Diaspora and Conflict: The Liberians of Staten Island

Jonny Steinberg, Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria

Research Grant, 2008, 2009

This is a study of a community of Liberian refugees and economic migrants in a housing project in the New York City borough of Staten Island. The purpose was to examine the ways in which a diaspora takes conflict from home with it, and, in particular, the ways in which diasporas, frozen in the moment of their flight and caught up in old resentments, might transmit conflict back to the home country.

The research results were published in two forms. The first was a book titled Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City. It documented and analyzed a conflict that raged in Staten Island’s Liberian community from 2003 to 2008. I argued that the community had erected a stage on which it had played out, in miniature, so to speak, its deep fears about the nature of the postwar settlement taking shape back home. The very distance from home is what gave the theater its credibility; in the mutual anonymity of exile, people invented horrendous histories for their neighbors, such that it appeared that the most horrendous of the characters who had prosecuted the war back home were living on Staten Island. The conflict was thus incubated in exile. It was not, though, to the best of my knowledge, transmitted back home inasmuch as I saw no evidence of Staten Islanders funding conflict in Liberia.

The conflict was thus incubated in exile.

The second research product was an article published in the journal African Affairs; it documented and interpreted the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) work among the Liberian diaspora in the United States. The TRC undertook this work on the grounds that the diaspora was intimately involved in Liberia’s civil war and that no process of reconciliation would be complete without its involvement. I argued that the TRC’s diaspora project failed, in large part because the body’s work was seen as a substitute for an endeavor to bring to justice those who had prosecuted the war.

  1. Jonny Steinberg, Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York, London and Johannesburg, 2011.

  2. Jonny Steinberg, "A Truth Commission Goes Abroad: Liberian Transitional Justice in New York," African Affairs, 110 (2011), pp. 35-53

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