RIT Professor Gives Voice to Local Liberian Refugees




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A young woman, then a young girl in 1990, recalls being separated from her mother and brother as they fled from the rebels. She has never seen her mother or brother since their separation.

After her husband was brutally murdered before her eyes, a refugee was forced to drink his blood. Weeping, she says that she was not able to grieve for her husband, for fear of losing her own life.

A woman recounted being among a crowd of Liberians at a checkpoint in Liberia, and they were commanded to cheer the rebels as they disemboweled a pregnant woman to see if her child was a boy or a girl.

Later this month, a Rochester Institute of Technology professor will carry the stories of Liberian refugees to Rome.

RIT professor Danielle Taana Smith will present a paper about Rochester’s Liberian immigrant community at the annual Global Awareness Society International conference held this year in Rome, Italy, May 26-29. Her talk, “One Way Ticket to America: An Ethnographic Study of Liberian Refugees in Rochester, N.Y.,” addresses policy measures that could help this new group of immigrants.

Smith, an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at RIT, emigrated from Liberia with her family to the United States following the 1980 coup that sparked years of political unrest. Tribal differences, strict social classes and friction between indigenous people and the freed American slaves who moved to Liberia during the 19th century have brutally divided the West African country.

According to Smith, Liberian refugees have resettled all over the world—as far away as China, Malaysia and Belgium, and with a large population in New York City and upstate New York.

Challenges face these immigrants, many of them illiterate, who do not benefit from a well-established immigrant network. These people have no social networks, no family in the United States, and many don’t speak English, Smith notes.

Smith is an active member of the Liberian Community of Rochester, a formal organization established to help refugees adapt to life in their new country and to help meet their needs. This could mean providing transportation to doctor appointments, the hospital or shopping centers, or explaining subtle cultural nuances such as the need to check in with a receptionist at a doctor’s office instead of simply taking a seat and waiting. She is also affiliated with New Life Community Church, headed by Pastor Zumo Kollie, whose mission includes meeting the spiritual, cultural and material needs of these refugees.

There aren’t enough community members to meet their needs,” Smith notes.

As a sociologist with her own history in Liberia, Smith is drawn to the stories of this community, some devastating and horrific, others humorous and ironic.

“There is so much to tell,” she says.

Smith is writing a book about the refugees who have relocated to Rochester, interviewing and documenting their individual accounts of what forced them to leave Liberia and their experiences resettling in Rochester. She expects to a have a finished manuscript in the fall.

Smith has enlisted the assistance of Michael Sperling, a photojournalism major at RIT. Sperling conducts interviews to give faces and names to an otherwise anonymous community. In addition, he is documenting their stories through photography.

“Sharing stories leads to greater awareness,” explains Smith.

“I want students to see how people in the inner city are living,” she adds. “I want the refugees to know that their stories are told. I want something to change—better housing, education and social mobility, and options other than dead-end jobs.”

To talk to Danielle Taana Smith, contact Susan Gawlowicz at 585-475-5061 or smguns@rit.edu.