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Liberian immigrants transforming S.W. Phila.

An African culture makes inroads here. “It’s the typical immigrant story,” an observer says.

Augustine Manyeh, who runs Angie's Kitchen in the 600 block of South 52d Street, chats with his sister, Comfort Manyeh. Augustine Manyeh said he fears Liberia will not able to absorb all the refugees who will be forced to return.
Augustine Manyeh, who runs Angie's Kitchen in the 600 block of South 52d Street, chats with his sister, Comfort Manyeh. Augustine Manyeh said he fears Liberia will not able to absorb all the refugees who will be forced to return.Read moreAPRIL SAUL / Inquirer Staff Photographer

Where passersby see a shattered building, Liberian immigrant Voffee Jabateh sees a future cultural center with offices for social workers inside the former crack house at 55th Street and Chester Avenue.

The goal, beyond much-needed neighborhood revitalization, he said, is to foster understanding between Southwest Philadelphia natives and the thousands of West African immigrants who since 1990 have tripled the number of foreign-born residents in that blighted part of the city.

While they don't show up on short lists of the region's largest immigrant groups, these immigrants, many from Liberia, are transforming parts of Southwest, renovating houses, opening groceries featuring African delicacies, and reclaiming corners that gang bangers once ruled.

Once hard-to-find ingredients such as cassava leaves and the root porridge fufu are widely available now.

Land for the cultural center was acquired from the city, and renovation fund-raising is under way, said Jabateh, 52, director of the African Cultural Alliance of North America. The nonprofit group, founded in 1999, has offices on the avenue and has rehabbed other buildings in the neighborhood. One three-story shell, acquired for $3,000 at a sheriff's sale, is undergoing a $60,000 makeover.

"It's the typical immigrant story," said Bernard August, 78, a real estate broker in the neighborhood since 1962, who has seen Irish, Jewish, Korean and Vietnamese merchants open stores on the avenue that now features African hair-braiding boutiques for customers in tunics and head wraps.

"They came to this country with maybe $10 in their pockets. But they have skills. And once they start working and bettering themselves with decent jobs," they buy businesses and homes, August said.

Sekou Kamara can attest to that. A street vendor in Liberia, Kamara came to America in September 2000 as a refugee. He moved in with a brother in Morrisville.

"I was in Bucks County trying to see what this America was all about," he recalled. "We came here with a lot of hope. In Liberia, the feeling was, 'Just get there.' "

He took a night job on a loading dock and worked days as a bagger at a Giant Supermarket. He took courses at Bucks County Community College and enrolled at Temple University, where he is two courses shy of a journalism degree. He moved to Southwest Philadelphia. On the 6500 block of Woodland Avenue, he opened Afro Music & Video Connection, paying monthly rent of $1,000 to a landlord who came from Vietnam.

While there have been flare-ups between African immigrants and American blacks, August, the real estate broker, who is white, says he thinks they stem mainly from the bullying that happens between any groups of adolescents.

Anne Holland, director of trauma services at Children's Crisis Treatment Center, which has a program to help integrate West African students and responded to the beating of a Tilden Middle School child in 2005, said that African pupils are singled out because of their accents and non-trendy dress and that the harassment exceeds normal middle-school-age teasing.

John Ross, a black employee of August's realty firm, said tensions sometimes arise when immigrants seem to carry themselves with an air of superiority, particularly in transactions that also involve whites.

"They are African. They let you know it in a heartbeat: 'I'm not colored. I'm African.' They want the Caucasian community to understand that they are not Negro, black, whatever you want to call it. They are African," Ross said.

On the flip side, said Jabateh, is the African perspective that blacks living in poverty in America have it easy because of entitlement programs, a view expressed as "I work hard for everything I got. I'm not like you, who get things free."

In Africa, "we had no government assistance. No welfare. No housing assistance. If you don't have enough money to pay, you don't eat. You've got to know how to survive in a system like that," he said.

Frederick Augustus Cooper knows the stereotypes and bridges the gaps.

Born in New York to a Liberian mother who came to America to attend New York University's dental school, Cooper was a few months old when he was sent back to Liberia to be raised by grandparents.

He was 10 when he returned to live with his mother, and in 1988, he graduated from West Philadelphia High School.

Starting as a street vendor, he built a water-ice empire that supplies stores and has a shop festooned with African flags at 54th Street and Chester Avenue. Two years ago, he opened Lone Star Shipping, named for the single star on the Liberian flag. The company ships containers of commercial goods and personal effects to Liberia.

"God put America here for opportunity," said Cooper, now 38.

In Liberia, people work hard but are not paid accordingly, he said. They arrive in the United States with a strong work ethic. "They are already workaholics when they get here. Once you cross over, if you got here legally, you're unstoppable," he said.

Like many of the region's 15,000-plus Liberians, Jabateh, the ACANA director, came to America in 1990 to escape the coups and civil wars that ravaged Liberia between 1980 and 2003.

Some came as refugees. Some, like Jabateh, sought asylum. Others were here and received Temporary Protected Status (TPS), established by Congress in 1990 to shelter aliens who cannot return home safely because of war, environmental disaster, or other temporary conditions.

The 2005 election of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned law and order to the country. Consequently, TPS for Liberians expired in October 2007. President Bush, citing foreign-policy reasons, deferred their departure. That deferral expires March 31, 2009.

But in a country of 3.3 million, with unemployment above 80 percent, Liberia is not strong enough to absorb all at once the estimated 10,000 TPS returnees from across the United States. It lacks the jobs. It lacks the housing, said Gurley Gibson-Browne, first secretary and consul at the Liberian Embassy in Washington, which is seeking another deadline extension.

Shawn Saucier, a spokesman for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, said any decision on a further extension would likely be made by the next president.

For the estimated 3,000 Liberians in greater Philadelphia facing removal, the March deadline is a problem, said Augustine Manyeh, whose Angie's Kitchen restaurant, in the 600 block of 52d Street, specializes in the savory stew called togboghee.

Manyeh said said some of the local Liberians had been here for 14 years. "I've got friends and family members going through this," he said. "They will not be able to sustain their families in Liberia. Even now, with just 2,000 Liberians forced to leave the Liberian refugee camps in Ghana, there is chaos in Monrovia," the Liberian capital, he said.

"There are no longer rebels in the bush," Manyeh said. "Mostly now, people are fighting for their own survival."