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Out of the Fire

by George W.Tarr
June 21, 2019

George Tarr is a political scientist and the New York state delegate to the Refugee Congress where he is co-chair of the Refugee Youth Caucus and Education Caucus. He serves on the board of African Refuge, a nonprofit organization in Staten Island that connects newcomers to the United States with support and services. He has also worked with the International Rescue Committee as a mentor to recently resettled refugees.

If you were to ask me about my life, I would have to tell you about my transition to the land of opportunity (The United States of America), a difficult transition filled with  resentment and acceptance of my mother and a hope for a better life for myself, my brother and my family.

In 1989 (two years before I was born), Charles Taylor (former president of Liberia) and his rebel forces invaded Liberia, a small country in West Africa founded by free slaves from America. Over the course of fourteen years, two hundred thousand people were to lose their lives and the country was left in chaos. During that period, when I was about five months old my mother handed me over to my grandmother. I would go on to live with my grandmother and had never known or developed a relationship with my mother. However, when I was around five years old I met my mother for the very first time. To me she was a complete stranger, but yet, when I looked into her deep brown eyes I realized how much I resembled this stranger.

For a  period of time I lived with my mother and accepted the fact that she was my mother but never chose to leave my grandmother because my grandmother was my everything. For the short time that I did live with my mother I learned that in life you can’t live in the shadow of another person or blame yourself for something that was not your doing. She told me that in life you should not accept the role that society foists on you but instead you should recreate yourself and find your own path and voice. For the few weeks that I lived with my mother I learned to love her but most importantly I learned to forgive my mother because I had a clear understanding of why she left me to be raised by my grandmother.

A few years later I would arrive home from school one day and my grandmother would inform me that my mother had died. Even though I was only vaguely familiar with my mother, the news of her death made me feel like a bad son because in all my time in the United States I only spoke to my mother three times and my chance of really getting to know her was over and I felt like it was my fault. I was only 15 at the time but I still blame myself.

As a result of the invasion I fled the country with my grandmother and my little brother along with other family members. We ended up in a refugee camp in Ghana, living there for a year and then began the process of migrating to the United States.

Life in Ghana was not easy; many days we went to bed with empty stomachs and sometimes without taking a shower. Sometimes the sun became so hot that the water in the wells dried out and we had to travel from village to village or to the city to get water. Luckily, in 1999 my grandmother’s step daughter filed for immigration papers to get us to the United States. In the summer of June 1999 we arrived in the United States and settled in Staten Island, New York City.

Many of the refugees from the civil war in Liberia had settled in the Park Hill Housing projects in Staten Island provided by the Lutheran World Federation.

At first we saw this new environment as a place where we could start our lives over. After all, we felt welcome because there were already six thousand other Liberians living in Staten Island so we didn’t feel so far away from home. From the mid-eighties thorough the mid-nineties, Park Hill was known as one of the worst neighborhoods in New York City. The high rate of drug use led to the neighborhood to often be referred to as “Crack Hill”. Today, it is known as “Killer Hill” with one of the highest murder rates in the city. With the arrival of Liberian refugees in Park Hill, a tension developed with the African-American population who were already living in the community. 

As newcomers to Park Hill we were often the victims of resentment and discrimination. At school me and my little brother and many other Liberian youth were often called “African booty scratches” or asked if we “ran around naked.” Many times we were not allowed to play in the neighborhood park and other times we had to stand up and fight for our rights. Among the younger generation, this tension turned into violence. Many of my fellow Liberian friends joined the neighborhood gang BMC (Black Mob Crew) for protection and a sense of belonging. I and my little brother were often kept in check by our grandmother, so we never did join the gang, but there were times that I would find myself fighting to protect my little brother. Many times in school I was made fun of because I had a heavy accent, other times I was afraid to read out loud in class because of the fear of being laughed at by my classmates. Many times I was afraid to go outside because my grandmother had warned me that if I got into any more fights I would be sent back home to Liberia. This fear of my being sent back home kept me out of trouble and many days when my friends were outside playing, I found myself in my room reading.

At the age of fourteen my little brother joined the neighborhood gang and at this point in my life I felt responsible because as a big brother I didn’t encourage my little brother to do the right thing. When I was out there encouraging other kids to do the right thing, I had forgotten that I had a little brother and just because he was not listening to my grandmother I had turned my back on him when he needed me. Most of my peers in my neighborhood saw me as a role model because of my involvement with the African Refuge community organization, an organization that worked to help kids escape the drug racket and keep busy after school with other activities, and the IRC (International Rescue Committee) an organization that resettled immigrant’s in different parts of New York and around the world. I was a leader in my church but when I looked at myself in the mirror I didn’t feel like a leader. I felt like a complete failure because I didn’t do my part as a big brother. As time went by my little brother got deeper into the gang life and I felt useless because I couldn’t do anything to help or convince him to leave that life style but I never completely gave up because deep down I still had hope in my little brother. As time went by the tension between the African American and the Africans cooled down and things got better. Even though things cooled down I felt the best thing for me to do for my little brother was to send him to New Jersey to live with my cousin and her husband. 

My life in the land of opportunity was perhaps and still is the greatest learning experience of my life because I learned to overcome several obstacles and along the way made many friends and accomplished many things, such as being the second person from my grandmother’s side of the family to graduate from high school and the first to go to college. I also helped to improve things in my neighborhood like helping little kids with their schoolwork and showing teenagers who were also my age the right path to a better lifestyle. I became the youngest and only youth member on the African Refuge committee board. Although I have a huge responsibility on my shoulder, I’m willing to work harder to make all of my family members proud.

Today I volunteer and advocate for refugees who were once in my shoes and don’t have a voice to speak.

My experience is in the refugee camp reminded me of the hardships we had to endure but looking towards the future I continue to have hope for myself and my family and will help others just like me who face similar hardships.