2020 Great American Immigrants Awards | Eight Africans named among honorees by Carnegie Corporation of New York

By Ebimo Amungo

The Carnegie Corporation of New York has released its annual list of Great American Immigrants and among the 2020 awardees are eight African immigrants born in Nigeria, Eritrea, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan and Ghana, as well as a Canadian born by Ghanaian parents.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a Nigeria Visual Artist; Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a Sudanese Professor of Law; Asmeret Asefaw Berhe an Eritean Professor; Miriam Merad, an Algerian immunology researcher; Afaf I. Meleis, an Egyptian professor of nursing, Moncef Slaoui a Moroccan vacine specialist; Yaa Gyasi a Ghanaian author; and Joy Buolamwini , a Canadian of Ghanaian heritage who is an artificial intelligence researcher at MIT’s Media Lab, were announced among a list of 38 other honourees.


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Every July 4, since 2006, when America celebrates its Independence Day, the Carnegie Corporation honours the legacy of its founder Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish immigrant who rose from poverty to become a leading industrialist, by recognizing an eminent group of immigrants who have made notable contributions to the progress of the American society.

In a statement, Carnegie Corporation said the 2020 honourees were 38 naturalized citizens “who have enriched and strengthened our nation and our democracy through their contributions and actions.”

“Great immigrants have come from different backgrounds and have pursued different worthwhile goals. But collectively, they have shared a desire to become citizens and have made our democratic society stronger. For all of their efforts, we salute them,” President of Carnegie Corporation of New York, Vartan Gregorian said.

The corporation said a third of this year’s honorees are helping the global health crisis recovery efforts by serving as nurses and doctors, as well as scientists who are striving to find effective treatments and a vaccine for Covid-19.

Here are a full biography of the African Honorees on the 2020 list


Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Visual Artist

BORN IN: Nigeria

Njideka Akunyili Crosby was born in Enugu, Nigeria, into a middle-class family. Her mother, a professor of pharmacology, and her father, a surgeon, lived modestly and prioritized the education of their six children. Akunyili Crosby moved to the capital city of Lagos when she was 10 years old to attend a top girls’ boarding school, and found living in the bustling, multicultural metropolis a transformational experience.

Akunyili Crosby came to the United States at age 16. She followed her mother, who wanted to provide her children with the opportunity to be educated abroad and applied to the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which uses a lottery system to select applicants from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States. Her mother would later return to serve in the Nigerian government.

Even though her family wanted her to study medicine, a painting class at a Philadelphia community college convinced Akunyili Crosby to pursue a career in art. She studied biology and art at Swarthmore College, where she met her future husband, Justin Crosby, also an artist. Akunyili Crosby went on to earn a post-baccalaureate certificate at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and an MFA from Yale University School of Art.

Akunyili Crosby’s art reflects her transnational identity. Her collage and photo-transfer paintings combine different patterns and materials, using vibrant colors to explore everything from the postcolonial legacy in Africa to the immigrant experience in the United States. Akunyili Crosby often features her parents, siblings, and husband in her work, providing a deeply personal lens into the complexities of globalization.

Akunyili Crosby has achieved both critical acclaim and financial success. Her work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Hammer Museum, among others. In 2017, Akunyili Crosby’s painting The Beautyful Ones, portraying her older sister as a girl, broke records when it sold at Christie’s for $3.1 million. The next year, she was the second artist selected to create a mural to wrap the exterior of MOCA Grand in Los Angeles. According to the museum, the outdoor initiative “invites views both by pedestrians and through the windows of moving cars on Grand Avenue.” Akunyili Crosby is the winner of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s James Dicke Contemporary Artist Prize, the New Museum’s Next Generation Prize, The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Wein Prize, and the Prix Canson. Named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2017, two years later Akunyili Crosby made the “Time 100 Next” list of rising stars who are shaping the future of the world.

“I think the point I make in my work is that my home is Nigeria and the United States at the same time,” Akunyili Crosby has said. “That really is what it means, for me, to be an immigrant, is this navigation of two worlds at the same time.”


Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im

Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law

BORN IN: Sudan

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im was born in a village on the Nile in Sudan. As a law student in the 1960s at the University of Khartoum, An-Na’im joined a movement led by the Muslim Sufi reformer Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. Taha argued that Islam embraced the equal treatment of women and religious minorities, a view that clashed with strict interpretations of Islamic religious law known as sharia. Taha’s teachings helped An-Na’im reconcile his Islamic beliefs with his commitment to defend human rights, and put him on a lifelong path examining the relationship between the two.

An-Na’im excelled in his studies, winning a scholarship from the University of Khartoum to pursue his postgraduate studies abroad. He went to Scotland and received a PhD in law from the University of Edinburgh. After graduating, An-Na’im returned to the University of Khartoum, where he served as a lecturer and associate professor of law, eventually heading the Department of Public Law.

