7 Liberians Killed in Philadelphia House Fire That Was Preventable-What a Sad Day!

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How Each of Us Can Help Keep Our Sisters, Brothers, Neighbors, and Friends in The Liberian Immigrant Community from Experiencing these Preventable Tragedies–

liberian-housefireThe home where 7 Liberians, including a one year old, were killed by a house fire

When 7 Liberians can die in one House Fire so early into the night, I Wonder: “How Can Each of Us Prevent this from happening again?”

Liberians across the United States and elsewhere are today mourning the death of seven Liberians who were killed in a December 27 house fire in Philadelphia. According to the news, the house fire began from a woman pouring kerosene in a kerosene heater, and when it was overheating, tried to move the overheating unit out through the basement door. The fuel spilled on the carpet, news media claims, and the carpet began to catch on fire. Then the Kerosene heater exploded, but before then, one victim who survived, Murphy, a 35 year old ran with others into the basement bathroom where they opened the water tap to stay wet until the firefighters arrived. After the smoke engulfed the house, Murphy decided to get away through the only door to the exterior from the basement, leaving the rest of those in the tub in the burning house.

According to the medical examiner, three of the children died of smoke inhalation. An adult died of smoke inhalation and burns. Some of the victims included Henry W. Gbokoloi,  a 54 year old man,  8-year-old Ramere Markese Wright-Dosso, 6-year-old Mariam Iyanya Dosso, and 1-year-old Zyhire Xzavier Wright-Teah. All lived in the home.

Murphy, one of the four survivors, who lives down the street was watching a movie with others at the home when the flames erupted. He was able to escape to tell the story.

It must be a difficult day not only for the four survivors, but for the rest of the Liberian community in Philadelphia . It is also a sad day for many of us immigrants, for those who were brought over to the US and settled in the poverty of American cities without adequate heating, cooling, or housing. You only have to visit one of these neighborhoods to know.

Looking at the burnt home, it may not appear to be one of those homes because of its brick structure, but it certainly must have been. You may ask how could this have happened to a building that appears to be a regular well-to-do home? Or are there questions about landladies and landlords? Is it a question of landlords and home owners refusing to provide the proper alarms and exits in homes that were originally one family owned, turned into multifamily units, floors split up to create more apartment space without the proper exits of escape? Are there more questions to be answered?

ba-fatal_house_f_0499596645Firefighters carry a body of one of the victims of Liberians in the Philly house fire.

My heart goes out to the families and friends of the victims, and as a Liberian myself, let me focus my blog on how we as a community all over this great country can prevent our relatives from such horrible deaths.

All of us, whether we are middle income or not have relatives from our homeland who cannot afford our lifestyles, who do not have the means, who have either lost everything in Liberia or had nothing to begin with before they were brought here during the fourteen year war. Many of us live among Liberians who live in homes that are unfit for dwelling or in homes where safety is compromised either by bad landlords or our relatives and friends themselves. How many exits does  your home have, how many ways of escape are there in your home in your Philadelphia, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota or your Staten Island home? Where will the small children pass to run from a fire in case of fire in the middle of the night? These are the questions that haunt me each time I visit a heavily populated Liberian community like Philadelphia’s Woodland area or Brooklyn Park or Staten Island?

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It is not enough to weep for the dead. It is not enough to blame the dead or those who survive. One must do something about this sort of dying. Remember, most of those who are dying in US cities today escaped death to be here.

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Two years ago, I went to visit my sister who lives in that sort of community in Staten Island, and was shock to discover that  she had moved to what she thinks is a larger home. I discovered first that she had one exit out of her home. The first thing I told her was that she had to move out of there. She had signed a stupid lease for two years, so I have been hounding her to move out as soon as the lease expires. Then I noticed on that first visit that she had no smoke detectors. I am her oldest sibling, so I can push her around a bit.

She had none, and did not even know too much about smoke alarms. We called her landldady who did not take any interest in installing smoke detectors. I also wanted to know about carbon monoxide detectors for the two storied floors. She had no money since my sister does not have the means and she is a new immigrant. I gave her a hundred dollars to purchase the detectors. When I arrived home back in PA, I called the next day to ask where she had installed the detector. It took several calls before she bought them. I visited a couple months after that and walked through the home, checking out each detector for myself.

I also noticed how her furniture blocks her doorway; I noticed the space heater, and began to speak to her and her husband about how to escape in case of emergency. I told her that in case of a house fire, one does not try to hide in the building. One needs to get all of the kids out the door, get to the nearest doorway and leave the building. Don’t worry about the things in the house, I asserted. I spoke to her about insurance for the things in the house. Today, when I read the news of the fire, I called my sister, and rehearsed how she needed to change the smoke detector batteries.

