Refugees settling in Philadelphia

Refugees seek new beginnings in the City of Brotherly Love.

By Aaron Kase & F. H. Rubino
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 14 | Posted Mar. 2, 2010

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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.

Home is where the new start is

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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Comments 1 - 14 of 14
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1. Phil said... on Mar 3, 2010 at 04:55PM

“I encourage everyone to learn about this topic. Helpful websites are:

Human Rights Watch:
Friends of Falun Gong:”

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2. Linda said... on Mar 3, 2010 at 05:36PM

“Mr Kamara should use the elders in his community to keep watch,on their children and elders. They could become useful as the safety officers.Crime is rampent as well as drugs in this city and the higher ups and the people we pay to protect us are part of the problem. I have met a few Liberian people when I was driving the bus for the city. I found them to be people I would be proud to be with anytime.”

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3. Chris said... on Mar 4, 2010 at 03:08PM

“Please remove the photo of a gun in relation with this article. It really sends the wrong message. I'm not the type to get upset about stuff like this, but that photo is really inappropriate.”

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4. Ray said... on Mar 5, 2010 at 09:38AM

“I too am offended by the gun photo. What's the point? That refugees usually have rifles? That we ought to fear them? That violent criminals are invading our our country? I associate RUDE generalizations and stigmas with this image.”

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5. Jone said... on Mar 6, 2010 at 03:30PM

“Quit CCP at once!”

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6. Qing said... on Mar 8, 2010 at 10:48AM

“I'm a Chinese immigrant and I am familiar with the persecution of Falun Gong in China and I'm glad that some have found Philadelphia, the brotherly love, as the refugee place. It is important for media to cover the continuous brutality against these innocent, kind people and the hopeful movement of renouncing the CCP membership. After reading “Nine Commentaries on Communist Party” (, I now come to realize more deeply the true character of the CCP and like almost 70 million now, I too have renounced my membership.

It is by reading the Nine Commentaries that I understand now the over 60 plus years of social and political chaos by the CCP to destroy my culture, my life, for their forceful control . By quitting the Party, I now really appreciate and understand more deeply the sacrifices of many in this country for me to be living in the shadows of the Liberty Bell free from this regime.”

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7. Qi Zhou said... on Mar 9, 2010 at 09:29AM

“Thank you for your coverage of the story of Jingfang Yang, very touching. This almost 11-year tragic persecution of Falun Gong has affected so many in China and here in Philadelphia.

It’s interesting that your article mentioned the “quit the Chinese Communist Party ” rally. It’s a trend in China that many media agencies have missed in capturing. This is one of the most amazing things in China now and outside. Through quitting the Chinese Communist Party and its affiliated associations, we simply renounce the Chinese Communist Party for our own spiritual freedom, without seeking any political agenda. It is in this way I believe that positive changes will happen in China. With about 50,000 Chinese quitting from Chinese Communist Party every day, and nearly 70M have quit from Chinese Communist Party by now! A true awakening. Would like to see more coverage in the future.

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8. Deep said... on Mar 9, 2010 at 05:24PM

“I agree with the other posters, the picture of the Kalishnakov is not only inappropriate, but also inaccurate. Rather than threatening Philly, these immigrants are actually saving the city. A more appropriate picture would be one of the numerous African restaurants and shops that are opening up all over the city. These immigrants are bringing neighborhoods that were left for dead back to life. Philly is a better city because of these immigrants.”

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9. Xian said... on Mar 9, 2010 at 08:52PM

“Thanks a lot for letting us know the touching story. I came from China and I am aware of how bad Chinese Communist Party is in China.

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10. Zheng said... on Mar 10, 2010 at 11:35PM

“I'm quite familiar with Falun Gong practitioners that have been through our Philadelphia court system in seeking asylum and who have ultimately been embraced by the arms of The City of Brotherly Love. If not for this, they would have been forced to return to the ruthless grip of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with no future. The "Quit the Party" movement is important to report on. Through the Tuidang movement which translates as "withdraw from the party," I too have renounced my membership. The Tuidang movement began when the independent New York-based Chinese newspaper DaJiYuan published a series of editorials detailing the history of the Communist Party in China called Jiu-Ping or 9-Commentaries on the Communist Party. Growing up in China, this was history that was censured from us and all that was taught were the great strides by this communist regime. The historic details were shocking to me and my family members. Like so many, I will no longer be a member of this Party.”

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11. Architect Rod Herrera said... on May 4, 2010 at 05:30AM

“In Philadelphia. We are not welcoming anyone, we are going about our business without bother.These new immigrants are coming here and they are not taxing our system. They are doing the hard part themselves and have asked little from us. Most Asians, Africans and South Americans start working the first day they arrive, within months they manage to deal with the cold, the loneliness, the near starvation and the language. They contribute to this City more than we have measured. They are smart, respectful, industrious and achievers. Philadelphia is an Academic City with 18 Universities and an excellent HIgh Schools system with excellent teaching staff. What made some schools bad, were local residents, drunk European trash that never improved. The new immigrants have actually restored to academic excellence most of the "bad" schools. At Drexel, Temple, & St. Joe's they lead the way-we are lucky they chose us rather than some other City.. Welcome friends and thanks you”

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12. frankee buku saylae jr said... on Sep 5, 2011 at 02:28PM

“the above mentioned is my name and i can't explain all. some people in liberian call themselves Anti-politicians are training guys in huge quantity for the upcoming elections and o am gradually becoming afraid and want escape this land by all cause beacuse my friends hate me because of my family orientation. i will be willing for an interaction if neccessary. my pravate number is 23176081482”

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13. Anonymous said... on Dec 23, 2011 at 10:55AM

“Center for New Americans at JEVS provide a rang of free services to all refugees! Visit this website and you may get some help toward employment.”

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14. sellie gbosah said... on Feb 21, 2013 at 07:22PM

“the problem here is that parent have to stop they children from taken drug..”


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