When Jaafar Nimeiry, then the president of Sudan, began to institute sharia law in the 1980s, Taha and his adherents became targets for persecution. An-Na’im was detained from May 1983 to December 1984 without charge. After Taha was executed in 1985 for sedition and apostacy, An-Na’im fled the country.

At first, An-Na’im held a number of visiting positions, including at the University of California; Los Angeles School of Law; the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; and Uppsala University in Sweden. Although Nimeiry was overthrown shortly after Taha’s execution, a new Islamist regime made An-Na’im’s return impossible. In 1993, An-Na’im became the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Africa Watch (which later became part of Human Rights Watch).

An-Na’im joined the faculty of Emory University School of Law in 1995, where he is currently the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law. An-Na’im is a leading expert on Islam and human rights, Islam and the secular state, constitutionalism in the Arab world, and human rights from a cross-cultural perspective. At Emory, he launched a project on human rights in Africa, a study of how Islamic family law is applied globally, and a fellowship in Islam and human rights.

One of An-Na’im’s central arguments is that human rights should be people-centric rather than state-centric. He maintains that human rights are often used by states to attack each other instead of being universal principles, and that they should be seen as a work in progress, accessible to everyone whose rights are at risk.

An-Na’im is the author of, among others, Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law (1990), African Constitutionalism and the Role of Islam (2006), Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a (2008), Muslims and Global Justice (2010), and What Is an American Muslim? Embracing Faith and Citizenship (2014). His work has been translated to Arabic, Bengali, Indonesian, Persian, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu. An-Na’im’s latest project is the Future of Shari’a, which investigates secularism from an Islamic perspective.

His views are controversial. “If I’m not resisted, I’m not relevant,” An-Na’im told the Unesco Courier. “In my view, human rights should be defined by the people who accept and live by them on the ground, and not imposed by former colonial powers on their former colonies or by delegates of post-colonial states, and international bureaucrats.… We need to go beyond bureaucratic, formulistic ideas — to inspire the imagination of people, and to drive change.”


Asmeret Asefaw Berhe

Professor of Soil Science and Falasco Chair in Earth Sciences, University of California, Merced

BORN IN: Eritrea

Born in Asmara, Eritrea, in northeast Africa, the daughter of a lawyer and a businesswoman, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe earned the nickname “The Professor” as a child because she was inseparable from her books. One of six children, she grew up in the 1980s during Eritrea’s decades-long war of independence from Ethiopia. Despite family upheaval (Berhe’s father was arrested twice and had to flee the country for a period of time), and being forced to switch schools, Berhe continued her education throughout the conflict.

Eritrea achieved its independence in 1991, during Berhe’s freshman year at the University of Asmara. Interrupting her studies to help meet the challenge of the newly independent nation’s teacher shortage, Berhe returned to her old high school to teach English. Graduating from college in 1996 with a BS in soil and water conservation, she was one of only three female students in her department. Berhe came to the United States in the late 1990s to pursue a master’s in political ecology from Michigan State University, an area of study influenced by her experience of growing up in a conflict zone. During her time at Michigan State, Berhe deepened her lifelong interest in the interaction between armed conflict and land degradation, focusing on the effects of post-war landmines on soil. She went on to receive a PhD in biogeochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied how soil stores carbon.

Today, Berhe is the Ted and Jan Falasco Chair in Earth Sciences and professor of soil biogeochemistry at the University of California, Merced. A leading political ecologist, Berhe has put soil at the center of the climate change debate. Even though soil may not get the same level of attention as rainforests, it is a larger captor of carbon than the entirety of the world’s vegetation. However, with half of the world’s soil already eroded, its ability to insulate humanity from the worst effects of climate change is diminishing. Berhe’s research on how damage from erosion, fires, and drought affects the storage of carbon is especially relevant in California, which in recent years has experienced some of the worst droughts and fires in the state’s history. And yet she is optimistic about society’s ability to meet the climate change challenge through better land management, including measures like reforestation and adding carbon to soil with compost. As Berhe explained in a 2019 TED Talk, “Soil … can help us combat climate change if we can only stop treating it like dirt.”

Berhe contributed to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which gauged the impact humans have on the environment, including serving as lead author of its chapter on “Drivers of Change in Ecosystems and Their Services.” That report, which was called for by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, won the Zayed International Prize for the Environment in 2005. Berhe’s other honors include the National Science Foundation CAREER Award. Among her many efforts to ensure more diversity in the science community, Berhe is part of the research team of the National Science Foundation-funded ADVANCEGeo Partnership, which addresses the issue of sexual harassment and other exclusionary behaviors in the earth, space, and environmental sciences. “The more diversity you have in science,” Berhe has said, “the better the quality of the science, and the more relevant science becomes to society.”



