Community concerns must not be dismissed
Philadelphia Liberian immigrants allege delay in fire response
When one of us suffers, all of us suffer.
This past weekend, a fire claimed four young lives, destroyed eight homes and left 40 people homeless on the 6500 block of Gesner Street. The tragedy has given rise to accusations from the Liberian immigrant community that the firefighters, several hundred yards away, delayed and arrived at the fire late, even, that it took them 30 minutes to start fighting the blaze.
In response to the allegations, Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer released the 911 calls at press conferences on Monday and Tuesday. The timeline indicates a 10-minute response time, but also shows that the first truck on the scene was a ladder truck without water to combat the flames that had, at that point already engulfed three homes.
Not only has an impromtu shrine been erected in the Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood, but protests have taken place in front of the fire-gutted house, and the Liberian ambassador to the United States has met with Mayor Michael Nutter and other city officials to discuss the events in light of the concerns of the West African immigrant community.
Regardless of the findings of the fire investigation, the fact of the community’s willingness to stand together and demand answers is one we wish every immigrant group in the city heeded.
Many within the Liberian immigrant community came to Philadelphia to escape Liberia’s long and murderous civil war, and have suffered through unimaginable hardships to get here. A while back we met Juwlie and Arthur Karluah, who for three months found themselves “eating rotten fruit or whatever else they could find, wading streams and ponds, drinking polluted water — sometimes from rivers with human bodies floating in them” — to escape from Liberia to the Ivory Coast and then to Philadelphia.
Like a lot of immigrants, the Karluahs (who have nine children) first experienced the Philadelphia fire department, not because of a fire, but from an eviction technique call. According to immigration advocates, landlords and tenants sometimes call the department, reporting smoke or the odor of something burning, on suspicion that a high number of occupants in one apartment is an indicator of lack of documentation.
While there is no mention of anything like that with Saturday’s fire, it highlights why immigrants sometimes feel like they cannot report, call out or protest injust actions.
So there is something remarkable and instructive in the Liberian community’s commitment to seeing the fire department’s response time investigated. The continued scrutiny, even when it is uncomfortable for the elected officials and municipal appointees involved, is important. What we immigrants must hang onto, is that speaking truth to power — or even just asking questions of the powerful — is one of the most precious attributes of life here in the United States.
As fellow immigrants and as fellow Philadelphians, we offer our condolences to those who are grieving the loss of Maria and Marialla Bowah (both 4), Patrick Sanyeah (4) and Taj Jacque (1-month-old). But more, we offer them thanks too, for reminding us that strong communities aren’t resigned communities, but active ones, willing to protect and sustain and question.