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.
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.
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.