Yaa Gyasi

Author

BORN IN: Ghana

Yaa Gyasi was born in Mampong, Ghana, and came to the United States in the early 1990s at age two with her family to join her father, who was finishing his PhD in French at Ohio State University. After moving around, the family finally settled when her father got a tenure-track position at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. As a girl, Gyasi was a voracious reader, and soon began to write her own stories. After discovering the writings of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison as a teenager, Gyasi decided that she wanted to pursue writing as a career. She studied English at Stanford University and earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the prestigious writing program at the University of Iowa.

The idea for Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing(2016) came during the summer of her sophomore year at Stanford, when she went to Ghana on a writing fellowship. It was only her second time visiting the country since she left as a toddler. One of the places she visited was Cape Coast Castle, the site of a slave port that held captured Africans before they were shipped to the Americas. It was a place that Gyasi’s family never mentioned despite its proximity to the town from which her mother came. She was also surprised to learn that not all African women who lived in the castle in the eighteenth century were slaves: some were married to British officers stationed there. Gyasi’s desire to give voice to these women resulted in a sweeping multigenerational novel exploring the legacy of slavery in West Africa and the United States. At just 26, Gyasi won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for Best First Book for Homegoing. Her other honors for the novel include the American Book Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel, and the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature. Homegoing received wide acclaim and made the New York Times’ “100 Notable Books of 2016” list.

Transcendent Kingdom, Gyasi’s second novel, which follows a Ghanaian immigrant family in Alabama, was published in 2020. Gyasi’s fiction and nonfiction writing has also appeared in the African American ReviewGranta, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

In the New York Times review of HomegoingMichiko Kakutani noted that “the book leaves the reader with a visceral understanding of both the savage realities of slavery and the emotional damage that is handed down, over the centuries.” Gyasi sees her work as part of an effort to encourage a deeper discussion of the complex legacy of slavery and colonialism in Ghana, the United States, and around the world: “I hope that we can start to have a longer view of our history and how that informs the way that we treat people in the present.”


Miriam Merad

Director of the Precision Immunology Institute, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

BORN IN: Algeria

Miriam Merad was born in Paris, France, where her Algerian parents were finishing their medical studies. Her parents moved the family back to Algeria in the 1970s to take part in the newly independent country’s efforts to build up its medical and scientific institutions, and as children, Merad and her three siblings spent a lot of time in the hospital where her parents worked long hours. Thanks to this experience, Merad learned to respect the “transformational power of science,” and watching her parents commit to serving a larger cause inspired her own pursuit of medicine. Merad completed her MD at the University of Algiers and her residency in hematology and oncology in Paris.

In 1998, Merad came to the United States to pursue her research in the emerging cancer vaccine field. She completed her PhD in immunology, in collaboration between Stanford University and University of Paris VII. Stanford’s fruitful research environment and cutting-edge technology made her reconsider a planned return to France.

Following graduation, Merad was recruited by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, where her research on macrophages (white cells that defend against bacteria and play an important role in immune system regulation) and dendritic cells (tree-like cells that guard against bacteria and viruses) has had a profound impact on the treatment of cancer and holds promise for the development of cancer vaccines.

Merad is currently the Mount Sinai Endowed Professor in Cancer Immunology and director of the Precision Immunology Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She also coleads the Cancer Immunology Program at the Mount Sinai Tisch Cancer Institute and is director of the Mount Sinai Human Immune Monitoring Center (HIMC).

Merad is leading efforts at Mount Sinai to understand why some people develop more severe forms of COVID-19 while others do not. She coauthored a study, published in Nature, exploring the role of hyperinflammatory response in exacerbating disease severity, and also developed a rapid test to monitor a patient’s inflammatory response to the virus. Her team is currently running a clinical trial of the drug sarilumab to investigate its ability to control that inflammatory response. Merad has authored more than 170 papers and reviews in high-profile journals, including a seminal 2010 Science study on the origin of macrophages. Among her many honors are the Leukemia Research Foundation Award and the William B. Colley Award for Distinguished Research in Tumor Immunology. In 2020, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.


Moncef Slaoui

Physician, Vaccine Researcher, and Chief Advisor, Operation Warp Speed

BORN IN:
Morocco

Moncef Slaoui was born in Agadir, Morocco, and grew up in Casablanca. Even though both of his parents had only high school educations, they were dedicated to creating educational opportunities for their five children. The death of his younger sister from whooping cough as a child motivated Slaoui to study biology and medicine.

Slaoui earned an undergraduate degree in biology and a PhD in molecular biology and immunology from Free University of Brussels. He came to the United States to pursue postdoctoral studies at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University School of Medicine.

