giving her the necessary support and protection was an obligation of the group and me. I did not want anybody to take advantage of her and I made sure she understood that. That does not mean to say that she was not allowed to mingle with whosoever she wanted to befriend. In fact when we decided to give a Liberian traditional name to her I made sure it was my mother’s name: Gorma. Personally, our relationship became clear that we were like father and daughter. On a professional note, we had to encourage each other to do something to prepare for the future and at the same time achieve our goal of ensuring that the children get the best out of what we were imparting.

For all of us at the LDT in Ghana, Laura was like Heaven’s sent. She might have discovered us on the Internet[5]. Then she and I started emailing each other back and forth. I imagine at first her parents were not comfortable with her decision to come to Africa, especially in a refugee camp comprising committers of some of the world’s worst atrocities. But my intuition kept telling me at that time, You need her here. Then I decided to link her with our sponsors at the time, War Child Canada. And then she came to Buduburam. Initially, things were not moving as fast as one had hoped. We didn’t know what assignment to give to Laura. As time went by I began to encourage her to come up with something. Well, we all soon saw that she had something in her to offer. She introduced the Ballet Dance and eventually got her own fantastic boy and girl dancers. It was fun and the children were excited. After a while Laura mobilized some funding from her friends and family back in the States and created a health and sanitation awareness campaign in the community. She also began participating in almost everything that we were doing.

When I moved back to Liberia, Laura and I remained in communication. It was not too long for her to also come back to Liberia. I was then actively working with some former child soldiers in Voinjama, Lofa County, which borders Guinea in northern Liberia. So she went with me there on a trip. Experience tells me that having a genuine relationship with different people can yield a better and long-term result. And, if you keep it that way, nothing can change what is possible and you could remain in it forever. I was so happy to visit with Laura in New York and to see that she was still connected to the Liberian community in Staten Island. The first time that I visited Staten Island and met with Jacob Massaquoi at African Refuge was in 2007.

The LDT Sanitation and Clean-Up Campaign, Buduburam, 2008. This banner was created by LDT staff and paraded through Buduburam by LDT youth.  / The youth provide psycho-education in the community, depicting manifestations of preventable illnesses and other public health concerns through dramatic performance.

The LDT Sanitation and Clean-Up Campaign, Buduburam, 2008. This banner was created by LDT staff and paraded through Buduburam by LDT youth. / The youth provide psycho-education in the community, depicting manifestations of preventable illnesses and other public health concerns through dramatic performance.

RR: Can you both talk about your personal relationship with dance, and the way it has helped you connect with communities, Laura and William? What were the barriers to using dance in your work?

LB: Working with the LDT greatly influenced my understanding of using dance as an intervention. Prior to this experience, I had worked as a dance instructor with children, with the primary objectives being technique and recreation. Aside from emphasizing an atmosphere of acceptance and empowerment, by encouraging positive body image for example, I had never used dance to address deeper needs. When I saw how much the LDT was able to accomplish using music and dance, I was blown away. For example, they performed a dramatic representation of HIV attacking the human body, using traditional Liberian tribal dances, performed as an educational public health event for the community. That piece was performed onstage, but they also brought dance and drumming out into the community. One day we embarked on a community cleanup project, during which the drums were played as a procession to encourage people to come out of their homes. Then they would stop at major intersections and common spaces to perform, and the scenes depicted in the dancing, along with signs and banners displayed, expressed the importance of the community working together to keep the streets clean and stay healthy. As we processed, we also picked up trash and swept.

Working with the kids at African Refuge, I didn’t feel I had the capacity to do as much with dance as the LDT did, but I did start a Saturday morning dance class there and strove to emphasize getting in touch with your body, taking care of it/protecting it through responsible stretching and posture, and finding your own expressive movement. Teaching dance in this way stems from my own appreciation for what dance has done for my self-esteem and body-love/appreciation. I’d say using dance as a practitioner has happened more as a natural application, or has been conscious only insofar as I think, How can I combine these things that I love: working with people and dancing?                           .

Now that I’m practicing social work more clinically, and within agencies that have a lot of structure, I’m not able to incorporate art and movement as much as I’d like to. I dream of finding new ways to bring it back into my work! I am aware that dance and movement therapy can be very effective in working through trauma, but I haven’t had any training in this or opportunities to use this knowledge in a practice setting.