Now with all of this back and forth with my lovely sister, you might think she is stupid, but she is not. She is a very intelligent, well meaning mother of two young toddlers, one who often watches her toddler grandchild also, whose home is often visited by other Liberians. I need to to this because my sister has only lived in the US five years, did not live in homes made of plywood and paper before immigrating, and never grew up on gas furnaces, snowfalls, and zero degree temperatures.

WE MUST BE THE KEEPERS OF OUR RELATIVES: This is a new reality for all of us

liberiansLiberians are mourning today all over the US.

A couple years ago, another immigrant family, this time from Mali, were killed in a New York City, Bronx fire. That time, 8, including one mother and eight children were killed. Today, that immigrant family is Liberian. The victims included six who were huddled together near the basement door, apparently, the only door from the house. One of the adults was cradling a one year old baby. A seventh victim was found at the mouth of the basement door. They were trying to escape after taking much of their time in the home, not knowing what to do apparently.

But these deaths were a preventable tragedy. This sort of tragedy should not have happened if everyone coming in and out of that home had taken notice of the condition. But the saddest part is not only this tragedy; it is that across this country, tens of thousands of Liberians live in similar conditions. They have no adequate heating, and therefore turn to cheap kerosene heaters, dangerous space heaters, have no smoke detectors or carbon monoxide monitors, have small spaces with huge furniture, have too many babies cramped in small spaces or live in dangerous housing units.

In Staten Island’s Park Hill apartments, Liberian immigrants are crowded in small apartments in the sky-rise units. Many have lived in that housing complex for the past ten, nine, five or three years without even stopping to think of what could happen in case of a fire. They come and go every day, going about their good business, trying to survive the difficult immigrant life. It is not an easy thing to lose everything in one country and try to rebuild your life from scratch in a strange one. Many are great survivors, people who have beaten all odds.

Two years ago, I was visiting the Park Hill, Staten Island housing complex to interview Liberian refugee women. I had my video camera ready to record, my paper in hand, the audio tape on the table as I prepared to speak with a group of Kru and Bassa women from Liberia. All was right, my usual professional suit, all right for the occasion. “Can you tell me about your life during the Liberian civil war? Can you tell me what happened to you?” I asked a woman in her seventies or older.

She took one look at me, this resident of Park Hill, a woman who had had so much in the better days in Liberia, a woman who had come here with nothing, not even her grown children that would have helped to provide for her. “Look at me, my daughter,” this Kru woman who still command the air about her even in her great loss,  said, looking at my pathetic “academic” air about me. “You want me to tell you about my life?” She said very sternly. If I didn’t understand my own culture, I would have felt insulted, but Idid not feel insulted in any way. I stood there and watched her body language, the things she did not say and could not have said if she wanted to.

“You want me, me, the woman that I am, to tell you how the war took everything from me, how the rebels killed my two sons, my grandchildren, burned down my home, took all my money, and now that I am so old, I come to live in this building with small windows, no way to go?” She looked at me with pity. “I can’t tell you,  my daughter,” she said. “Just look at where I live and write you book. Look at where I live!”

“Just look at where I live and write you book…”

If each of us can just look at where our people live, and do what we can to help them change in whichever way we can, maybe we can be spared the sort of tragedy that has befallen us.

I tell my sister from time to time that what is important is that she and her children survive the immigrant experience and live a better life than they lost in Liberia. That better life does not have to be beautiful clothing and TVs, nice cars or a mansion. If she can live in a decent and safe home where her children can get some education, maybe she can be consoled one day for losing two children in the war.  But this will come with some sacrifice, not settling for the worst housing, cutting here, cutting there, allowing a safe passage room in case of a need to escape. We live in America now, and we must learn to live in America, I will say.



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Amazing China: Come Visit With Me and Let’s Explore the Life Changing Experience of a Totally Different World- Where I’ve Been These Last Two Weeks- NI HAO!

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SO I WAS IN CHINA?   NI HAO 你好

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One of our first outings was at the Theater to see the Grand Chinese Opera.

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This photo above is our first dinning in Guiyang, the city of 3 million that Chinese refer to as a small city. I love the spicy food in this region and the people are so wonderful here.

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This photo above will be in the next chapter of my Chinese blogging, but here is our group in Shanghai’s Jin Jiang Hotel. left to right: Elizabeth (Betty) Me, Linda, her husband, John, Jane, and Barbara on our way to our last dinner in Shanghai. By the way, John Peacock is a Native American poet who will interest you poets out there. His wife, Linda is a blast, I mean, a fun person to know.

