Early last Sunday morning, Ebrima Dukureh, 60, answered a phone call at his home in the Gambian town of Allunhari.
It was his nephew, Haji Dukureh, 49, calling from New York City, to check in — as he often did. The two men caught up on news, asked after each other’s families and exchanged blessings.
“May God protect us, may God give us peace,” they prayed.
When the call dropped out after a few minutes, Haji sent a voice note: “I might be delayed sending back money, but if you need anything or there is an emergency, tell me immediately, don’t wait.”
It was the last time Ebrima would hear his voice.
Eight of the victims were children, and most of them had intimate links to families in this tiny West African country. Sunday night’s tragedy in New York has plunged communities on both sides of the Atlantic into grief and consternation.
Haji had lived in New York for 17 years, and was one of many Gambians — most with roots in Allunhari and another town, Soma — who lived in the block at 333 East 181st Street. The 19-storey building had since the 1980s been a landing spot for Gambians and other West Africans seeking a better life in the US.
Ebrima’s eyes were still red from tears as he reached for his phone and swiped through pictures of Haji and his family. Although they were close in age, Ebrima had become a father figure for Haji when his parents died.
And in a culture where personal success also means success for the family and wider community, Haji had stayed in close contact after he emigrated.
Most families in Allunhari survive on limited means, reliant on farming — and remittances from sons, daughters, husbands and wives who have left to seek their fortunes in other African countries or farther afield.
Pointing to a stack of rice sacks in a store that Haji had paid for earlier this month, Ebrima said that his nephew sent money every month for food, school fees and other expenses.
“He was obedient, he was always reaching out to me, helping the family,” he said.
Haji earned modest wages doing “night-time work” in New York, said Ebrima, but he also sent money to extended family members and even neighbours when they held celebrations.
Such payments can have an outsized impact in a country where about 48% of the population live in poverty, according to the UN. According to the Gambia’s central bank, remittances to the country are worth 20% of its GDP.
The fire has stunned the people of Allunhara. There has been no official declaration of mourning, but grief from the deaths has gripped the entire town.
Televisions were muted and groups of people sat in the shade in a sombre mood. Along the roadside, where pounding music normally blares from loudspeakers, welders worked in silence.
“Such a thing has never happened here,” said one passerby. “Entire families perishing — when have we witnessed that?”
In Soma, a few hours to the west, well-wishers streamed into the compound of the Tunkara family. Some brought food, money or gifts. Others just sat and remembered 41-year-old Fatoumata Tunkara and her 13-year-old son, Omar, who both died in the fire.
Aji Mama Tunkara, 71, pulled out fraying photographs of her sister, in Soma, where she was born, and in New York, where she moved about 20 years ago.
“I did not have any child and after two years our late mother gave me the responsibility to raise her. She was not only a sister but like my child,” she said.
Fatoumata had also helped the family, sending monthly remittances, which helped their lives improve.
“She was the pillar of the family. I spoke to her hours before she died,” said Tunkara. “But now it seems our situation will get worse.”
Fatoumata, who worked two jobs in New York, did not live in the building where the blaze occurred but her childminder looked after Omar there, said Jaha Dukureh, a prominent human rights activist who was born in Soma and now lives in Atlanta.
“When she went to pick him up it was very late so she decided to stay — and then the fire happened,” Dukureh said.
“It’s important to highlight that she had two daughters, two sons and she was all her kids had,” she said. “The people who died aren’t people who lived a luxurious life. It’s really sad to see them living in such conditions and dying in the way that they did.”
Home Away From Home
Jaha Dukureh, who campaigned to have female genital mutilation banned in her home country, said that support from the Gambian community — both in the U.S. and abroad — has been profound. But she added that the families affected by the blaze would need much more help.
Fatoumata’s daughter had set up a GoFundMe page for donations, Dukureh said, to look after her siblings, now living with a relative.
“Fatoumata cared about her children, she was always smiling, always laughing. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as gentle as she was,” Dukureh said.
For many Gambians, the Bronx felt like a home away from home.
“The community has everything that you need: you have the African stores, the products. You can’t step outside without speaking to your people. That’s what makes this place a place you’d want to come to. It’s also what makes this a tragedy.”
In Soma and Allunhar, there were mixed feelings about whether the bodies of their relatives should be returned to the Gambia to be buried or buried in New York.
“Bringing the corpses to Allunhari will be more devastating because we have never witnessed such a tragedy,” said Haji Dakureh’s aunt Aja Musa Njie. “The vacuum left behind by Haji cannot be filled by anyone.”
This story was originally published in the Guardian.