Looking at SW Philly fire tragedy through the eyes of the city’s Liberian community

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NewsWorks Tonight’s Dave Heller spoke to several community leaders in a roundtable discussion about the aftermath of the July 5 fire that claimed the lives of four Liberian-American children, and why the community has reacted as it has.

The July 5 fire that claimed the lives of four Liberian-American children in Philadelphia has sparked tension between that immigrant community and the city. A history of trauma and mistrust may be feeding it.

The four children killed in Southwest Philadelphia were all 4 or younger. One was an infant.

While many Liberian community members expressed immense grief over the fatalities, some protesters alleged negligence by the city and fire department. Amanda Bergson-Shilcock of the Center for New Pennsylvanians says both reactions may have connected to trauma from the Liberian Civil War.

“The history of trauma may affect families in that they may be less trusting of government officials or others,” Bergson-Shilcock said.

Through her organization, Bergson-Shilcock has worked closely with Liberian immigrants to help them find work and put down roots in Philadelphia. She says having endured torture, intimidation and extreme violence from their government, many Liberian immigrants have difficulty trusting in and communicating with local authorities.

“It’s hard for them to trust that they might be getting all the information that they might want in the face of a disaster or a tragedy,” she said.

While Mayor Michael Nutter and fire department leaders have laid out in detail the response to the blaze, Liberian pastor Moses Dennis says that the city should be more pro-active. He says releasing emergency response information, especially through non-traditional means, could keep speculation from getting out of hand.

“This information need to be disseminated to the young people and some of the people who are getting their information from the secondary sources,” Dennis said. 

Dennis says, in these cases rumor often becomes regarded as fact. He says more communication can help bridge the gap.

To explore this further, NewsWorks Tonight’s Dave Heller spoke to Julie Campbell, coordinator of trauma-focused projects at the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center; Dahn Dennis, president of the Liberian Association of Pennsylvania (no relation to Moses Dennis); and Philadelphia Councilman Kenyatta Johnson in studio about the aftermath of the fatal fire.

WHYY intern Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.

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