International news reports depicting Sierra Leone's latest devastation silenced the room.
For a nation battered by civil war, and more recently by the Ebola virus, last week's massive mudslide came as yet another terrible blow. Torrential rains unleashed flooding that ravaged the West African nation's capital of Freetown, where the death toll has surpassed 400 — and continues to climb as bodies are pulled from debris and wash up on shore. More than 600 others are unaccounted for, and thousands of people have been displaced.
Images of the disaster brought home the harsh reality to the Twin Cities' West African community Saturday as a few dozen people met at the Hennepin County Library in Brooklyn Center to discuss outreach efforts for victims.
"We have to keep our heads up to make sense of it," said Karifa Jalloh, executive director of Sierra Leone Community in Minnesota (SLCM), a nonprofit serving Sierra Leonean immigrants living in the state. "It didn't give us any warning to prepare."
Less than three years after the Ebola outbreak, which killed thousands in the poor country, SLCM was again asking the community to dig in their pockets for donations to help pay for food, clothing and medicine to support survivors. The money will go directly to the victims, many of whom lost everything and are now destitute. No amount was too small, organizers assured people as they passed cash to the front.
A panel of community leaders spoke of the resiliency of their people. Kwao Amegashie, president of the West African Collaborative, assured neighbors that it is time for all African nations to join hands over the humanitarian crisis.
"What happens in one country can easily happen in another," Amegashie said. "It behooves us to work together."
More than 40,000 immigrants from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea live in the metro area, one of the largest West African enclaves in the United States. Mamie I. Sowa of Brooklyn Center came to Minnesota 20 years ago. On Saturday, she was grieving her half-brother, Vincent, swept away in the mudslide.
"My heart is bleeding," said Sowa, who could not afford to attend Vincent's funeral. "I wish I could go pay my last respects."
The siblings attended the University of Sierra Leone, where Vincent studied law. He later joined the military and was building a new home for his wife and four children in Freetown. They were staying in his military quarters outside town when it collapsed.
As of Saturday evening, a GoFundMe page for flood victims had raised about $1,330 toward a $10,000 goal. Noah Janneh, chairman of the Sierra Leone National Youth Organization, said he hopes to coordinate a charity concert next month.
"Where I'm from, Sierra Leoneans are all brothers and sisters," he said. "When something happens to one, it happens to all of us."