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