WJ: As an—I hate to use the word—“indigenous” Liberian, born in the countryside, I have always been in touch with our Liberian traditional way of life. My elder sister was a traditional dancer and so was my mother. Although my mother did not belong to a group, I am told that when she was a young girl she danced beautifully with her peers when the moon was bright – a time when the girls would usually flirt as the young boys and the village looked on with admiration. At some point in my life, I also hummed to traditional songs. Though I do not sing or dance, I have the gift of knowing when a dance or sound is not right. With the Liberian Dance Troupe, my colleague who is a natural dancer and choreographer depends on me to do the critiquing.

That we successfully established a cultural awareness program in Buduburam and provided a sense of identity in a strange land, involving everyone including Christians and Muslims who ran away from the war in Liberia, is indicative of the fact that no obstacle is too enormous to overcome. We used the dances from all 15 counties of Liberia that reminded people of their country of origin when they could not understand the cultural practices of the host nationals. These dances often send out messages of peace and unity. We placed on the walls of the culture center a huge map of Liberia, a list of all the various ethnic groups, the national anthem and the national pledge. The doors of the center were also always opened to anyone who wanted to use it for any occasion including weddings, religious and other entertainment programs.

It seems the war may have changed everything. There was a thing called national identity and transnational identity in the camp, as shown in one study of Buduburam[6]. [In this study, it was noted that] the “elders appear less attached to their national Liberian identity than most youth, but many still give considerable emphasis to sub-national ethnic groups”. By contrast though, youth “commonly adopt cosmopolitan, transnational forms of identity. These multiple identities are usually dominated by complexly intertwined Liberian and black American components”. Another misconception that was within a segment of the religious community in Liberia was that all traditional dancers are alcoholics and drug users. We dispelled that view by instilling in our young members a real sense of discipline, discouraging the use of drugs and alcohol among them and emphasizing their education as well as engaging them to participate in activities that were good for their growth and development. By giving ownership of the Liberian Dance Troupe to the community, it was soon realized by all that there was a need to change one’s thinking.

It was, then, a tasking responsibility. The LDT`s main strategy was to “catch” them young. We started working with children 5-14 years old. The trainers would do their teaching during school days and then bring the children at the cultural center on Saturdays for further training and assessment, where others and I were involved. We would teach and discuss “civics for Liberian Schools”. With this lesson, the children learned about their rights and responsibilities as citizens. We then created a cultural troupe for the participants at each of the schools. The children who were allowed by their parents to participate in the program performed during gala day and other programs of their school. Many school principals took interest, followed by the parents who thought their kids were equally talented, and formed a part of the group. When the parents got interested, we organized a PTA (Parent Teachers Association). The intention was to make the parents understand and appreciate the significance of our program as well as allow them to get involve and to tap into their knowledge of the Liberian way of life without discrimination. I guess this is how we made it.

RR: We represent emerging scholars and practitioners, and often ask people how they came to meaningful work and for advice to others, based on their own path. Maybe you can return to the first question and think about your own evolution of life and work, Laura. Can you talk about your own progress as a person working with these issues, and how you may have begun to re-conceptualize your life work, William?

LB: My initial thought is that this is a great conversation to be having, and wonderful to be attempting to pull from multiple disciplines. It would be amazing to pull from as many individuals from within refugee/forced migrant communities as possible to get some critical analysis of what has and hasn’t worked for people, firsthand—from people like William and Garretson, who are scholars within their communities—but also from critical thinkers within communities that haven’t made their way to becoming scholars. I suppose researchers and practitioners are channeling those voices, in part, but it’s important to get some responses from community members themselves!                           .
As far as “re-conceptualizing,” that makes me think of “broadening.” I think I’ve spent most of my early career in practitioner mode, but I’m increasingly part of data monitoring and evaluation in my field, to help us emphasize evidence-based practice and good outcomes. I’ll say that the hardest part of that practitioner/academic divide is that evidence-based practice seeks to find that which works the best for the most, and someone is always going to fall through the cracks that way. When practitioners are involved in that process, we can continuously remind ourselves to provide alternatives for unique cases and avoid unbendable hard lines. But when you have an agency that is being told exactly what they have to do, perhaps based on numbers that come from a different place or culture, with no flexibility, that ties practitioners’ hands in a way that I feel can be incredibly detrimental to doing positive work. On the flip side, if you don’t follow the evidence, you are risking letting individual practitioners’ subjectivity and bias come through far too much in their assessments of need and appropriate intervention. So, it’s tough. This makes it even more important to involve community members and/or clients in any process of re-conceptualizing, and not just the majority, but the individuals, too. Their feedback will aid and challenge both practitioners and researchers.

