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Nancy Foner

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African immigrants, gender, immigration, Liberia, race, refugees


New York City has long been a destination for immigrants from all over the world. But even within this historical immigrant city, there are some areas that have seen little immigration. Staten Island's North Shore, where thousands of Liberian refugees settled beginning in the mid-1990s, is one of these areas.

Based on over three years of ethnographic research and fifty-five interviews with Liberian refugees and immigrants and those working with them, this dissertation examines how a range of social factors, including demographics, immigration status, relationships with natives (ethno-racial minorities as well as Whites), and gender shape the experiences and integration of immigrants in the U.S. In addition, the study illustrates how Liberian refugees respond to these social factors, play an active role in creating new lives in this country, and thus challenging the prevalent images of refugees as victims without agency. This research about Liberians in Staten Island highlights how immigrants' and refugees' experiences are shaped not only by the larger context of reception at the national and city level, but also by the very micro-level local context.

This study establishes that the term "refugee" has different meanings and implications depending on its definition and usage. The legal refugee status confers privileges and access to resources while the informal refugee label is only experienced as a stigmatizing burden. Being labeled as "refugees" is not the only "othering" Liberians have encountered in Staten Island. They have also been racialized. While Liberians' experiences with race resemble in some ways those of Black West Indian immigrants, they also differ in significant ways. For example, Liberians' responses and interpretations to racism and discrimination are greatly shaped by their experiences during Liberia's civil war.

Liberian women have benefited in a number of ways from their gender--in resettlement, in getting jobs, and, contrary to what many other studies have emphasized, in gaining opportunities for community leadership roles. The women's success in local and Diaspora politics reveals the importance of a transnational perspective, since it has been influenced by the election and popularity of Liberian's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf--the first female president of an African country.

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