A History of Liberia, its Conflicts and its Minnesotan Diaspora 

Map of Liberia
Liberia. Source: CIA World Factbook (public domain).

The Liberian conflict, which culminated in fourteen years of civil war from 1989 to 1996, can be traced back to the state’s founding in 1847. Liberia began its journey towards statehood in 1822 when emancipated slaves left the United States for Africa, creating a settlement in Liberia called Monrovia. Joined by people from the Congo who were freed from the slave ships taking them to the Americas upon the emancipation, these ‘Americo-Liberians,’ making up less than five percent of the population, divided the Liberian population into two classes (U. S. Committee For Refugees 1992: 2-3). As government funds depleted, the ex-slaves became slave drivers by forcibly sending many indigenous people to work on plantations on islands off the African coast (U. S. Committee For Refugees 1992: 4).

In 1980, Liberia ceased to be considered a republic even in name when the country was taken over by a coup led by Samuel Doe. After suspending the Liberian constitution, Doe exercised his power over the country through his army made up of men from the Krahn ethnic group. These soldiers, called the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), created a nation of fear by raping, castrating and/or otherwise dismembering those who opposed or even appeared to oppose them.  Many of the soldiers were children. While the situation appeared to be improving in 1984 when Doe declared that he was returning the country to a republic, he rigged the resulting elections in his favor (U. S. Committee For Refugees 1992: 4). In 1985 a coup against Doe lead by a man from the Gio ethnic group failed. In response, Krahn soldiers killed hundreds of Gios and Manos, who were closely associated with the Gios, in Nimba County (U. S. Committee For Refugees 1992: 5).

December 1989 marked the beginning of Liberia’s fourteen-year civil war when the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, attacked the AFL in Nimba County. While the war began as an attempt to overthrow Doe, it rapidly developed into an ethnically based conflict where civilians were the ones forced to pay the price of war with their lives, their family’s lives, and their dignity. Children were forced to watch their parents’ brutal murders. Countless atrocities were committed against the innocent people of Liberia. Many began to head for shelter along the Sierra Leone border (U. S. Committee For Refugees 1992: 5). In September 1990 Doe was killed and cease-fire was declared a month later but the conflict between the Krahn and the Gios and Manos still remains unresolved (U. S. Committee For Refugees 1992: 8).    The violence continued until 1996 when the thirteenth Liberian peace agreement was signed. By then, one tenth of the Liberian population was killed and one third left the country as refugees (Lyons 1998: 177). In 1997 Charles Taylor was elected into the presidency.    While the conflict in Liberia is commonly considered an ethnic one, others would argue that it also has an economic basis. Some even say that commerce was the key issue in the conflict particularly in the goals of the warlords and the sources of their power. Taylor essentially controlled the gold, diamond, timber and lumber markets and all his rivals have also based their authority on these and similar markets (Reno 1998: 79). The political leaders in Liberia based their “campaigns” on their private commerce rather than being backed by an interest group or stating anything they planned to do to improve the country (Reno 1998: 80).

The internal conflict that has wracked the Liberian state has caused many Liberians to leave their homes and communities to seek asylum in safer regions. As of December 31 of 2005, 200,000 refugees were reported in West Africa and 16,100 Liberians sought asylum from other countries.  In the United States in 2003, 6,873 Liberian refugees filled out Applications for Refugee Status. They represented the fourth highest rate of all refugees. In the following years, the numbers of asylum seekers continued to grow. In 2004, 4,918 Liberian Refugees were approved for refugee status with a total of 7,140 Liberians being admitted that year.  The same year they accounted for 13.5% of all refugees in the United States (Refugee Applicants and Admissions).

Many Liberians in the United States have also been living under Temporary Protection Status (TPS).  This ensures victims of natural disasters and war 18 months of residency in the United States. Ten-thousand to 15,000 Liberians have been living under TPS since 1991. Since then, the U.S. government has granted them several extensions of residency because of the continuing instability of their homeland (Taylor August 25, 2006). Now that sufficient stability has been reached in the eyes of the U.S. government, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security has declared that the designation of TPS for Liberia will be terminated on October 1, 2007 (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services).

The Liberian refugee population in Minnesota has increased substantially over the past few years. In 2005, Minnesota resettled 6,357 total refugees, a number which has only been exceeded by California. Currently, it is estimated that 25,000 Liberians live in Minnesota, most of whom live in or near Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center. An estimated one fifth of the 100,000 residents in these communities are West Africans (Minnesota Department of Health). Many of the Liberians run small businesses such as beauty salons that are frequented by their fellow countrymen.  Liberians in the community also distinguish themselves with their love and support of the game of soccer (Schmickle July 18, 2005).

To support victims of war-based trauma living in the community, the Center for the Victims of Torture has implemented a program to create a network of schools, healthcare agencies, churches, and social service programs. These services are intended to support the psychological health of members of the community who continue to face the repercussions of the violence inflicted upon them in their homeland (Schmickle July 18, 2005). 

Liberian refugees face many problems during their transition to the U.S. Regarding healthcare for instance, Malaria infections and TB have an extremely high rate in West African populations. However, according to Dr. Wilhelmina Holder, Project Manager of African and American Friendship Association for Cooperation and Development (AAFACD), the health concerns of the Liberian population of Minnesota have shifted with time to include cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and diabetes (Chadwick, Sabah January 10, 2006).

As the war divided Liberia into two disagreeing factions, it also has divided the Liberian refugees living in the Twin Cities. In 2003 the Liberian community in Minnesota was divided by accusations of support for the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) insurgent group. Many Liberians were concerned with what they perceived as monetary donations fueling the LURD and the violence in Liberia. Indeed, the Twin Cities has traditionally been a campaign stop for LURD officials working on fundraising. The accused declare that their accusers are mainly the Americo-Liberians who were once the ruling party in Liberia, which has always tried to oppress the traditional ethnic groups of Liberia. They claim that the money they donate is not to fuel the hostilities between the government and the rebels but to procure food and other health supplies for the multitudes of displaced Liberians still residing in Africa. On the other hand, many Minnesotan Liberians wonder if the money is actually going to LURD to purchase weapons that are used to kill innocent people, mainly the brothers, aunts, and grandmothers of those people who have found refuge in the United States (Schmitz August 7, 2003).

Today, the group Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, working in conjunction with the Peace and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, has implemented a project to try to bring the injustices done to the multitudes of innocent people who were harmed into the light. By documenting the accounts of Minnesotan Liberians and their experiences with human rights violations, the Commission hopes to aid in bringing about a level of international justice against the perpetrators of these crimes. The project, which began June 22, 2006, will begin collecting accounts during the fall, 2007.  All accounts will be taken from willing participants. Their stories will be compiled by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Liberia to be used as they see fit to find justice (Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights). 

Organizations in Minnesota Supporting Liberians:
African & American Friendship Association for Cooperation and Development
•    Phone: 651-645-5828
African Assistance Program 
•    Phone: 763-560-8995
African Consortium
•    Phone: 763-560-0399
Homeless and Refugee Children Inc
•    Phone: (763) 504-2940
Hope International Health & Social Services, Inc 
Minnesota African Refugees and Immigrants Initiatives
•    Phone: 763-533-1609
New Millenium Foundation
•    Phone: 763-561-8721
Organization of Liberians in MN
•    Phone: 763-560-0031
Pan African Network
•    Phone: 763-503-4982

(Chadwick, Sabah January 10, 2006).

Macalester College · 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105  USA · 651-696-6000
Comments and questions to

Subpages (1): Annotated bibliography