Nigerian crisis worries local immigrants

Local efforts include Facebook pages to share news and rallies, including one at Love Park on Sunday.
Local efforts include Facebook pages to share news and rallies, including one at Love Park on Sunday. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 25, 2014

Churches burned. Families murdered. Boko Haram was feared in Nigeria even before the fundamentalist Muslim group kidnapped 234 schoolgirls.

Despite worldwide hashtag activism keyed to #BringBackOurGirls, the hostages grabbed last month seem no closer to safety.

On learning that extremist bombs killed 118 at a market in the Nigerian city of Jos on Tuesday, Monale Alemika, of Media, scrambled for her cellphone. She was raised in Jos; her parents live there.

"Dad, where are you?" she texted frantically.

He messaged back that the family was safe.

For Alemika, 29, an organizer with Philly Nigerian Professionals, a social group, it was an intimate reminder of why she and other Nigerian immigrants in the region have rallied to spotlight the dysfunction in their homeland.

Their efforts have included Facebook pages to share breaking news, demonstrations at which women, regardless of nationality, have worn the colorful African head scarves called geles, and rallies, including one planned for Love Park in Philadelphia on Sunday at 1 p.m.

"It is nice that we have international support," Alemika said, referring to U.S drone and satellite-surveillance operations that amped up last week. "But we have to take responsibility. . . . You can't stay here and act like there's nothing going on back home."

Alemika works for an executive recruiting firm in Media. She is among an estimated 20,000 Nigerians in the Philadelphia area, making up the region's largest African-immigrant group. Many live in Southwest Philadelphia and Delaware County. A substantial number are expected when Nigeria's national soccer team plays Greece in a World Cup exhibition match at PPL Stadium in Chester on June 3.

Jumoke Dada, of Philadelphia, a Nigerian American marketing expert and Temple University graduate, organized one of the city's first Nigeria-awareness rallies at Love Park about two weeks after the girls were abducted.

"The audacity of taking 200-plus girls has drawn attention," she said Friday. "Now the spotlight is on Nigeria. What is it going to do?"

Speaking earlier to the online magazine Face2Face Africa, she said, "Honestly, what is the future of Nigeria without women and girls? Who will give birth? Women and girls should be treasured and protected. They are precious and priceless."

Nigeria, added Alemika, is a "collectivistic society," where dialect and tribal affiliations tend to divide the populace. Even among Nigerians in the diaspora, she said, that is a hurdle for mass organizing.

Henry Okafor, programs coordinator for Redeemed Christian Church of God, Living Springs Miracle Center, 58th and Walnut Streets, West Philadelphia, said the parish includes many Nigerians, which is why it is sponsoring Sunday's rally at Love Park.

Chioma Azi, 31, whose father is Nigerian, said the kidnapping happened "because of an insurgency that has been going on for five years," while little noticed by the rest of the world.

"This is a bigger issue than just the girls," said Azi, a lawyer with the African Cultural Alliance of North America, a southwest Philadelphia support group. "We should rally around the girls. But we shouldn't let this issue die if and when they are found."

Alemika concurs. Having lived through "an ethno-religious crisis" in Jos that left dead bodies on its streets five years ago, she said, "I know how scary it is to leave your house feeling OK, and then all of a sudden there is chaos everywhere."

Born in Philadelphia in 1985, the year her father completed a doctorate in criminology at the University of Pennsylvania and her mother a master's in information science at St. Joseph's University, Alemika was less than a year old when her family moved back to Nigeria. She has dual citizenship, but thinks of herself as Nigerian first. She returned to the United States in 2008, completed a master's in communications at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and moved to Media for her job last year.

"We want our girls back, but after that, what's next?" she said. "Will Nigerians go back to business as usual? When they go to vote next year will they vote an incompetent government back in?

"Every time the Nigerian government is asked about [Boko Haram] they say, 'Well, terrorism is a new phenomenon.' But it has been going on for five years. You don't buy a car, and five years later still call it 'new.' "



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