Refugees seek new beginnings in the City of Brotherly Love.
Philadelphia welcomes all types of transplants from suburban hipsters to big-city grifters, but no other group has felt the cradling of Brotherly Love like the thousands of refugees from around the world who come to this city every year. Since the early 1980s, nearly 35,000 refugees have settled in the area, coming from Southeast Asia, former Soviet countries, West Africa and most recently from Myanmar, Bhutan and Iraq. Many of them come with just the clothes on their backs, eager to escape the political, religious and racial persecution suffered in their native lands. Some of them never look back, others use their newfound liberty to fight the atrocities still occurring back home.
Rebels killed her father and brothers during Liberia's decades-long civil war. And while Fanta Fofana escaped death, she was unable to avoid the prison camps.
“There were many hard years in Liberia with the rebels,” she says, without disclosing the painful details. When Fofana was finally released, she fled through Guinea—where she met her husband—and arrived in Philadelphia 13 years ago as a refugee.
Once in Philly, Fofana found work as a caregiver for mentally disabled adults and saved money for five years. The mother of five combined her savings with a disability payment she received after losing a leg in an car accident and opened Le Mandingue African Restaurant on Woodland Avenue in 2004.
“I own the restaurant with my husband,” she says. “I worked a restaurant in Liberia with my mother, so I have 20, 21 years in the business. I cooked in my house and guests encouraged me to start a restaurant.”
Le Mandingue is part of a larger trend in Southwest Philly of Liberian-owned businesses opening in the past decade, from restaurants to grocery stores to hair salons. “We have other workers from Mali and Senegal,” says Fofana.
While Fofana’s story isn’t unique to international war victims who flee their native lands in order to avoid political, religious or racial persecution, it’s a part of a larger narrative of refugees who find new homes and a fresh start in Philadelphia as part of the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Since the late 1990s, more refugees have arrived in Philadelphia from Liberia than from any other country—about 3,300 in total, escaping the civil wars that raged in the West African country from 1989 until 2003.
Philadelphia may not seem like the ideal place to settle, and indeed some refugees have encountered problems achieving upward mobility and dealing with neighborhood crime. Nevertheless, these settlers are accustomed to overcoming hardships and finding ways to get by. In fact, refugee populations fighting to secure their own prosperity can be a driving force behind the economic resurgence of decaying cities and neighborhoods. Areas in Southwest Philly with large numbers of Liberian refugees are showing signs of turnaround with new businesses opening and increased levels of community engagement.
This isn’t just a case of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” According to University of Pennsylvania’s Associate Chair of City and Regional Planning Domenic Vitiello, under the right conditions, adult refugees contribute to economic growth, fill specialized labor niches and help revitalize commercial corridors. Utica, N.Y., is an example of a decaying industrial town turned around by refugee settlement. Refugees shop downtown, own businesses, buy houses and are credited with sparking a citywide renaissance.
Philadelphia may prove the perfect place for these settlers to stimulate a similar turnaround. The economic decline that has plagued the city actually makes it an attractive place to start over. Vitiello says that among the most important factors in a host city is affordable rent, and Philly clearly has neighborhoods full of cheap housing compared to other Eastern cities like Boston, New York and Washington D.C. The low rents offset the subpar wages earned by refugees who are typically placed in low-skilled, minimum-wage jobs with manufacturing companies, nursing homes, parking garages, the hospitality industry and the airport.
However, cheap rents are not enough, cautions Karin Brandt, an urban-planning graduate student at MIT, and many refuges haven't attained the same success as Fofana. “The Liberians have a difficult situation. They’re in the worst school systems, the neighborhoods hinder access to public transportation.” She adds: “You want mixed income, good schools and transportation.”
The majority of Liberians coming to Philadelphia have settled in Southwest Philly and nearby suburbs like Upper Darby. While Southwest Philly has cheap housing, it doesn’t exactly fit the mold of a neighborhood with “mixed income with good schools and transportation” and as a result the Liberian community has struggled to integrate and achieve upward mobility.
“The biggest challenge is adjusting to a new culture in school and in the workplace,” says Shiwoh Kamara, president of the Liberian Association of Pennsylvania, addressing the challenges faced by his community. He worries about children being bullied and getting into fights and says there’s friction between Africans and the African-Americans in the neighborhood. “We’ve been told, ‘Monkey, go back to your tree.’”
One of the major sore spots for the community, says Kamara, is that some Liberian kids are integrating in ways nobody hoped for. “Southwest Philly works out OK but there are problems with the neighbors. Assimilation is taking a downward trend with kids getting involved with drugs and truancy.”
Meanwhile, when the city and resettlement organizations don’t address their concerns, the Liberian community figures out how to solve its own problems. “In 2009 my organization went to school to quiet a rivalry at Bartram High between African and African-American students,” says Kamara. “In 2009 we hosted a successful youth summit to address drugs and violence. We said to the mayor, ‘We did all this, how will the city help us?’”
Whether or not the community receives sufficient aid from city officials, Kamara is determined to empower his people. “We’re trying to make it a welcoming community for Liberians. We want to make it accommodating for us and our children,” he says.
“We want to start a leadership population—start an elder program, and anti-teen pregnancy program.”
The Liberian community may not be at the forefront of an economic revitalization yet, but it’s too soon to count them out. While some Liberians have gotten stuck in entry-level parking-garage jobs, many others have taken professional jobs with the city, are pursuing graduate degrees or have started businesses. And while troubled neighborhoods are a major point of concern for refugee settlement, they are also one of the factors that refugees have been shown to improve.
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