I often think that the more I do this kind of work, the more I’m hit in the face with what I don’t know. Every time I think about how much less I knew years ago, I am surprised that this is possible! Which makes me hopeful that working in a diversity of settings really has increased my competence and will likely continue to do so. It’s important to read and contemplate and analyze, but it’s also so vitally important to get out and get yourself into uncomfortable situations where you allow yourself to be humble and learn. I think humility is key, when thinking about evolving as a social work practitioner working within a community, or outside of one’s culture—really, honestly, even when working within one’s own culture.

WJ: It was a gloomy October morning when we embarked on the long journey sailing on the vast Atlantic Ocean without any knowledge on my part of where we were going. I hadn`t planned to leave Liberia when the war started. It took me ten and a half months to make that decision. But, what’s deep is the psychological and physical traumas one had to run away with, such as not knowing the whereabouts of an entire family, and, in my case, the clicking of a deadly weapon that would have ended my life. As a victim living in a refugee camp, I came face to face with the true reality of war. During the early years (1990 – 1992), I usually engaged in hours of conversations with fellow refugees talking about three things—the past, present and the future. The past for many was a time when they had everything – strong family support, wealth, well-paid jobs, as well as the college or university degrees that they were about to receive when the war disrupted it all. Some of us reflected on the peace and harmony that we had in the past. In talking about the present, it was all about the situation that we were experiencing daily, living under life-threatening and prison-like conditions. Years later, I came to realize how confident and positive we were about the future – a future that we did not know. Some of us would say when the war comes to an end, I will return home and join the police force or become an immigration officer. Others dreamed of going to America, Canada or Australia so as to improve their situation. I guess these were talks of nothing else but self-assurance. Today, it’s true that some of our friends lived to see their thoughts come to reality, while for others those dreams remain mere fantasy.

It is possible that most people who leave their home country by force and stay away for more than two decades will always find it difficult to return. In that situation, one cannot know what to expect if one should choose to go home. When I took that decision [first to re-locate to another city in Ghana, later to return to Liberia], I had already found answers to some of the terrifying questions that became years of nightmares for me. First, I worked toward overcoming my personal trauma, understanding that I needed to heal in order to put my life back together. Second, if I heal, I needed to help others heal. One night as I sat in a gathering of fellow refugees in the “Gap,”[7] hooked on drugs and alcohol, I began to sing. I was high, under the influence of marijuana and some shots of local gin. I remember the song, by Michael Jackson: “Man in the Mirror”. The fellow sitting opposite me, remarked, “Damn, my man, you can sing that song.” Whether right or wrong, at least I took it as a compliment. We were young and ignorant, not seeing how the war had stolen away our future. We took solace in the most notorious part of the refugee camp, depending on one another by doing what the others did – drugs and alcohol. But on the night I sang “Man in the Mirror,” something strange happened. I went to sleep with the wordings of the song still playing in my head. The line that says “make that change today” continued to repeat itself. The following morning, I took a stone in my right hand, spun it around my head and threw it away saying, This is not my life. I did not come this far to die. This was the beginning of my process of healing. And, in order to succeed in that process, I had to take advantage of every opportunity. One was the chance to re-migrate, if you like, from the refugee camp to another city in Ghana.

In December 1991, I left the camp and came back four years later with a qualification to work as a newspaper reporter. After working for three years, I voluntarily left the paper and immersed myself in social work. It was a crazy initiative with no link to any organizations. I would just take my camera, pen and paper and go out in the bushes documenting the daily drudgery to survive of children and their single mothers. Out of the huge population, this group was the largest. The reward for my work with single mothers and their children in the camp was to come later. The Liberian Dance Troupe, with support from War Child, selected me to be their leader, and together as a team, we succeeded in meeting the group’s objectives.

RR: How do you think you would have answered this question about re-conceptualization five or ten years ago? What did you, or do people today, fail to realize or focus upon when they think about working with issues surrounding forced migration?

