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In Mosel International Market on Woodland Avenue, Moses Barquoi, his wife, Elizabeth, and their son Moses Jr. talk about attacks. "American kids have a way of bullying kids from Africa for their accent," the senior Barquoi said.
Residents say beating fits widespread pattern
By Robert Moran, Gaiutra Bahadur and Susan Snyder
Inquirer Staff Writers
The vicious beating of a 13-year-old Liberian boy in Southwest Philadelphia this week has exposed a larger problem of animosity between African Americans and African immigrants, according to community members and school officials.
Police reported no arrests yesterday in the beating of Jacob Gray and were reluctant to label the incident a hate crime, but members of a Liberian community that has grown along Woodland Avenue say the attack fits a widespread pattern.
"It's been going on for a quite a while," said Sekou Kamara, 25, a Liberian immigrant and Temple University student who runs a music and video store. "It's just the first time we've seen it in the newspapers."
Kamara said his 18-year-old brother, who attends high school in Delaware County, was beaten this year by other blacks, and his sister had braids ripped from her head in an attack in Atlantic City.
Kamara said some African Americans perceive the growing African-born community as a threat.
"That's what the fighting is really about," he said. "You have this increasing African community competing with African American kids."
Gray, a recent refugee from Liberia, was knocked unconscious Monday afternoon at 60th Street and Woodland Avenue by a group of black youths as he walked home from nearby Tilden Middle School, police said. The eighth grader remained at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia last night, but had been moved out of intensive care and into a regular ward, family members said.
He has been able to speak to detectives. He told them he does not know why he was attacked.
Orabella Richards, a Liberian businesswoman who instructs African American health-care workers on how to deal with African immigrants, said there is often friction between the two groups.
"There's anger about African immigrants coming here and doing so well," she said. "You see them fixing up their houses, buying cars."
Dixon Koffa Daye, 40, who opened a restaurant on Woodland recently, said he sometimes senses the resentment. "We came here to seek refuge," he said. "Us being here, some people take it as an insult."
The tensions escalate when children become involved, Richards said.
Moses Barquoi, 54, owner of Mosel International Market on Woodland, said that "American kids have a way of bullying kids from Africa for their accent."
"The worst of all is if you're good in class," said Varney Kanneh, 47, a host on WSKR-FM (97.7) from Liberia, who alleged that some of his children had been harassed and attacked in Philadelphia public schools.
The immigrants make some of the African American students look bad, Kanneh said, "and they don't want to look bad."
In response to the harassment and attacks, African immigrant youths are seeking protection by assembling and traveling in groups, Kanneh said.
Officer Joseph Young, the community relations officer for the 12th Police District, said he was aware of isolated incidents but no widespread problem.
Capt. Michael Sinclair, commander of the Southwest Detective Division, concurred.
There may be name-calling and similar incidents, but police are contacted only when the matter rises to a criminal offense, as in the Gray beating, Sinclair said.
In response to fears of being attacked, some African teenagers have formed gangs, said Portia Kamara, a Liberian-born director of Multicultural Family Services, an Upper Darby nonprofit agency.
"The kids talk about being called African chimps, African monkeys, sometimes being told to go back to Africa," she said.
Kamara recalled one youth telling her: "We are not forming gangs to go out and rob people, but it is a way of protecting ourselves against African Americans who think they can hurt us."
At Tilden Middle School, principal Michelle Burns said she is planning to offer sessions for the community on West African issues to "start bringing the two cultures together" and ease tensions.
The school, where 90 percent of the students are black, and 20 percent of the total student body is from West Africa, also will continue its work with local community agencies, including Project Tamaa, which runs support groups for West African students at Tilden. Educators also will try to recruit West African parents to help out in the school, she said.
Another way for African youths to deal with the hostility and cultural differences is to assimilate, and that creates more tension between African Americans and African immigrants, because the immigrant parents feel they are in a struggle with black America for the souls of their children.
"African parents feel their children are being influenced," Richards said. "The kids assimilate. They try and imitate [African American] children in their manner, their dress. They're hanging out in the neighborhood. And their parents don't want that."
Many families have pulled their children out of the Philadelphia school system as a result of the animosity, said Sam Slewion, a city social worker and a leader of the Liberian Association of Pennsylvania.
He hears complaints about fights and near-fights between native-born and immigrant blacks several times a week. A few have led to Family Court, Municipal Court, and the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission, he said.
Two years ago, Cyprian Anyanwu, founder of the Philadelphia-based African Congress USA, and others applied to open a charter school in Southwest Philadelphia aimed at improving strained relations by integrating immigrant children and city students. His application was turned down.
Anyanwu submitted a revised proposal last month. The district is expected to hold hearings on charter proposals in two weeks.
Patrick Doggett, Jacob Gray's math and science teacher, said that classmates did tease Gray early on about the darkness of his skin and his accent, but that those comments were lessening. However, comments such as "Go back to Africa" still surface in his class, he said.
"I have four or five other immigrant students in my class as well. We seem to have to stop every day to address the issue of respect, for gender, races, ethnicities," he said.
Jerolyn Brown, Gray's sister, said he had only been attending classes for two weeks. He had no friends yet and no enemies either, she said.
After Gray recovers, he will be transferred to another school, said Burns, the principal. Members of the community have been calling to offer donations to Gray's family, and the school is establishing a fund, she said.
Patricia Doe, an American-history teacher who is married to a native of Liberia, said she is appalled at the prejudice in the community.
"They didn't come here to take anything away from anybody or to displace anybody else," said Doe, whose husband is a choreographer and drummer. "They came because they had a right to come to find a better life."
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