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(Trans)formation of Liberian Immigrant Identities in the United States


In 2010, an estimated 214 million people migrated throughout the world seeking out a temporary or permanent nation of residence (Koyama & Subramanian, 2014, p. 1). This massive movement of people creates particular challenges regarding the ways in which immigrants are coming to understanding their old and new worlds as they define and redefine themselves and their environment. Rather than solely reaffirming their past identities and reconstructing their old lives, immigrants are focusing on new spaces of meaning that reveal the unique experience of each immigrant and their respective group. By redefining their sense of self through their ethnic, racial, pan-ethnic, national, or transnational identities these immigrants are actively dictating how they interact and identify with their community, their new nation, and their homeland. As these individuals create new identities issues of hybridity, marginality, and liminality arise as a result of the clashing of cultures as immigrants assimilate, acculturate, and adapt to the culture of their new country of residence.

This dissertation seeks to further understand and explain the ways in which immigrants and refugees come to define their new lives and the communities in which they reside. By conducting twenty-five in-depth interviews with Liberians immigrants and refugees in an ethnic enclave in southwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this research examines how identities are formed and transformed as a result of the issues that catalyze migration and the challenges faced as migrants interact with their new communities and their new societies. Additionally, this research seeks to understand the key actors and organizations involved in the identity-making process of the community by interviewing key informants with regards to the impact that community organizations have on the day to day lives of the Liberian population.

The data suggests that while cultural assimilation may be the primary manner in which cultural interactions have historically occurred, a shift may be occurring in which immigrants are holding steadfast to their cultural heritage and merging it with the dominant culture rather than altogether relinquishing theirs. In an attempt to retain their Liberian cultural heritage, many community members were participating in community organizations that empowered them to make a difference in their local and transnational communities. This newfound sense of agency in one’s life was a byproduct of the exchange of cultural values as individuals became immersed in American culture while still holding on to their own. Although the outcome of this exchange was not always perceived as positive, overwhelmingly the interviewees viewed their transformed identities as increasing their ability to create positive change. Rather than fully assimilating into American culture these immigrants selectively chose which attributes to merge with their own heritage in an effort to create a new hybrid set of individual and community values. These findings promote the notion that alternative cultures should not only be accepted, but embraced, because through this process unique and transformative manifestations of culture can occur to empower individuals and the community.

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