Liberia’s expatriates find a home in D.C. metro area

3 years ago by in 2013

A brutal civil war that left many Liberians scattered across the globe has brought together pockets of Liberians communities in major cities, including Washington, D.C.

When Siafa Lavalla relocated to the United States from Liberia with his parents more than 15 years ago he didn’t know what to expect. A victim of Liberia’s brutal civil war, Lavalla spent a considerable amount of his childhood moving around West Africa.

Although Lavalla lived through more violence than what most might see in a lifetime, his greatest concern at the time was fitting into a new school.

“I was a kid when we came from Liberia, I left so much behind, I was hoping to find new friends,” Lavalla said.

Lavalla’s family is one of thousands who fled Liberia during the 1990’s because of a violent civil war. When the civil war ended more than 200,000 lives were lost of the country’s then 500,000 population.

Many who managed to escape found their way around the world., settling into major cities across the U.S., including Washington, D.C.

The population of Liberians in the D.C. metro area is one of the largest in the country.  Liberia, and four other West African countries account for three-quarters of the black African immigrant population in the metro area, according to the Liberian embassy’s D.C. bureau.

“Liberians are everywhere and we have large families, “ Lavalla said. “So I knew we would  all end up close by each other.”

That migration helped displaced Liberians transition into a new culture a little easier.

“I didn’t feel so bad because some of my cousins came right after us, and moved to Silver Spring, so they were familiar and close by, Safia said.

Now almost 20 years later, the people who once felt misplaced are assimilated into American culture and have their own community.

The D.C. metro area  is their home away from Africa.

While some consider this area home, the efforts to preserve Liberian culture is ongoing.

The Liberian Embassy in D.C. is also making regular efforts to keep the Liberian community connected.

Robert Tolbert, an American-born Liberian, says the new generation of Liberians should know their history.

He explains that strong family units and cultural understanding will help efforts to rebuild the African country

“This new generation needs to do the research about our country, just because we were born here doesn’t mean we need to forget where come from,” Tolbert said.

Yearly events including soccer matches and independence day celebrations bring thousands of Liberians to the metro area.

Local groups like The Liberian Association for the D.C. metro area organize regular fundraising events that generate both money and community engagement.

The purpose of  such yearly functions is to bring awareness to  Liberian youth about their heritage, according to Gabriel Williams, Minster Counselor for Press and Public Affairs at the Liberian Embassy in D.C.

“We as the embassy put on a lot of events, we have a huge Independence Day celebration, on that day you’ll see kids playing drums and dancing we do all of this so young people can know their culture,” Williams said.

About The Story

 Liberia a Familiar Find.

Liberians might have been forced out of their country, but the D.C metro area is just as much home.

The migration of Liberians to the United States is familiar to me.

Growing up as the child of two Liberian parents, the D.C. metro area is where we came for a taste of back home. I have vivid memories of my family piling into our minivan to take the four-hour drive from New Jersey. Once we arrived our days here were jammed packed with African food, parties and lots of family.

Naturally, I wanted to explore what brings Africans, particularly Liberians to this area rather than, lets say, Succasunna, N.J.

What I’ve found true is many Liberians were displaced by a brutal civil war that ultimately forced them out of the country. In a new place [D.C. metro area] Liberians established a new community. This community like so many others has redefined itself by its environment.

Perhaps, Liberia’s long historical ties with the U.S. made the transition for some a little easier. Almost 20-years after its civil war, the Liberian population in the D.C. metro area is still large, estimated to be more than 30,000 according to the Liberian Embassy.  

While some people might have settled in the D.C. metro area for a time, the stability they’ve found here is now reaching back to their native country.

Under the Presidency of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, many are now returning to rebuild the country they  call home.

Johnette Reed is a new Multimedia Journalist. She brings to the American Observer creativity and a willingness to learn. Along side her classmates she hopes to bring interesting stories about the D.C. metro communitiy-at large. Originally from Toms River, N.J., she is ecstatic to be in the nation's capital learning and reporting.