During the Liberian civil war in the 1990s, thousands fled to cities across the globe, including the D.C. metro area, home to one of the largest Liberian communities in the U.S. Now, many of those former refugees are lending a helping hand to the country they left behind.
The ties between the West African nation and the Mid-Atlantic region run deep. Many place names in Liberia might sound familiar: there's a Maryland County, for example, and a city named Virginia. Those names that date back to the early 1800s, when lawmakers in Annapolis and Richmond authorized funding to establish the Republic of Maryland on the west coast of Africa, and a few years later, New Virginia. Free African Americans were offered five acres of land and a one-way ticket across the Atlantic. They were encouraged to leave by laws that were increasingly restrictive toward free blacks. Thousands made the voyage to what is now Liberia.
But in the 1980s and '90s, that migration reversed, as thousands of people from Liberia fled civil war and landed here, in the Mid-Atlantic region.
"We are basically considered the step-child of America, based on the history," says Nee Allison, president of the Liberian Community Association of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area. Allison says she thinks she has ancestors among those early colonists from America. They may have come from Virginia, where she's lived since fleeing the conflict in Liberia in 1996.
She was granted political asylum in the United States, she says, because of her family's ties to the government deposed by Charles Taylor.
"My uncle used to be the defense minister in the former government, and those government officials were targets."
Her uncle was executed; so was her brother and a cousin.
"I came to America not to live. I came to wait until the war subsided and go back home. That was my intent. So, initially, for the first, two, three, years, I was in between — do I want stay, or do I want to lose everything and go back home, I'm not certain if there's going to be another uprising."
But since fighting stopped, almost 10 years ago, more and more Liberians in the diaspora have been going back, and looking for ways to give back.
In December, Liberians from around the world came to D.C. for a conference promoting dual citizenship. Supporters want the Liberian government to allow people in the diaspora to be citizens of both Liberia and their adoptive countries.
"Liberia is my mother country," says K. Advertus Karpeh, one of the conference organizers. "And America is my father country, if I may put it that way. But the mother, you are closely drawn to the affection of your mother, the love of your mother."
Advocates of dual citizenship say it would encourage investment in Liberia. Gaye Sleh, Jr., another conference organizer, says people in the diaspora have acquired skills and education abroad that are needed back home.
"We got professionals. We got medical doctors, we got engineers, we got nurses, who want to go home to establish businesses over there to create employment because unemployment is very high in the country."
Liberia's constitution prohibits foreigners from owning land. That's a problem for people in the diaspora who want to go home and start businesses. But others aren't interested in land ownership.
When Checago Bright first went back to Liberia in 2009, he was struck by how the war had hampered development in the poor neighborhood where he grew up.
During the war, Bright escaped to a camp in Ghana, and eventually to the U.S. as a refugee.
Here, Bright had opportunities his friends back home didn't have: he went to college, and he got a master's degree. So, when he returned to Liberia to visit, he wanted to give something back to the country and people he left behind.
He decided to focus on sanitation and clean water. He says 1.7 million of Liberia's population lacks access to toilet facilities and clean water.
In his free time, Bright started a nonprofit group, the Checago Bright Foundation. His first project was to build a gleaming six-room latrine in the community where he grew up. But rebuilding the country is about more than latrines or clean water, or citizenship laws.
"Virtually all of our infrastructure was destroyed, and so there's a rebuilding process," he says. "We have a democratically-elected president, but the challenges are huge in Liberia. And so, as a result, it requires all Liberians' hands on deck."
[Music: "Brand New Day (In the Style of Joshua Radin)" by 2010s Karaoke Band from Brand New Day (In the Style of Joshua Radin)]