STATEN ISLAND, New York (WOMENSENEWS)–In the community of Liberian immigrants and refugees that has taken hold here, enforcing domestic-crime laws can put the borough’s police and social workers on a collision course with a foreign set of cultural norms.
In the shadow of a decade-long war back home, an estimated 3,000 Liberian immigrants and refugees have overwhelmed Staten Island’s Parkhill housing project, turning the half dozenred brick blocks into a cultural mecca and sometimes impermeable new subculture.
Signs of an emerging “Little Liberia” abound in the neighborhood. Buka International Cafe specializes in African and Caribbean cooking and the West African Food Supplies grocery sit a couple blocks off Parkhill Ave. On another street, women in bold-colored head scarves and bubus–long flowing tunics–cluster under umbrellas on lawn chairs selling bags of green, gold and red hot peppers, dried fish and baobab tree leaves that are used to flavor traditional sauces and stews.
While Parkhill has long been notorious for gang violence and drug dealing–it’s the former home of Corey Woods, a member of the rap group Wu Tang Clan, whose lyrics refer to the projects as “homicide hill”–crime has decreased significantly over the past decade.
However, the New York Police Department responds to more reports of domestic abuse there than at any of the other 11 projects in the borough. “We’re in Parkhill all the time,” said Karen Pisano, a detective in the domestic violence unit.
While the reports are not limited to Liberian residents, social workers have connected the comparatively high incidence of domestic abuse in Parkhill to the exploding number of immigrants and refugees who are struggling to make sense of changing gender roles and the learned violence of recent civil war.
Although gender relations differ among the more than dozen African societies found in Liberia, and from couple to couple, many men consider themselves the unequivocal family chief.
“There are strong traditional ideas of who or what a man should be in Liberia,” said Serena Chaudhry, a project manager for Solace, a Safe Horizon program for survivors of trauma and torture.
Parkhill Liberians see a vast difference in the typical partnership between a man and a woman in Liberia compared to the U.S.
“Man is the head of the family back home. Man is the president, his wife is the vice president, and the children are the legislature,” said Parkhill resident Morris Sesay, adding “but all these things change the day you arrive at JFK (John F. Kennedy Airport). In America, man is subordinate to woman and both are subordinate to their children.”
Few Liberian men think it is wrong to confront their wives physically when they feel their traditional role is being threatened. “Liberian men don’t think that hitting their wife is against the law,” said Detective Pisano.
Nor are Liberian women always aware of their civil rights. “Most women believe it’s natural for men to beat them up if they provoke them by asking for money or for help with the children, which in Africa is a woman’s job,” said Rev. Annie Nachisale Kampenya, a Malawian immigrant who works in Parkhill as a security guard and volunteer counselor for survivors of domestic abuse.
War Follows Refugees
The legacy of the Liberian war has further aggravated families’ adaptation to American life and laws. The conflict has broken down the respect and discipline that glued Liberian families and communities together, said David Kpomakpor, former associate justice of the Liberian Supreme Court and interim head of state from 1994 to 1995, who lived in Parkhill for three years after coming to the United States in 1998.
The child soldiers exploited during the war and who later sought refuge in the U.S. have been unable to shake lessons of war. “Liberian men came from a war zone where they learned to shoot a gun at five years old,” Rev. Kampenya said. “Young men were told to kill their parents and drink their blood. If they didn’t, they were killed themselves.”
The war also exposed women to a new level of threat, where a beating was a lesser of evils that included rape and murder. “Before the war, women were protected, respected and valued,” Rev. Kampenya said. “But they became targets during the war.”
As a result, the conflict has shredded the ties that bound Liberian families and neighbors. In the aftermath, the piecemeal population that has resettled in the U.S. no longer provides the same support or intervention when couples quarrel.
“Neighbors don’t step in,” said Solace project manager Chaudhry.
“Before the war, [women] didn’t need counseling because everybody counseled everybody else,” Rev. Kampenya said, however, “when Liberian women come here, they’re isolated from their friends and family and have no one to talk to.”
Intervention Gets Personal
Liberian men also need access to counselors and confidants as they adapt to a new country and different social norms. “They’re dropped off here without counseling and what they need is intensive counseling.” Rev. Kampenya said.
Since Liberians can no longer rely on their old support networks, addressing domestic violence in Parkhill has required creative cross-cultural cooperation among the police, support organizations, and community members.
The fact that a large number of adults cannot read also complicates social workers’ efforts since letters and informational brochures are effective for only a portion of the community. In Liberia, 85 percent of adults are illiterate, according to the U.S. State Department. And those transplanted to Parkhill share a similarly high rate, according to Sesay, who only began learning to read last year.
Much of police and social workers’ job is simply educating the community about what constitutes domestic abuse through intimate meetings and providing one-on-one private counseling for victims and abusers.
Still, many residents fear coming forward to talk about their experiences or report domestic crimes. “People are so scared they don’t like to share, and when they share, they share in confidence,” said Rev. Kampenya.
Social workers often have to approach domestic abuse between couples indirectly, by discussing violence against children first. “People are more comfortable talking about child abuse,” said Chaudry. “It’s one step removed.”
As Liberian women learn the law though, they have begun calling the police more than they did a few years ago, according to Det. Pisano.
Although there has been no precipitous decline in domestic abuse, many Liberians now feel more free to seek outside help because of police and social workers’ interventions, which is the first step in stemming the violence.
“Women’s eyes have been opened,” agreed Rev. Kampenya. “They know what ‘abuse’ is and they know that they can leave and avoid being harmed.”
Nicole Pezold is a journalism and French studies graduate student at New York University. She previously served two years in the Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa.
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