LB: It’s hard for me to say how I would’ve answered the question about reconceptualization five or ten years ago. I think I would’ve said relatively the same thing, but maybe I just want to think that. I do know that I grew up very sheltered from many of the realities of forced migration, and traveling internationally is what opened my eyes wide. So, from that moment forward, I’ve known that I don’t understand the nuances of these realities, and I think I’ve always felt that the more compassionately informed the insight, the better. Maybe the thing that has changed the most is my understanding of just how vital the voices of those directly affected by a given issue are, and how important it is to avoid making the assumption that anyone, no matter how experienced or even how much they listen, can adequately express another’s reality.

WJ: I think that if people begin to understand and appreciate why so many people decide to leave their country of birth because of disasters, whether natural or man-made, then it will be easier to find a solution to some of the issues that arise from forced migration. The way some migrants are treated by citizens in different countries varies. In my case, I suffered some levels of xenophobia when I worked at a newspaper in Ghana. There were times when some Ghanaians felt their government was paying refugees with taxpayers’ money. This was far from the truth, though. There were health and other social problems in what was initially a prison-like refugee camp, infested with snakes and all kinds of creeping animals. Job opportunities were non-existent for even the most skilled and professional refugees. There was huge language barrier, even though Ghana is an English-speaking country. The issue of trust was there, since many of the host nationals saw every one of us as rebels and killers. The few that sympathized with us in our time of grief and distress could not convince the majority about why we had come to their country. I think that we as intellectuals need to re-think how to address issues of forced migration so that those that do not understand why people run away from war and the like can begin to understand, work, and develop better relationships with migrants.

Perhaps, ten or more years ago, I still would not have been able to answer the question of re-conceptualization. I think that issues surrounding forced migration should be discussed with intensity. My idea is that leaders of countries that receive influxes of people affected by war and other natural disasters should educate and help improve the understanding of their citizens of the situation of migrants entering their country. It is true that the most vulnerable refugee groups are usually at greatest risk of displacement. Consequently, there will always be health hazards, cultural disruption, loss of livelihoods and loss of social support networks. People in authority, political opposition leaders and local stakeholders should begin to rethink and work closely with those who are forced to migrate and wanting to survive, to make host nationals understand the nature and dimensions of social relationships experienced by migrants so as to identify potential strategies for improving social resilience.

[1] Brittany Lauren Wheeler, Co-Coordinator of The ESPMI Network.

[2] William writes, “Buduburam is a small Ghanaian village 35 kilometers away from the capital of Ghana, Accra. The area on which the refugee camp is situated had been a rehabilitation center that was said to have being run by a “spiritual leader” for purposes that made the government close it down long before the arrival of the refugees in 1990. As the influx of Liberians became overwhelming, the government of Ghana, in collaboration with the host community, traditional chiefs and elders, agreed and allocated over 140 acres of land to host them. While Ghana is also an English-speaking country, the citizens give priority to their local vernaculars particularly the “Twi” language when they communicate. This initially became a problem for most Liberians who prefer to speak English. However, the refugees made friends as the years passed and the war prolonged. A large number of the refugee population assimilated well and life went far beyond the refugee camp to work places, school campuses and major towns and cities in Ghana.”

[3] Laura, Brittany and other volunteers

[4] William writes, “Within the groups of young people in Buduburam, formal or informal, ethnic affiliations were unimportant. They often blamed ethnicity and ethnic divisions as reason for the war. While we were teaching about the tribes in Liberia and their songs, dance, names and sometimes their meanings, we never tried to ask anyone entering the cultural center doors, What tribe are you from? In collecting data on the beneficiaries, the focus was only on name, age, sex and date of birth. We only asked for parent and guardian names, if there were any, for the sake of record keeping.”

[5] Laura writes, “I had recently graduated from college and I was interested in working abroad in order to study and practice another language. As I was researching work opportunities, I came across some volunteer and internship opportunities. I came to the Ikando website, which doesn’t seem to be operational anymore, which had a posting for an internship with the LDT, and specifically talked about performing arts skills and cultural exchange. I had been so focused on language that I hadn’t thought of other forms of exchange, and the thought of collaborating and learning though dance instead was so exciting to me that I dropped my other searches and began applying and preparing for this possibility instead.”

[6] Social Resilience and Coping Among Young Liberian Refugees in the Buduburam Settlement, Ghana.

[7] William writes, “At Buduburam refugee camp, the youth lived as a group supporting one another because they could not rely on their parents or elders to provide their material needs. The bulk of them lived in the ‘Gap,’ an area of the camp notorious for drug peddling, alcohol and prostitution. It is a space in which normal rules in camp behavior do not apply and it’s occupied by mostly unaccompanied youth.”