Posted July 22nd 2010 at 5:08 pm by
in Finding Brotherly Love: Refugee Integration in Philadelphia, Profiles

Finding a Way from West Africa to West Philly

Buduburm Refugee Camp in Ghana. Source:

When violence heightened in his small West African country, Jackson, like more than 750,000 other Liberians fled.  Jackson traveled through the Ivory Coast, which had also became entangled in war, to settle in Buduburum Refugee Camp in Ghana for the next 7 years.  Fortunately, Jackson had finished high school and college in Liberia before fleeing, which made him qualified to teach religious education and English in 10th through 12th grades in the refugee camp’s schools.  He made small wages and soon married his wife in the Buduburum Camp where they began their family.

After living for nearly a decade in an uprooting refugee situation, Jackson began his life in Philadelphia through refugee resettlement.  But he found himself alone in a situation of desperation once again.  When he had first arrived to the refugee camp and applied for refugee processing, he was still single.  By the time his refugee application was approved, his wife and children’s applications were still being processed.  Jackson needed to establish a future home for the family and find work in Philadelphia; meanwhile his wife and children were still in the refugee camp waiting for his monthly checks to support them.

Local resettlement agencies provided employment training and Jackson started his first job at the Philadelphia International Airport.  He worked with the ground transportation crew for 7 years.  At times, Jackson finished his shift at the airport, then headed to North Philly for the night shift in a factory.  By 2006, greater Philadelphia became home to the largest Liberian population of all US metropolitan areas with the highest concentrations in Southwest Philly and Upper Darby. As the Liberian community grew, social networks increased and stores opened to offer West African foods, music and clothing.  Jackson began working in a Southwest Philly Liberian church to ensure there was a place for worshipping in the traditional Liberian way.

IMG_1443_small Philadelphia is known for its West African Restaurants. Photo by Karin Brandt.

Jackson’s educational background and English skills opened doors for him to work both in the refugee camp and again in Philadelphia, but other Liberians haven’t been so fortunate.  Jackson explained that, “Many Liberians did not experience school life or city life because of the war.  They came from rural areas and the refugee camps.  Some had not seen electricity or even a school.  Everything changed. They tried to live like the people that live in this country.” Despite the fact that the Liberian national language is English, many Liberians speak local languages and find overwhelming social and cultural differences.

IMG_1438_small A West African clothing store in Philadelphia. Photo by Karin Brandt.

Education is a key component for a refugee to integrate into the American society, particularly for youth.  Oftentimes, immigrant parents work multiple jobs in hopes that their educated children will support elderly family members beyond retirement.  But, interestingly enough, some Liberians that I’ve interviewed expressed frustration with the public school experience saying that, “schools in the refugee camp were better than in Southwest Philly.” Young Philadelphians, in particular immigrant and minority youth, are in public schools with few resources and violence that brought about citywide hearings this past year. A Southwest Philly school, John Bartram High, reports that 83.5% of its students are economically disadvantaged and 92.7% are African American.

Jackson’s wife and children reunited with him in Philadelphia after a three-year separation. Jackson recently naturalized, and like many Liberian refugees, hopes to bridge opportunities in the US with Liberia to improve education for today’s young Liberians.

Karin Brandt recently completed the Master in City Planning degree at the Department of Urban Studies & Planning.  Before MIT, she worked as an AmeriCorps Member in Philadelphia with immigrants.  Karin continued pursuing questions raised from that experience in her thesis on urban immigrant integration.

4 responses to “Finding a Way from West Africa to West Philly”

  1. Alissa says:

    Karin, I think this issue of education is really critical. I can’t imagine leaving a war-torn country, living in a refugee camp and planning on starting a better life for yourself and your family – only to find yourself sending your children to a Philadelphia public school, many of which are practically battle zones. People often talk about how the state of urban education keeps cities from prospering, since many middle class families move out of cities in order to send their children to better, affordable public schools in the suburbs, and those families who can’t leave are winding up with a poor education. But thinking about it in the context of a refugee community is interesting: how can schools that are already lacking in resources provide support for children who may have experienced trauma related to their refugee status/experience? how can schools help these children to acculturate? And what are refugee parents supposed to do once they realize the condition of many of these Philadelphia public schools? Thanks for such a thought provoking post!

  2. karin brandt says:

    Hi Alissa,

    Thanks for your comments and for the questions you raised. Unraveling the education issue in Philadelphia, not only for refugees, deserves much more attention. From my research interviews, more recent refugees seemed to increasingly face barriers to integration in schools. Today public education reform is a much talked about issue in Philadelphia and the concerns raised by immigrant communities need to be heard.

  3. Alexa Mills says:

    Karin I love this compelling story about Jackson and what it’s been like for him. I am left wondering, though, how do you know him? As a researcher or practitioner, what’s your connection to Jackson and how did you meet him?

  4. karin brandt says:

    Hi Alexa, I was fortunate to meet Jackson last summer while doing research interviews and we recently connected again. It’s exciting to hear about his successes and community involvement. In many ways he shares experiences with other immgirants – being separated from family, working in low-skilled jobs despite college degrees. But because Jackson received an education and spoke English before fleeing Liberia, he is relatively unique among refugee immigrants in SW Philadelphia.