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This photo above was taken in front of (毛泽东) Mao Zedong’s, pronounced Mao Tse-tung statue. Our group was escorted to tour our second city of Guiyang soon after we arrived in the 3 million people city. Opposite the monument is the largest Walmart compound you have ever seen, and I was thinking how ironic that was when the crowds noticed our strange group, and a bunch of people rushed to me to beg to be photographed with them. The funny thing was that this girl with the brown highlighter was the biggest of my fans, who quickly posed with me, but later discovered she had no camera of her own. She pleaded for me to wait for her to get a camera, and when she did, she already had a crowd who wanted to be in the photo. My favroite is the elderly woman here. She could not get her eyes off me, and was glad just to be in the photo even if she never saw the photo or me again.

And those I met treated me with the utmost love and reception. It was unbelievable why so many Chinese people loved me so much. It was amazing how kindly they received our entire group. Explore with me, will you?

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dscn0836So why did I photograph Walmart in Guiyang, China? If anyone needed a department store, it was me. My luggage of two suitecases were lost between Los Angeles and Beijing. My airlines let me down, for nine days, I almost had no change of clothes except the two or three items I carried in my overnight. So, I needed Walmart. Throughout Beijing and now Guiyang, I could not find clothes or shoes that fit me. Walmart had a couple things that I could use, so I went in the next day to a crazy store. The irony of the statue of the Communist leader and Walmart opposit each other was interesting to me.

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So Why Was I in China??? Hello?

I was on a delegation of People to People Citizen Ambassadors, visiting with eighteen other scholars, professors, writers, teachers, and retired professors to serve on the Educational Equity and Social Justice Team. We visited three Chinese cities between Dec. 9-19, but our long trip began on Dec. 7. We flew from Los Angeles, California on the evening of Dec. 7, losing Dec. 8 (Monday) in the clouds, arriving in our first city of Beijing, China at 8 a.m. The rest of the trip is filled with amazing site-seing, interesting meetings with college officials, students, classroom visits, eating, eating, eating, busy on the move. In between, I will give a picture of my amazing journey with a bunch of the best women team members in the world, the laughing and sharing with both our group members and the people of China. You will be surprised to know that I was finally a celebrity in China. From the city of Beijing to Guiyang and to Shanghai, the Chinese people loved me. Women, men, young girls, not too diffeernt from American college students, old men and women flocked out after me, wanting to be photographed with me, wanting to touch my hair, my hands, posing with the peace sign everywhere, sparkling eyes, they came, to my utter surprise. But I too, had a camera, so I too caught their loving smiles, their excitement over my Africaness or my womaness or my blackness or whatever it was they thought I was. There were two other black women in our group, so everyone could not get it. But what was apparent to me was that these people loved strangers; they loved us, the entire group; they felt connected to us. I wish I had time only for them, for their company, to follow them where they came from to know them, to know what it is that makes them smile, cry and laugh. To follow the college girls who surrounded me with their love, holding on to my arm, squeezing me in their midst, refusing to let go of me. To know their tears as well as their achievements. But time is so inadequate, so unkind, and the separation by land and sea so vast. Most of all, the separation by politics so physical, and yet so unreal.

In Beijing, we visited the Forbidden City, an amazing old empire city that is so endless, it takes 2 hours or more just to walk through even without entering a building. Here are a few clips of this preview of my visit there. This was my first request for a photo at the entry to the FORBIDDEN CITY.

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The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the mid-Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. It is located in the middle of Beijing, China.

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Troops in review at the entry to the Forbidden City

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Here in this photo in the Forbidden City gates is another one of my impromptu poses with Chinese people who wanted a photo with me. I learned to also have someone do a photo for me because I too wanted to find time to study what all this excitement over me was for. My friend, Betty, one of the three black women in our team is standing at the other end. Over and over, I noticed the difference between how the Chinese would pose and how we are used to here in the US. I usually would give a half embrace, but they would place and arm in between my arm and the other around my shoulder. To me, that showed a better kind of affection than my half embrace.

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FINALLY, HERE WE ARE BELOW, CLIMBING THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA: My roomate Carlie, with the support of another team member, Dawn were the only two in our group who climbed the highest peek at our end of the Great Wall. We were all afraid for Carlie because she is over seventy and had just heard news of her ill mother, but she proved us all wrong with her strength and endurance. The wall was filled with icy snow and the stairs were treasurous to climb. I went up only one one hundredths of the way- hey, but I was there, and I got a sweatshirt to prove it.

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Here, our team members are determined to climb the Great Wall of China. Below and moving up is Dawn Burke in the black shawl, a very strong woman and professor whom I admire greatly. At the top to cheer on are Trish and of course, Carlie, the determined one. I am not even in this photo because I am down there trying to follow, but of course, I was too afraid of the ice and my Chinese bought shoes did not have the grip the boots in my then lost suitcase have. I am below in the photo, huffing and puffing and dragging my body down after a few steps. Life just isn’t fair.

dscn0824A nine year old girl from Malaysia came to me and wanted to photograph me because she liked my hair. Her family were touring China from Malaysia, she said, and I let her catch me in my lazy movement.

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