Escaping a war-torn country to start a life somewhere else carries scars — financially, emotionally and physically. Musa Barry has those scars. His effort to start a new life in America comes with memories of having most of his family assassinated in the civil strife that rocked his native Libera from 1989 to 2003; being imprisoned for four months upon his arrival in the U.S. because he had an incorrect visa; and almost losing an arm from a car accident in Sierra Leone when he returned to Africa to visit family members.
Now, the 49-year-old Barry has established himself as a business leader in the southwest section of Philly dubbed Little Africa due to the dominance of West African and Caribbean immigrants. Since arriving in the Woodland Avenue section of the city in 2003, Barry opened four retail stores, notably with the help of Community First Fund and support from friends. He’s also president of the Woodland Avenue Business Association, helping other immigrants navigate the challenges of building businesses in America.
Barry’s journey from being an immigrant from a collapsed country to a thriving businessman in the U.S. is one of the strongest examples of CDFIs fulfilling their purpose of breathing financial life into underserved communities and uplifting struggling entrepreneurs. Community First “supported my business and helped me be where I am today,” Barry says.
Southwest Philadelphia is said to be home to 15,000 Liberians, the largest concentration of Liberians than any other city in the country. The civil war in Liberia claimed 300,000 lives and drove thousands of Liberians to places in America like Philly. Over the years, the Philly community attracted other immigrants from other West African countries, such as Senegal, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, earning its “Little Africa” moniker.
Barry, who worked as a tailor in his own clothing shop in Liberia, fled to the U.S. and opened his first store, Uncle Musa’s Grocery Store, in 2013 on Woodland Avenue. He eventually owned four stores, employing 12 workers. One, a tire shop, was closed during the pandemic and another is closed for repairs. Barry’s entrepreneurial success came after working a menial job at a car wash, from which he was fired when his work visa expired. Barry also recalls getting in a car crash in Sierra Leone when he returned to Africa to see some family members. He feared he would lose an arm from the accident. He had to rush back to the U.S. for proper medical treatment to save his limb.
“My shoulder was broken, my arms were broken, my three fingers were broken,” he recalls.
He also separated from his wife during that time. “I had nothing,” he says. “Then I was thinking what to do with my life.”
(Photo courtesy of Musa Barry)
Now, Uncle Musa’s Grocery is one of the most notable enterprises on Woodland Avenue. The products Barry sells are varied. His customers can get fresh food, medicine, beauty products and shipping containers, used mainly by customers to ship items back to Africa. Barry imports his products from his hometown of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. The West African store owners in Little Africa also support each other when they can — Barry might sell another owner excess oils and or buy yams from another if they have more than they can sell.
Barry was turned down by a traditional bank when he wanted to start his store. After the loan from his friend, he turned to Community First Fund, which merged with FINANTA in 2013. He also joined the fund’s Affinity Group Lending Program, which provided hands-on technical assistance as well as loans to help with inventory and working capital. AGL has provided Barry with several additional business loans over the years, and intends to continue to do so, according to Page Huey, community microlender with Community First. The fund makes loans from $600 to $25,000.
“He’s very business savvy,” Huey says, explaining why the fund found him an attractive investment. “He’s been a fantastic client to work with.”
Huey’s appreciation of Barry’s business acumen extends to his leadership of the Woodland Avenue Business Association. “I appreciate his insights and listen to his suggestions about what we can do to provide appropriate support for what they’re doing in the community,” she says.
For his part, Barry says he didn’t seek the presidency of the association, but he was voted in by a racially diverse swarth of the Little Africa community. He counts among his supporters people who are “African, Caribbean, white and Spanish,” says Barry, who speaks, among English, German, Spanish, a bit of French and three African dialects. However reluctantly initially, he now relishes his role of passing on what he’s learned to younger entrepreneurs and fellow business owners, even as his personal goal is to continue opening stores.
This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is generously supported by Partners for the Common Good. Sign up for PCG’s CapNexus newsletter at capnexus.org.
Christopher C. Williams is a New Jersey-based freelance financial writer. He worked for many years with Dow Jones Newswires and Barron’s Financial Weekly and has contributed to publications including the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Essence magazine. He focuses on the intersection of business, economic equity and racial justice.