Liberian Youth in U.S. Find Threat from New Violence Liberians who fled their country's civil war and settled in southwest Philadelphia during the 1990s thought their troubles would be over. Instead, their children were taunted and attacked by fellow students. Liberians in Philly eventually banded together to fight back. Now parents worry these new gangs are fueling another kind of violence.
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Liberian Youth in U.S. Find Threat from New Violence

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Liberian Youth in U.S. Find Threat from New Violence

Liberian Youth in U.S. Find Threat from New Violence

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Many refugees hoped their problems will be over once they reach America, but sometimes, they encounter new problems. In the 1990s large numbers of Liberians and other West Africans fled violence in their home countries and began settling in Southwest Philadelphia. Their transition to life in the U.S. has not been easy. Their children have had to deal with prejudice and abuse. And that has lead them to form gangs of their own.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: One teenager remembers his parents telling him that America would be different. He wouldn't be picked on because of his ethnicity, and people would take pity on him for that he'd been through. But when West African refugees began students began showing up at Tilden Middle School, that's hardly the reception they got.

Ms. MACUDA CATA-DOE(ph) (History Teacher, Tilden Middle School): So take out those history (unintelligible) books. They are either on the table or under…

LUDDEN: In a part of town plagued by crime and poverty, children here were already stressed as educators put it. History teacher Macuda Cata-Doe, who's married to a Liberian says her students, almost all African-American, were ruthless with the newcomers. They call the refugee children monkeys. Tell them, go back to Africa. Doe says even parents were insensitive.

Ms. CATA-DOE: An African-American woman walked up to one of them, picked up his hand and said, my God, how did you get so black.

LUDDEN: Eugene Sadie(ph) arrived from Liberia four years ago when he was just 10. Though he spoke English, Eugene says his accent was strong.

Mr. EUGENE SADIE (Student, Middle School): So they used to tease me, like, hi, you know don't know how to speak. And just they'd be bugging me. Sometimes they hit me and get away with it. Like they would just hit me, like, so I can fight them. Where I came, I didn't like to fight people with them, like…

LUDDEN: So you never had a black eye.

Mr. SADIE: Uh-uh. So they could get away with it.

LUDDEN: Some of the taunting could be attributed to adolescent acting out. But Liberians say attacks took place nearly everyday, and some kids were severely injured.

At one point in 2001, teacher Cata-Doe went to the hospital with a child knocked semi-conscious. She railed about the chronic abuses. And that's when the Children's Crisis Treatment Center got involved.

Anne Holland, directs CcTC's Trauma Services.

Dr. ANNE HOLLAND (Director of Trauma Services, Children's Crisis Treatment Center): This middle school had about 200 West African students at the time. And didn't really understand why these students had moved in to this community. The teachers didn't know what to do with these children.

LUDDEN: Holland set up teacher training classes explaining, among other things, how teasing could be a specially traumatic for those who'd lived through war.

Dr. HOLLAND: If somebody in school engages them in a verbal altercation or physical altercation, we can see them be triggered and maybe remember things that happened back in Liberia in the war. You can see children crouched down the floor from those trying to attack them. Or, you know, we've got children who are really can't sit still or very impulsive.

LUDDEN: Holland's colleague, Julie Campbell, began holding weekly group counseling sessions for the West African students.

Ms. JULIE CAMPBELL (Coordinator of Trauma-Focused Projects, Children's Crisis Treatment Center): So we had kids who gradually over time would start to tell us about things that they witnessed - like rapes, like amputations. That the rebel soldiers would come and we all have to run and hide in the bush, you know. So they were kids who just had that and seen horrendous things happen.

LUDDEN: Things they found impossible to share with their middle school peers.

Ms. CAMPBELL: The kids in the group would tell us, well, I don't talk about it because they don't believe me. They think I'm making it up. The other thing that happens is if they do talk about it, then it does become fodder for teasing.

(Soundbite of kids talking)

LUDDEN: In a street front community center, a dozen African teens do homework, scroll through MySpace, or just gab over snacks. This is an after school program that the African Cultural Alliance of North America, or ACANA. Director Voffee Jabateh also has an agreement with city of Philadelphia to work with African immigrants as part of a larger anti-violence campaign.

Today, while the teasing and attacks haven't stopped, the teenagers here say they have subsided, and with the Liberian war over, the number of vulnerable new arrivals is down.

But just as he could feeling a sense of accomplishment, Voffee Jabateh has learned about another reason why attacks on West Africans may have subsided.

Mr. VOFFEE JABATEH (Director, African Cultural Alliance of North America): I've been (unintelligible), attacking their body, but gradually, we begin to hear the youth forming their own defense mechanism. So that's when we got to know about LIB as an organized group.

LUDDEN: LIB stands for Liberians in Blood or, depending on whom you ask, the first three letters of Liberia. Jabateh says its members don't like to call themselves a gang, but it's a group pledged to each other's protection, and by all accounts, it's worked.

Fifteen-year-old Arthur Varney(ph) says a few years ago, this six block stretch of Southwest Philly was a virtual no-go zone for African teens. Today, he says, they can move around freely, thanks to LIB and an offshoot group named for the area code, 215.

Mr. ARTHUR VARNEY (African Immigrant): Once you touch an African around here, you're going to have to deal with the whole base group of Philadelphia because we - basically we are in Philadelphia right now. They come together to protect the citizens.

LUDDEN: Liberian computer specialist and weekend soccer coach, Tynu Yuri(ph) doesn't dispute that. But he worries this new gang is getting out of control. Yuri says refugees arriving in recent years have included more children who've seen nothing but violence their entire lives. Among them, some former child soldiers.

Mr. TYNU YURI (Computer Specialist; Soccer Coach): By the time they get here and try to emulate the hip-hop lifestyle out here combined with what they already have, is a problem.

LUDDEN: Now, instead of fighting African-Americans, he sees them fighting each other.

Mr. YURI: Things that used to be simple and fun have gone to chaotic events. We can't practice on a soccer field without fights. It's gone to even gun shootouts, and gone to cops coming on the field almost everyday.

(Soundbite of hammering)

LUDDEN: Community organizer Voffee Jabateh continues to expand ACANA's antiviolence efforts. He's renovating this rundown row house to include and Internet cafe and music studio.

Mr. JABATEH: And then this is where we want to do the recording and the studio…

LUDDEN: Jabateh is feeling new pressure. A few months ago, one woman issued an open letter from a concerned mother, as she called it. She pleaded with fellow Liberian activists and parents to do more to rein in the community's unruly young people.

Mr. JABATEH: So now, we have a situation where parents are seriously complaining about the behavior of their children. Because now, they have become almost street smart in Southwest Philadelphia. And they are like almost (unintelligible) unto themselves.

LUDDEN: Children once lost to war at home, now some fear lost to street violence in America.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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