Prince Valcarcel shown in better days with friends and former co-workers Antonio Lanzarotta and Melvin Munoz. Photo: Nate Adams.
[Column: Righting Wrongs]
Last Monday, Sierra Leone immigrant and New York City resident Prince Valcarcel got a call from his niece, Yvette who had gone home on July 27 to bury her father who had recently died.
He knew she was devastated by his death but there was added anguish and horror in the tone of her voice. “She was crying on the phone and couldn’t talk. I comforted her. But then she said there was ‘more bad news,” Valcarcel recalled when we spoke.
The “more bad news” Yvette could barely bring herself to reveal was the devastating mud slide that has claimed the lives of at least 500 people, possibly more, outside Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
Hundreds of victims have been buried in mass graves as the authorities fear an outbreak of cholera as a result of corpses contaminating the water. Estimates of missing people range from 800 to 3,000.
Valcarcel and his niece lost at least six relatives and this number could increase. “My niece went home to bury one person. Now she has to plan a funeral for seven people,” Valcarcel says.
Some of Valcarcel’s relatives were praying when they were buried in the mudslide which traveled as long as two miles after part of a hill collapsed in Regent, outside the capital, swallowing about 100 homes. “My late brother Reverend Dr. Sylvanus Valcarcel helped plant the church in this area,” Valcarcel said, breaking down, while sharing the news. “The members of the church were having all night-prayers when this happened and they are presumed dead.”
The church is the Faith Healing Bible Church/Emanuel Baptist Church of Matomeh community, Regent, Freetown. “I can’t even watch the pictures Yvette has been sending me,” Valcarcel says.
Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, is located near Regent, the epicenter of the disaster where the earth came sliding down, Monday. Deforestation leading to soil erosion, over-construction, and global warming are reported as factors in the disaster.
Valcarcel says some people in Sierra Leone were always worried and believed the area where the disaster happened was supposed to be a green zone with no construction of buildings allowed. He says but government officials were selling land to people in the area. “They got blood money. There were not supposed to be homes there,” he says.
The country’s information and broadcasting services minister Mohammed Bangura, who’s believed to have owned a home in the affected area, was also injured in the mudslide and hospitalized. Some people survived the thick dark orange sea of mud making it’s way downhill by scampering to the roof of houses that were not submerged. “Entire communities have been wiped out,” Ernest Bai Koroma, Sierra Leone’s president said, this week. It’s been a tough year for Valcarcel.
His brother, Rev. Valcarcel, who was 73, died three months ago of an enlarged heart. In addition to being the pastor of Emanuel Baptist church he was head of the faculty at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Freetown, he said. Like most African immigrants Valcarcel, who has lived in the United States for 20 years now works hard and sends about $6,000 back home each year for the feeding, the education and the medical care of several relatives.
When Yvette went home to bury her father, Valcarcel gave her $4,000 all the money in his savings, he says. Now with the new tragedy he finds himself backed into a corner. “I would like to go home and help with the burial and to also mourn my relatives and help dig for any missing bodies. But I have no money left for the funeral and I can’t afford a plane ticket back home,” he said.
I have known Valcarcel for many years since I first wrote a story about how he had mobilized co-workers to stand up to an employer here in New York who was allegedly subjecting them to discrimination and how their own union 32BJ SEIU was a no-show in their struggle.
He’s one of the most upright and honest person that I’ve met; a very calm and measured individual. But when I met with him on Tuesday, one look told me that he had bad news. He wept like a child as he recounted the story from Yvette and showed me some of the pictures she sent. “It’s alright,” I reassured him. “We are all allowed to shed tears.”
Sierra Leone has had its share of recent tragedy. Two years ago, it was one of three West African countries — the other two being Guinea and Liberia — that suffered the worst outbreak of Ebola in the region. With support of well-wishers from around the world –including Cuba’s heroic decision to deploy hundreds of doctors to the affected countries — it was on its way to recovery.
Most Americans became familiar with the country after the film “Blood Diamond” which highlighted Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war years ago that was largely fueled by greedy diamond merchants, mostly in Europe.
Once again, the country will need all its friends from other African countries and around the world to rally behind it with any support, especially to help survivors get back on their feet. Valcarcel says the country’s officials have a bad track record when it comes to handling donations from around the world for relief efforts and he recommends people who want to help to research independent organizations.
Editor’s Note: Anyone who is in a position to help Valcarcel in anyway please contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org
He also has a GoFundMe Page:
For those who want to donate to organizations that have already launched operations in Sierra Leone consider:
has launched “Project Cholera Help for Sierra Leone”
Attn: Mr. Sidique Wai (718) 637-9703