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A Tragic Fire in the Bronx Brings Together an Immigrant Community

Thirteen people were killed a year ago, many of them immigrants from Ghana.

At Blessed Hope Assembly of God, a storefront church in the Bronx where immigrants from many lands come to worship, the loss of two of its most devoted parishioners is keenly felt a year after Justice Opoku and Gabriel Sarkodie, brothers from Ghana, were killed in one of the borough’s deadliest fires.

“There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think of them,” said Pastor Caesar Adafia of Sarkodie, 48, an Uber driver, and Opoku, 54, a nursing home attendant, who had shared an apartment at 2363 Prospect Ave. in the Belmont section, a short walk from church.

The brothers were among 13 people killed on Dec. 28, 2017 when a fire started by a toddler playing with a stove spread quickly through the Prospect Avenue building on a bitterly cold night.

The church has hung brass plaques engraved with the brothers’ names at spots where they were fixtures. “Master Musician,” reads Sarkodie’s plaque on the electric piano he played during services. “Our God is Good” is etched on Opoku’s, attached to the pew where he reliably was found each Sunday.

“They were very jovial and kind,” Adafia said. “They did everything together.”

The Blessed Hope Assembly of God church has hung this plaque to honor Gabriel Sarkodie, a parishioner who was among 13 people killed in the Dec. 28, 2017 fire. Credit: Vera Haller for Documented.

Six victims from Ghana

Six of the fire’s victims were Ghanaian immigrants, including the brothers’ roommate, Solomon Donkor, 49, a taxi driver, and Donkor’s children, Hannah, 17, and William, 13, who had joined him only a few months earlier from Ghana.

“He was so happy to have them,” said neighbor Emelia Acheampong, 41, another Ghanaian immigrant who, along with her husband and four young children, was rescued from a fire escape outside their third-floor apartment. “When they arrived, I sent over a big platter of rice and meat and said, ‘Give this to your children.’”

The sixth Ghanaian was Pfc. Emmanuel Mensah, a 26-year-old U.S. Army reservist who was visiting friends in the building. Hailed as a hero, Mensah made three trips into the burning building to save residents. The fourth time he did not make it out.

“He was identified by his dog tags,” said Catherine Cudjoe, president of the National Ghana Parade Council, a community organization that supports the Ghanaian community in New York. She comforted his father, Kwabena Mensah, in the aftermath of the fire and has grown close to him in the months since.

“He was his father’s dream,” she said of the younger Mensah, who was honored for his bravery posthumously with an Army Soldier’s Medal and New York State Medal of Honor.

People who knew the victims and their families described them as hard-working immigrants who persevered through hardships and separations and aspired to build lives filled with family and success.  

The Rev. Caesar Adafia, pastor of the Blessed Hope Assembly of God, has raised money for the families in Ghana of his former parishioners, brothers Gabriel Sarkodie and Justice Opoku. Credit: Vera Haller for Documented.

About to expand the Uber business

According to Adafia, the brothers had been in the process of buying a new car to expand Sarkodie’s Uber business so he could make enough money to bring his wife, Joyce, and children, Yolanda, 6, and George, 8, to New York from Ghana.

Opoku had been collecting presents for a daughter, one of four adult children in Ghana, whose wedding he had planned to attend in January, the pastor said.

Donkor had been looking for an apartment of his own where he could settle with his children, according to Cudjoe, who added that Mensah’s father told her that his son had hoped one day to become a pilot.

Cudjoe, who speaks regularly on the phone with Joyce, and Adafia have rallied to help the victims’ relatives in Ghana.

“Gabriel and Justice were the breadwinners for the families,” said Adafia, who helped arrange for the brothers’ bodies to be returned to Ghana for burial. “Now that they are no more, we have to step in.”

He said that in the past year, the church has taken three collections for the brothers’ families from the congregation, which numbers about 50 and includes immigrants from Ivory Coast, Jamaica and Guyana. Each time, they raised about $1,500, shared between the families, he said.

GoFundMe raised $300,000

More help has come from the wider community. In the days after the fire, the Rev. Jonathan Morris of Belmont’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church started a GoFundMe drive to raise money for the fire victims. It took in nearly $300,000.

To distribute the funds, the priest enlisted Catholic Charities of the Bronx to set up a case management system to find the families who lived in the building and figure out what they needed. In all, 26 households were identified.

Initially, he said, money went to the displaced so they could buy clothes and toiletries. Later, as residents found new homes, funds helped buy furniture or cover rent. Money also was earmarked for the relatives of the deceased, including those in Africa, Morris said.

“The men were here supporting their families back home and they died,” the priest said. “The people in need were not the cousins here, but the wife and children who were back in Ghana. To figure that all out was a really a complex situation.”

Cudjoe said Sarkodie’s wife has been in touch with Catholic Charities and was awaiting funds. She did not know the exact amount, but said his wife expected to receive several thousand dollars.

Also aided by Catholic Charities were Acheampong, her husband, Nana Yartel, and their children, aged 10, 8, 6 and 4. After spending months living in hotels, first in Queens and then Westchester County, the charity helped the family settle into an apartment in Belmont, close to their children’s schools.

They are grateful for the support they received. “They are caring and loving people,” said Yartel, a home health aide. “God bless America.”

Adafia said the tragedy also drove home to his churchmembers the importance of helping others. After the fire, more parishioners began participating in a longstanding tradition of Thursday “phone chain,” when they call each other to make sure all are fine. “It has made us stronger,” he said.

A Sunday that never came

On a Sunday about a week before this Christmas, Adafia and his wife, Monique, arrived at the church early to prepare the simple sanctuary—a white room with wooden pews and a few holiday flower arrangements—for the service.

They said the loss of the brothers, who were active andenthusiastic parishioners, was particularly painful this time of year. The last time they saw Sarkodie was just before Christmas last year when he played music for the holiday party. Opoku, who normally attended all the church’s special functions, had been working that day.

Monique Adafia said she texted Sarkodie after the party to tell him that he had forgotten his sunglasses and presents the church hadgotten for his children on the piano. Not to worry, he texted back, he wouldget them next Sunday.

“That Sunday never came for him,” she said. “We are holding onto the sunglasses. He loved them and thought he looked so cool wearing them. We hope someday to give a piece of him to his son.”

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