The fatal fire in Southwest Philadelphia shocked Liberian communities up and down the East Coast yesterday, with calls of concern coming in from Maryland, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
"This is a major devastation. It is really a big blow," said Showih Kamara, president of the Liberian Association of Pennsylvania. " . . . No human being should go through this kind of pain."
Kamara, of Sharon Hill, was among about 100 West Africans who gathered outside the charred house on Elmwood Avenue yesterday. Of the seven people who died in Friday night's blaze, five were of Liberian descent and two were from Ivory Coast.
To arrange for assistance to the victims' families, members of the local West African community will meet today at 4 p.m. at Christ International Baptist Church, 2210 S. 65th St., about four blocks from the burned house. "We are going to rally around them and ensure that their needs will be provided," said Portia Kamara, a social worker, born in Liberia, who came to the United States in 1985 and is Showih Kamara's sister-in-law. "We will assist them in burying the dead. We will assist them in bouncing back."
Portia Kamara's group, Multicultural Community Family Services of Upper Darby, specializes in providing social services to African immigrants in Philadelphia and vicinity. She said the phenomenon of fatal, winter, heating-related fires is all too common, particularly among immigrant families who often use space heaters powered by combustible fuel to heat their homes.
"Last year at this time, we had another Liberian woman who lost her home, in Darby. We got a school in the area to shelter that family [of 11]," said Kamara. "Last year was just the loss of things. This year we have the loss of seven lives. It's very sad."
While they don't show up on lists of the region's largest immigrant groups, Liberians have been transforming parts of Southwest Philadelphia for more than a decade. They began arriving in the late part of the last century, fleeing the coups and civil wars that ravaged Liberia between 1980 and 2003.
Some came as refugees. Others sought asylum. Others were here and got temporary protected status, established by Congress in 1990 to shelter aliens who can't safely return to their homelands because of war, environmental disaster or other temporary conditions.
Estimates put the number of Liberians in the region today at more than 15,000. In some of the toughest parts of Southwest Philadelphia, they have renovated houses, opened businesses and transformed corners that gang bangers once ruled.
"It's the typical immigrant story," said Bernard August, a Southwest Philadelphia real estate broker, who was interviewed last summer for an Inquirer story about local Liberians. "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.
Liberian-born Voffee Jabateh, director of ACANA, the African Cultural Alliance of North America, which has offices at 55th Street and Chester Avenue, said devastating house fires are less common in equatorial West Africa, where Liberians and Ivorians originate. There, amid the prevailing heat and humidity, there's really no need to heat a home. "As [social service] providers, we want to educate our people here on the proper use of heating devices, to conduct a community information about fire safety" for immigrants, said Jabateh.
Fire officials say the fatal blaze was caused by a kerosene heater that spilled flaming fuel onto home furnishings. Officials said that the home had no smoke detectors, and that because of renovations in progress, there was only one exit from the basement, where the fire started.