Dousing the flames in the Liberian community

    Sometimes stories are too heartbreaking to understand.

    Such is the case with the fire that killed four children in the heart of Southwest Philadelphia’s African immigrant community — a community filled with people who came to America seeking better lives for themselves and their children.

    Instead of finding better lives, however, those families found America to be a place where safety is elusive, where answers are confusing and where services are meted out in ways that appear to give short shrift to minorities and the poor.

    Hopefully, as investigators sift through the remains of the 10 or more houses affected by the fire, those whose lives have been upended by grief will find solace. Meanwhile, the rest of us should find a way to cast lifelines rather than casting blame.

    Reactions to tragedy

    This is not a time for political grandstanding or petty bickering. It is a time to remember 4-year-old twin sisters Maria and Marialla Bowah, 4-year-old Patrick Sanyeah and his brother, 1-month-old Taj Jacque.

    Those are the names of the children who perished in the flames, and when we utter those names, we are not mouthing sound bytes for evening newscasts. We are talking about human lives, and human suffering, and human dignity. 

    Any community would be angry after watching four of its children die in an inferno when a fire station was walking distance from the scene.

    Any community would raise its voice in protest using whatever means was at its disposal.

    Any community would feel belittled if its concerns were cast aside even before they were investigated.

    That’s why I understood the community’s decision to protest at the Southwest Philadelphia fire station that responded to the deadly fire.

    That fire station, just a few hundred yards from the fire scene, has been a lightning rod for a storm of anguish and confusion. It has been the place where a community has come to demand answers, to express anger, and to participate in the American tradition of protest.

    Understanding the protest

    With shirtless men and shouting women facing scores of grim police, it would be easy to look at those protests and see something more than a grief-stricken community.

    It would be easier still to witness neighbors being hauled from the scene in handcuffs, and conclude that they had criminal intentions. But I don’t believe that’s the case. Nor do I believe this is an uneducated immigrant community that does not understand what happened.

    I have seen brilliance in Southwest Philadelphia’s African immigrant community, beginning with a multilingual Bartram student who shined in a writing program I put in place.

    Moreover, I have specifically come to know members of Philadelphia’s Liberian community, and the individuals I know are much more than the angry images we’ve seen in the wake of this tragedy.

    I have been privileged to call Liberian Philadelphians my neighbors and friends. We have eaten together and celebrated family milestones together. We have watched each other’s children, and worked to maintain safety on our streets.

    I’ve seen the close and unshakeable bonds of family in Liberian gestures of respect for elders.

    I’ve seen those same bonds in the loving protectiveness of children.

    In other words, I have seen Liberians as vital members of our community, and not as some exotic oddity to be gawked at in their moment of grief.

    No matter what part of the city we call home, or where in the world our ancestry lies, the tragedy of four dead children should unite us as human beings. It should awaken our instincts as parents. It should cause us to reach out in compassion.

    There will be plenty of time for ugliness when the details of this tragedy are revealed. For now, though, let us assist our grieving neighbors in whatever way we can.

    After all, that’s the right thing to do.  

    Read more at Jones’s website.

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