Guyanese in Brooklyn hold all-white candlelight vigil for victims of massive fire

The Stukes sisters, Janessa, 16, left, and Jaydah, 17, perform liturgical dance to loud applause.
The Stukes sisters, Janessa, 16, left, and Jaydah, 17, perform liturgical dance to loud applause.
Photo by Nelson A. King

Guyanese in Brooklyn on Thursday held a solemn, all-white candlelight vigil for the 20 students who perished in a massive fire on May 21 at the Region Eight dormitory of the Mahdia Secondary School in Guyana.

Police in Guyana said they plan to charge a secondary school girl with arson in the death of her schoolmates, when she allegedly set the dormitory on fire.

Head of the Criminal Investigations Department in Guyana, Assistant Police Commissioner Wendell Blanhum, said the department arrived at the decision after seeking legal advice.

Dr. Rose October, one of the principal members of the organizing group, “A Guyanese Network,” said the notion to organize the vigil in Brooklyn was initiated by her compatriot, Ervin Washington, who served as Master of Ceremonies at the two-odd, hour-long event on Schenectady Avenue, between Church and Snyder avenues.

“A few of us, concerned with what’s going on in Guyana, got together,” said Dr. October, a dancer, choreographer and actress, who spearheaded the planning of the program that comprised members of several Guyanese religious organizations, including Indigenous People, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. They each offered prayers.

Behike Atunwa Gypsie Running Cloud represented the Principle Medicine Carrier of the Higuayagua Community; Pandit Ram Hardowar, president of the Federation of Mandirs, represented the Hindus; Iman Shaykh Safraz Bacchus, represented Masjid Al Abidin (Muslim); and Bishop Dr. Kennard Davis, represented the Truth Center of Higher Consciousness (Christian).

“This is a very solemn moment in the history of Guyana,” Dr. October told the ceremony. “We have to show empathy, to show that we care.

“It’s a very packed program – one that will lead us in a very positive way,” she added.

A moment’s silence was observed for each victim of the fire after their names were called aloud.

Dr. Rose October.
Dr. Rose October. Photo by Nelson A. King

Tributes were also paid in speeches, songs, pan and dance.

“I invite you to join with me in prayers, as we pray for the 20 young innocent lives, the ones suffering from pains and burns, the families who have suffered,” said Pandit Hardowar. “Our heart and prayers also go to those families who are still trying to find answers.

“Be gracious and mindful, O Lord; kindly accept them in your healing hands – all the children hospitalized,” he prayed. “May you touch the hearts of the children. Give strength to the family members [and] the wisdom to lead their community. You are our refuge; protect us all.”
Before offering prayers, Imam Safraz Bacchus asked that those energies be channeled “to offer words of comfort.”

“Bless those who mourn that they’ll face each day with hope,” he prayed. “We hope you grant us comfort. We hope and pray that you bless us and have mercy upon us.”

Bishop Davis said: “We will pray that what happens from this situation [tragedy], we’ll learn from it. Too many things are too divided because of ethnicity. We’re human beings dwelling together in harmony.”

Then, he prayed: “Today, we pray that we will get an understanding of the power of love. We will not look at the divisions we have, but we’ll share with the love that we have.

“Each one of us has gathered with a heavy heart,” Bishop Davis prayed. “Into thy hands I place each and everyone. I know for each one of us, you’ll provide comfort. Let us love God, but, to each, love one another.”

Afterwards, David McRae, of the Revelation Band, sang, while playing on keyboards, among other songs and hymns, “Goodness of God”; “How Great Thou Art”; “Lord, We Lift Your Name On High”; and “Amazing Grace.”

Flanked by District Leader Edu Hermelyn, husband of Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, Councilwoman Farah Louis said she was “heartbroken when she read the story about the fatal fire.

“I come to stand in solidarity with all the families affected by what I consider to be a massacre,” said the representative for the 45th Council District in Brooklyn, where the vigil was held.

Master of Ceremonies, Ervin Washington.
Master of Ceremonies, Ervin Washington. Photo by Nelson A. King

Fazal “Joe” Yussuff, investment and Diaspora officer at the Consulate General of Guyana to New York, said: “When 20 young kids have lost their lives, there’s no sufficient words to explain. There are not enough words to comfort the parents.

“This brings us together,” he said. “It teaches us to love. Just the thought of these kids is heart-wrenching.

“This [vigil] shows our unity, our love for humanity and our love for country,” Yussuff added.

Sookranie Dhanpat, South Asian Community Liaison in the Community Affairs Unit, New York City Office of the Mayor, said: “As a mother, I cannot imagine what those parents are going through.”

Amid the tragedy, Patricia Jordan-Langford, president of the Guyana Tri-State Alliance, said: “It’s time that we think of love; it’s time that we change our ways. Rejoice in the fact that God is here.”

District 17 Leader Sherif Fraser said, “Losing a child is an unimaginable pain. In the midst of the parents’ overwhelming grief, Deuteronomy 31 reminds us: ‘… He will not leave you nor forsake you.’

“Parents, we want you to know that the Guyanese community stands with you,” she added. “We stand with you, our Indigenous Community.

“So, we ask for continuous support,” Fraser continued. “We pray for the families. May they be granted the strength they need.”

Among other performers, Ronald Caulker played “Winds Beneath My Wing” on trumpet; Michael Williams played “My Mind Made Up” and “I’m Under the Rock” on pan; and the Stukes sisters, Jaydah, 17, and Janessa, 16, danced liturgically, to loud applause, to “You Raised Me Up.”

The Barbados-based Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) reported on May 29 that the alleged arsonist was reportedly communicating with a man, and that the girl allegedly started the fire after the dorm mother and a teacher had seized her phone.

“The girl is older than 14 years old and would be charged as an adult,” reported CMC, adding that Guyana President Irfaan Ali has promised a Commission of Inquiry into the fire, and that the main opposition party has since demanded that it and other stakeholders be involved in the selection of the members of the Commission and the crafting the terms of reference.

“According to the opposition, this, will allow for broad acceptance and credibility of the process,” CMC said.