This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
“The rebels are coming! You must leave now. You may take only five things with you. Hurry!”
For the nine children sitting in a circle at Thomas Morton Elementary School, the scenario in this classroom exercise is all too familiar. Each has immigrated to Southwest Philadelphia from West Africa, many after fleeing civil conflicts.
Despite the harsh memories the exercise may trigger, 11-year-old Khadija Fofana, a native Liberian who just completed fifth grade at Morton, seems unfazed. When it is time for her and her partner to report on the choice they have made, she speaks confidently. “We will bring food, water, shoes, and a gun.”
Fofana says she and her family arrived in Philadelphia from Liberia in October 2007, after three years in exile in Cote d’Ivoire, or the Ivory Coast.
In Philadelphia, the Fofana family became part of a growing Liberian community – as many as 15,000 Liberians have now immigrated to the city, many fleeing two recent civil wars marked by human rights abuses and the crumbling of the nation’s infrastructure.
For refugees and asylees fleeing such experiences, “there is a tremendous need for basic social services that are delivered in a culturally sensitive way,” explains Richard E. De Gourville, director of educational programs for the African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA). Many families need help obtaining housing, enrolling children in school, stabilizing their immigration status, finding jobs, and acquiring literacy skills.
All the while, says De Gourville, they must adapt to inner-city communities struggling with limited resources, poor schools, and high levels of violence.
Children, in particular, face a radically unfamiliar school culture and set of rules for interacting with other young people. Their sense of identity can suffer when they are stigmatized for their language, dress, complexion, and social norms.
In Southwest Philadelphia, where the African population in Philadelphia is most concentrated and where intense poverty among the majority African- American population is endemic, a simmering tension between the groups seems to ebb and flow.
At times, mistrust and misunderstandings escalate to harassment and violence. The most notorious example was in October 2005, when five African- American youth attacked a 13-year old Liberian boy on his way home from school, putting him in a brief coma and fracturing his skull.
Navigating these dynamics has been a big part of Khadija Fofana’s nine months in Philadelphia.
She has had to work hard to fit into her new school environment.
As a result of her schooling in Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire, she says, “I didn’t like to talk in class. I liked to listen.” Fofana, learning English as a fourth language, grew even quieter when she did not fully understand what was being said in class.
But she found that students and teachers interpreted her silence as laziness.
Fofana also struggled socially. African- American children, she says, “pick on us because we are African. They say, ‘Go back to Africa.’ When me and my brothers go to the park, they pick on us and try to make us fight them.”
Eventually, however, Fofana began to find supports.
She moved her desk next to another Liberian student who had been in the country for several years and helped to explain things that Fofana didn’t understand.
Improved English skills from her ESOL class also helped her to feel more confident.
And Fofana signed up for the District’s African and African-American Ambassadors Program, where she met her best friend and found an opportunity to share her culture and experience with students and staff at Morton.
It was during this summer’s session of the Ambassadors Program that Fofana and her peers discussed which belongings families should take with them when fleeing civil war.
Aimee Davis, the program instructor gently questioned Fofana on whether bringing a gun is such a good idea.
Fofana explained, “We would need it to kill the rebels before they killed us.”
Davis, whose training to lead the Ambassador Program has focused on expanding her knowledge of Africa, probed one more time. “But haven’t we talked about staying safe by staying away from guns?”
Fofana refused to relent. “It’s a good idea to bring a gun because maybe it will make the rebels say ‘we won’t kill her because her family will kill us back.’”
Started two years ago, the Ambassadors Program currently operates at Morton Elementary, Tilden and Pepper Middle, and Bartram High School.
The goal, says Linda Hargrow of the District’s Office of Language, Culture, and the Arts, is to “bring a sense of community to these schools and to help African and African-American students understand … how they are connected to each other.”
For many children, the program is one of the best available opportunities to develop the will and the skills to bridge the lingering divide between Africans and African-Americans.
This August, Fofana and her fellow Morton Ambassadors received the Young Heroes Award from the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia.
But as the “fleeing civil war” exercise demonstrated, uncovering the depths of each group’s experience and how it shapes their current perspectives is not easily done.
Truly responding to the needs of both groups – and addressing the root sources of the conflict between them – would require an influx of resources and a paradigm shift, says Robert Carter, associate director of the University of Pennsylvania’s African-American Resource Center and chair of the board of the Philadelphia Student Union.
Ideally, he says, schools would be able to not only foster mutual appreciation of each group’s history and accomplishments but develop a shared understanding of racism and its impact in order to provide appropriate therapeutic responses to the traumas that African and African- American children often experience.
“It’s important for Black people from all backgrounds to understand why we are getting our butts kicked,” says Carter.
“Children who have been traumatized will often blame themselves for feeling bad,” Carter explains. “Without an understanding of oppression and white supremacy and racism, it’s easy to blame yourself and your own people for your pain. And when that happens, you strike out at one another.”
Fofana, whose first year in Philadelphia is now behind her, will be armed with different weapons as she begins sixth grade at Tilden this fall.
Her English continues to improve. She has friends. And she will have the opportunity to continue serving as an Ambassador at Tilden. Although her struggle to build a bridge between her past in Liberia and her present in Southwest Philadelphia will no doubt continue, Fofana says she looks forward to letting others know that she is “proud to be African” – and that they should be, too.