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The unedited classwork of a student journalist at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, currently focusing on the issues concerning the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In Face of More Fires NYC's Malis Reflect

Last weekend city government stopped funding fire safety initiatives implemented in response to a Bronx blaze last year that killed ten Malian immigrants. That same weekend two fires killed seven more New Yorkers. For the Malian community, it's a moment of reckoning.

The March 8th, 2007 a fire caused by a faulty space heater on Woodycrest Avenue in the Highbridge area killed members of the Magassa and Soumare families, all but one of them children. According to Lieutenant Anthony Mancuso, director of the Fire Safety Education unit of the New York City Fire Department, says the families did not survive for the same reasons that the victims of last weekend's fires in Buswick, Brooklyn and Manhattan's Chelsea perished: Their fire alarms weren't in working order.

But more than simply forgotten batteries, the tragedy showed a glaring disconnect between Mali immigrants and the city's health and safety services. Ibrahim Dawud Nure, Secretary of the Masjed Deyaue mosque, the center of religious and cultural life for many Bronx Malians, says the community "did not have the leads to go after these very important and basic things. Where to go, and all the tools to apply these tools to work for us."

Though Ami Diallo, Mali's premier consul to the United Nations, speaking through a translator, cited Mali's location in Africa -- bordered by many countries -- as evidence for its people's ability to integrate well with other cultures, in New York City the reality is quite different. Most Malians are Muslim and speak only native languages like Bambara or Songhai and many, such as the Magassa family, are polygamists, a practice that is legal Mali but forbidden under U.S. law. These cultural divides from the majority Catholic Hispanic population made the Bronx Mali community insular.

The fire "brought us to sit back and think what we should do in communication with our community," said Bourema Niambele , President of the New York Council of Malians, a non-profit dedicated to the community affairs of Malians living abroad. Niambele personally took the bodies of the Magassa families back to Mali for burial.

It also brought outsiders, in. The day of the fire, Highbridge's parent coordinator Chauncy Young, says he realized, "I don't know these kids, I don't know these parents." He spent the next months, "finding out what the needs of the community was. I started to connect with them for the first time. That's when things really started to open up."

In the months since, Young has collaborated with clerics like Iman Moussa Zaidy Wague of the Masjed Deyaue, to create African-centric health fairs. In January 2008, in response to the fire, FDNY established "Target Five", a fire safety education program targeting areas where criteria like language, poverty level and housing quality determined a high fire risk existed. In the Bronx, Lt. Mancuso conducted fire safety classes with separate sessions for men and women tailored to Muslim beliefs which forbid the sexes intermingling.

Mousa Magassa
With these positive steps, there are also setbacks. On September 12th, citing economic woes, the city shuttered Target Five, though fire safety education continues in the areas. Mousa Magassa, who lost five of his children in the March 8th, 2007 fire says that even without Target Five, the community remains vigilant. "The community always does the best to educate people about what we're supposed to do when something happens. I don't think that it's dropping off," he says, "We've been doing that for a long time."

Cultural hurdles might remain: During the fire, Fatouma Soumare, called her husband Mamadou before she died and exclaimed, "We're on fire!", rather than dialing 911, losing valuable minutes that could have saved her. Niambele attributed her behavior to the polygamist family dynamic that creates a deep conviction that the head of the household "must make every decision," he says.

Most surprising is the failure of both the city and community leadership on one simple step: Translating safety information. FDNY safety literature is in eight languages, but there are no African language translations and no French, the official language of Mali and 32 other nations. Four years ago, said Lt. Mancuso, "we were printing certain things in French, but there didn't seem to be much interest."

When informed of this fact, Niambele said, "I blame ourselves. It's our responsibility as leaders of the community to go to those places where services are provided to people to make them understand that those languages are very important, now that these people are here."

Even so, the impact of translated material is debatable. Many Malian languages don't have a written form, and over 50 percent of Malian women are illiterate, according to the United Nations Children's Fund.

Says Nure, "We have more important things to think about than language. We need power."

Pictures courtesy of the New York Daily News

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