West Africans strive to make Phila. home Fleeing strife, they find new challenges in America.

Posted: January 30, 2003

Make no assumptions about Delicia Kawolo, with her stylish glasses, maroon hair twists and sweatpants printed with "Baby Girl" across the rear.

One of thousands of West Africans now putting a new stamp on Philadelphia, Kawolo fled home under gunfire at 10. By 12, she had been kidnapped and sold into indentured labor. Until she was 13, when she escaped and was reunited with her family, she lived on scraps and fading memories of family, all the time surrounded by warfare and death in her beloved Liberia.

Few people took note of that after the 13-year-old landed with her family in Philadelphia in 1995, joining an immigrant community that is transforming neighborhoods and facing challenges that range from schooling, to homesickness, to relations with black Americans.

At Olney High School, Kawolo was misleadingly counted as African American, the district's only term for black children. She got no counseling or language help, even though Liberian English may be indecipherable to American ears. As her mother struggled to support four battle-scarred children, Kawolo retreated into a stoic silence.

"I didn't think they'd understand," Kawolo, now 21, says of her early contact with Philadelphians. "I thought, 'You're worrying about what you're going to wear next week?' . . . I made friends, but I didn't get close."

Fitting in, getting by, yearning for home. Despite the obstacles, African immigrants such as Kawolo have made Philadelphia one of their prime U.S. destinations. While still lower here than in other major cities, the African population (excluding North African Arabs) quadrupled to 45,045 during the 1990s, faster growth than that of almost every other immigrant group, the 2000 Census found.

Community leaders say they think the real number is much higher, perhaps double. Increasingly, newcomers are uneducated peasants and traumatized children, most from West Africa. They gravitate to melting-pot corners of West Philadelphia, Upper Darby, Northeast Philadelphia and Southwest Philadelphia. Communities are blossoming: Bala Cynwyd-based WNWR-AM 1540 is the home of one of the country's few Africa-focused daily radio programs, Radio Tam Tam.

No. 1 destination

The population is swelling with Liberians fleeing civil unrest. They made Philadelphia their No. 1 destination among major metro areas from 1998 to 2000, according to immigration data. Liberians are relocating here from New York City or Washington, drawn by word among fellow Liberians of cheaper homes, more jobs and safer neighborhoods.

The second annual Miss Liberia USA pageant was held last year in Philadelphia. (The winner was Marcia Cooper, 18, from Minnesota.) On Friday, Liberians rallied at City Hall demanding U.S. pressure against a president, Charles Ghankay Taylor, they accuse of destroying their homeland.

Parts of Southwest Philadelphia now make up what might be called "Little Liberia." Woodland Avenue is lined with African groceries and hair-braiding salons. The area is a focal point for Liberian soccer teams, summer festivals and churches. Real estate agents say more Africans are buying rowhouses on the heels of "white flight" that was socking the neighborhood.

"If they're not buying these houses, not a lot of others will," said Donna M. Henry, executive director of the Southwest Community Development Corp.

Many are "Americo-Liberians," descendants of former slaves who left the United States, including Philadelphia, in the early 1800s to colonize the country. It's a historical link unknown to many Americans but acutely real for Liberians.

At the Evamos West African Restaurant on Buist Avenue, a poster depicts 20 Liberian presidents, most of them descendants of U.S. slaves. On another wall rests a hand-written menu listing collard greens and tobogee, a West African rice-and-meat dish.

Opportunity to advance

"I love the idea that my children have the opportunity to advance here," said the owner, Eva Lewis, 40, who moved from New York nine years ago hoping for a better place to raise four children, including Kawolo.

But adapting exacts a price. Schools have struggled to cope with the recent spike in African students, who often need language help even though they are considered to be English speakers. "Sometimes their English is very hard to understand, so that's why we still need to help," said Thai Van Nguyen, a coordinator at the district's Office of Language Equity Issues, which provides translation services. "But it's very difficult to find somebody fluent in all those languages."

Making matters more difficult, African children may have missed schooling during war. So they either must struggle in class with Americans their own age, or suffer the stigma of being put with younger students.

"They get teased about being 'monkeys,' about . . . their accents," said Lewis, noting that it may make children assimilate faster than parents. "The main thing is, we don't let our children leave home until 21. . . . Here it's 18, but I will not let my children leave until they are strong enough to face everything."

Tensions had curdled into a gang problem between Liberians and Americans at Bartram High School and, it was feared, other Southwest schools. Activists and school officials tailored an after-school program for Africans, teaching everything from English to cultural cues, such as the difference between a two-fingered peace symbol and a one-fingered obscenity. The program, which has been labeled a success, ends every night with a West African meal.

"They come here from war-torn countries and try to copy the bikes and cars," said program director Desmond Grant, from Sierra Leone. "We try to put them on the right path."

Complicating assimilation is a "cultural disconnect" between Africans and the African American community into which they are often grouped, including in official statistics. There are Africans who reject the label "African American," and African Americans who dismiss the immigrants, to the detriment of both, Africans said.

"There are stereotypes on both sides," said Konah Mitchell, 33, who came from Liberia at 12 and now works as a child-behavior specialist. "The perception here is that Africans come and take jobs. And for Africans it's that you've been here, so what have you achieved? . . . We need to close this gap."

Mody Diagne, 40, a Senegalese immigrant and creator of Radio Tam Tam, said some Africans refer to each other as "sister" or "brother" but to black Americans as "cousins." He faulted Africans for not working harder to fit in and for "unpacking only half the luggage, always ready to go back home."

At the same time, he said he was shocked to hear Americans "blame Africans for selling them into slavery a long time ago."

"Communication is the answer," said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia NAACP, lamenting that black Americans and Africans seem to cooperate and interact much less in Philadelphia than they do in New York or Washington.

Alphonso Kawah, a former Liberian ambassador who now organizes social-service programs for Liberians, said a coalition called Africom had been formed to try bridge the gaps. "It takes time," he said.

For Kawolo, now a Lincoln University psychology major who became a U.S. citizen five years ago, what's most important are self-identity and homeland.

"I don't call myself African American. I don't feel like I'm African American," she said. "I'm an African living in America. . . . I'd go back tomorrow if I could."

Contact staff writer Thomas Ginsberg at 215-854-4177 or tginsberg@phillynews.com.

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