Leaders of Arizona's Liberian community said Sunday they're worried about stereotypes of the West African nation and potential backlash against its people in the aftermath of an 8-year-old girl's alleged rape by four boys.
The leaders spoke of their concerns to a congregation of Liberians during a Sunday church service at Africa Faith Expressions in west Phoenix. The girl's family is among its members.
Police say four boys, ages 9 to 14, lured the girl to an empty
storage shed July 16 with the promise of chewing gum. Investigators
say the boys then restrained the girl and took turns sexually assaulting her.
All the children are Liberian refugees.
News reports of the attack have included inaccurate descriptions that rape and those who commit it are accepted in Liberia, said Robert Sherman, president of the Liberian Association of Arizona.
He told the congregation he is committed to dispelling those reports and preventing any backlash against the community.
Two pastors who spoke during the Christian service urged community members to pray for all the children involved and their families, with one pastor telling them that Jesus is behind every storm. "Amen," members of the congregation responded.
Afterward, Sherman told The Associated Press that the rape shocked and outraged Liberians in Arizona and throughout the world.
"This thing that happened in Arizona has reverberated across the Liberian community everywhere, in the nation and overseas," he said. "Our concern is if it is not rebutted, it will have ramifications beyond Arizona."
Sherman said such backlash could include employment or housing
discrimination against Liberians.
He said the public needs to understand the alleged rape was an
isolated incident, and was not representative of the entire
James Nyemah, the church's pastor and spokesman for the girl's
family, said rape was widespread in Liberia only during its 14
years of civil war.
"To blame the whole nation for the terrible things that
happened during that time is a misrepresentation of the Liberian
people," Nyemah said.
Across Africa, militiamen, rebels and government armies have
used rape as a weapon of war. After Liberia began its descent into
civil war in 1989, rebels would gang-rape girls and take them as
"wives" to service multiple commanders. Thousands of rapes went
But much has changed in six years of peace there. Liberia has
made efforts to combat rape under the leadership of President Ellen
Johnson Sirleaf, who has sought to dispel the stigma associated
with sexual assault by publicly acknowledging that she was herself
the victim of attempted rape during the country's civil war.
Still, in some parts of Africa, women often are blamed for being
raped by enticing men or simply being in the wrong place at the
wrong time. Girls who are raped often are shunned by their
The alleged attack in Phoenix ignited an international outcry
after police reported that the girl's father said he was ashamed of
her. Nyemah later said it all was the result of a misunderstanding.
The girl is now in foster care.
A county grand jury on Friday indicted the 14-year-old boy on
one count of kidnapping, one count of sexual assault, one count of
attempted sexual conduct with a minor, and four counts of sexual
conduct with a minor.
Prosecutors have charged the 14-year-old as an adult, while the
other boys - ages 9, 10 and 13 - have been charged in juvenile
court with sexual assault. The 10- and 13-year-olds also have been
charged with kidnapping.
All four boys were arrested July 21. Their identities are being
withheld because of their ages.