Liberians who fled war live in limbo in New York

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NEW YORK, Sep 21 (Reuters) Recovering in a New York nursing home from surgery to remove a brain tumor, former Liberian interim President David Kpormakpor is relieved to learn that he will not be deported. At least not this year.

Kpormakpor is one of more than 3,300 Liberians who have come to the United States since 1991 under a program to help people from war-torn countries. For months, they anxiously awaited October 1, when an order granting them safe haven was to expire.

Their reprieve came last week, when President George W Bush issued an order allowing them to stay another 18 months.

''Sometimes I wonder whether I should go back to Liberia,'' Kpormakpor said. ''But the condition I am in, maybe even the medicines they're giving me here can't be found (in Liberia.)'' Kpormakpor, who headed Liberia's interim government for 18 months until 1995 but left after being jailed when warlord Charles Taylor took power in 1997, has lived for 10 years in a blighted housing project in the New York borough of Staten Island.

Some 6,000 Liberians settled in the community, known as Park Hill, to escape civil war in the country founded in 1847 by freed slaves from the United States.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf appealed personally to Bush to let the expatriates stay, saying her country was unable to absorb an influx of thousands of people. Johnson-Sirleaf was elected two years ago and her government has been credited with great strides in consolidating peace and promoting economic recovery, but the country still struggles with high unemployment and scarce services.

Issuing his order last week, Bush noted that political and economic conditions in Liberia, where a nearly 17 years of fighting left 200,000 dead and half a million people displaced, remained ''fragile.'' LEGAL LIMBO Liberians in the United States on temporary protected status say they are trapped in legal limbo. Unwilling or unable to return to Liberia, they are also unable to lay down permanent roots in the United States, where some have bought homes, started families and worked for years.

''Right now, we are celebrating. We feel relief,'' said Rufus Arkoi, a Liberian community activist who leads a youth soccer league and teaches adult literacy classes.

''But we don't want to give people false hope.'' On March 31, 2009, another deadline looms.

Temporary protected status was created in 1990 in response to crises in Central and South America, and later in Eastern Europe and Africa. It provides the right to live and work in the United States -- for a limited time -- to those escaping war or environmental catastrophe, but who are not refugees.

Temporary protected status has expired for Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo, among other countries. Liberia, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras are among those still eligible.

Jana Mason of the International Rescue Committee says the United States understands the need to offer temporary sanctuary to a population trying to escape war, but it is inevitable that those who stay for a long time will put down roots.

Edwina Manley, 25, a hairdresser in Park Hill, knows Liberia only through Liberians who have immigrated to New York. She arrived in 1987 aged 6 and in 1991 was granted temporary protected status.

Manley worries about what will happen to her two children, both US citizens whom she says she may leave in the United States if she is forced to return to Liberia.

''I'm glad it's extended, but it doesn't help me very much,'' she said, as she played with her 5-month-old daughter, Dannell.

''You feel like, who's gonna be reliable and dependable enough to take care of your kids?'' Manley, who is not married and lives with her grandparents, recently located her mother, from whom she was separated in infancy, in Monrovia. Manley now sends her mother part of every paycheck, worrying that if she is sent back, there will be no one to support either of them.

Many Liberians in Staten Island say that if they are deported, their families back in Liberia will suffer.

A 2006 report by the UN Development Program estimates that Liberians living in the United States send up to 54 million dollars to relatives back home -- equal to one-quarter of Liberia's most recent national budget of 200 million dollars.

On weekday mornings, sidewalks in Park Hill become an open market, where Liberian women dressed in vibrant colors and speaking in a mix of English and native dialects hawk smoked fish, potato leaves and bolts of fabric.

Nearby, high-school-aged Liberian boys fill a large cement parking lot. A few pass a basketball. Most greet passersby by name.

The neighborhood's leaders say these boys will be the most vulnerable if they are not given permanent residency.

Jacob Massaquoi, the head of the African Refuge community organization, which provides counseling and after-school activities to Liberian youth, paints a dire picture if the boys are forced to return to a country with few functioning schools and almost no jobs.

''When these people return, they will go with frustration and they will be easy prey,'' he said. ''Most of the people came here because of the war and now they have to live with the constant threat of being forced to go home. It is devastating.'' REUTERS JK RAI0858

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