by Constance Garcia-Barrio
When Portia Kamara came to the U.S. from Liberia in 1985, the unrest that led to two civil wars had already begun. She was 23 years old, with a B.A. in sociology from the University of Liberia in Monrovia, and went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from Temple University.
For 15 years she was a social worker and supervisor with the Philadelphia County Department of Human Services in Pennsylvania. In 2003, she and her husband, Gore Kamara, founded Multicultural Community Family Services, Inc. (MCFS), a nonprofit aimed at helping the increasing number of African immigrants and refugees settling in the Philadelphia area. Many were fleeing civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, the Ivory Coast and other African countries, and the resulting famine, political and ethnic oppression, torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of citizens, according to the MCFS website.
Among the often scant belongings immigrants bring are memories and values, heirlooms of the heart, which guide seniors in making a home abroad. However, life in a new country may also require empathetic and culturally sensitive service providers. That’s where MCFS plays a part.
“I know first-hand that culturally sensitive services can make all the difference,” said Kamara. She says there are multiple layers of need resulting, not only from adjustment to a new culture, but also from the traumas immigrants from these war-torn nations have experienced.
“Take the case of my sister, who was visiting from Liberia,” Kamara said. “We were in my home in the bedroom when a firecracker exploded. My sister dove under the bed. Agencies must know that immigrants may carry that kind of terror. It can complicate adjusting to a new country.”
Language is another challenge. “We have 16 ethnic languages in Liberia,” Kamara said. “English is the official language, but an accent may pose a problem in talking with traditional social service providers. Young people pick up American English easily, but it’s harder for older immigrants. Besides, others may judge you on how you speak. Being understood can make the difference between being given or denied services. That’s crucial in the case of health care.”
Good communication can make or break not only physical but emotional health. “Take the case of a Liberian immigrant who had come from a hospital to a nursing home but wanted to return to his own house,” Kamara said. “A friend who wanted to be his chief supporter at home tried to present her plan to help him, but the nursing home staff couldn’t fully understand her.
“Through Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA) we took a multi-step approach. PCA went out and assessed the house to see what was needed, and his family and friend received training in caring for him. Now he is back in his home, back in his familiar community and much happier.
Through PCA’s Training Department, Kamara provides workshops for employees of both PCA and other agencies in the aging network on how to better serve African and Caribbean seniors. She starts the trainings with an overview of the food, music, spiritual practices and other aspects of the cultures she’s discussing.
“I invite participating staff and agencies to pinpoint strengths of a community and how those assets might help solve a problem,” she said. “We create a new, broader lens through which to approach a situation.”
Among the topics addressed are family structure; spiritual beliefs; and differences between Africans and African-Americans. “It’s important that cultural awareness becomes second nature to providers of senior services,” Kamara said.
For information about Multicultural Community Family Services, Inc., visit www.mcfsorg.com; call 484-461-8660; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Mt. Airy freelance writer Constance Garcia-Barrio, a frequent contributor to the Local, taught Spanish for many years at West Chester University. This article was reprinted, with permission, from Milestones, the publication of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.