During a nearly 30-year career at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), including a position as head of research and development, Slaoui oversaw the development of a number of vaccines, including vaccines to prevent cervical cancer, gastroenteritis, shingles, pneumococcal disease, and Ebola. Slaoui spent 27 years researching a vaccine for malaria. Although largely eradicated in developed countries, malaria still kills more than 400,000 people annually — most of them children in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2015, Mosquirix, the world’s first vaccine for the dreaded disease, was approved by the European Medical Agency. “I cried — it’s very personal,” Slaoui recalled on hearing the news of the vaccine’s approval after his decades-long quest. He retired from GSK in 2017. Two years later, the first doses of the malaria vaccine Slaoui and his team at GSK had developed were administered to children in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi in a World Health Organization–coordinated pilot program.

In May 2020, Slaoui was tapped by President Trump as chief advisor for Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government interagency effort to accelerate development of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. The goal is the delivery of 300 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by January 2021, and Congress has thus far allocated almost $10 billion to support the effort. Operation Warp Speed is upending the way vaccines are normally developed. Protocols for the vaccine trials will be overseen by the federal government rather than by drug companies. Furthermore, large-scale manufacturing of the most promising vaccines will begin well before the demonstration of vaccine safety and efficacy, helping to ensure that vaccines that are successful during the later phases of human trials will be available to the public more quickly.

Reflecting on immigrants’ contributions to American life, Slaoui recently said: “Immigration is a source of talent, innovation, diversity, energy, and renewal to all societies, and has been a key element underpinning the successes that the United States has enjoyed over the past decades — if not centuries.”


Afaf I. Meleis

Professor of Nursing and Sociology and Dean Emerita, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing

BORN IN: Egypt

Afaf Meleis was born and grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. Deeply influenced by the city’s multicultural environment, she was inspired to go into nursing by her mother, a pioneering nurse who helped establish graduate programs for nurses in the Middle East.

After earning her undergraduate nursing degree at the University of Alexandria, Meleis came to the United States in the early 1960s to study at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). After obtaining two master’s degrees, one in public health and the other in medical sociology, Meleis stayed on at UCLA to pursue her PhD in medical and social psychology.

During her five decades as an educator, Meleis has been a mentor to hundreds of nursing students all over the world. For over three decades, starting in the 1970s, Meleis taught at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). In the 1980s, UCSF instituted one of the country’s first graduate programs in nursing in the United States, and Meleis became a champion of such programs. In 1985, Meleis published Theoretical Nursing: Development and Progress, a groundbreaking book employing a post-colonial, feminist analysis that is taught in nursing programs all over the world and is in its sixth edition. Throughout her career, she encouraged women she mentored to advocate for their rights and for women’s health.

From 2002 to 2014, Meleis was the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, one of the world’s top nursing schools. There she became known as the “Energizer Dean” due to her unwavering commitment to bringing innovation to global healthcare and recognition to the vital contributions of nurses. As Meleis explained, “Give nurses, as we give women more power, give them better compensation, give them more autonomy, and some of that translates to their ability to do even better work in supporting the patients and in making a difference in society, making a difference in the health care system.”

Meleis is the author of seven books and more than 200 articles. She has held leadership positions in organizations such as CARE, the Global Health Council, and the International Council on Women’s Health Issues. She is a fellow of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Nursing. Her honors include the Sigma Theta Tau International Nell J. Watts Lifetime Achievement in Nursing Award, and she was inducted into the Nursing Hall of Fame at UCLA and UCSF.

In 2015, Meleis was named a “Living Legend” by the American Academy of Nursing. She retired in 2016 after five decades as an educator, but continues to speak and advocate in person and on social media on behalf of nurses and patients.


Joy Buolamwini

Founder, Algorithmic Justice League; Researcher, MIT Media Lab

BORN IN: Canada to Ghanaian Parents

Joy Buolamwini was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to Ghanaian parents. Her mother was an artist and her father was completing his PhD in pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Alberta. She spent her early childhood in Ghana, coming to the United States at the age of four when her father accepted a post at the University of Mississippi. As part of her computer science undergraduate work at Georgia Tech, Buolamwini programmed a social robot to play peek-a-boo, but the robot had trouble recognizing her face. In the end, Buolamwini had to use the face of her white housemate to complete the assignment. Here was the problem with AI-powered facial detection software: it had difficulty recognizing dark-skinned faces. This realization inspired Buolamwini’s mission to create AI that is “equitable and accountable.”

Buolamwini is an expert on bias in computer algorithms — or what she calls the “coded gaze.” Facial detection software is created via machine learning techniques that incorporate training sets composed of different facial examples. However, if the sets aren’t diverse, faces that deviate from “the norm” are much harder to detect. Buolamwini’s research has uncovered racial and gender bias in AI services from companies like Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon. Yet despite these problems, the use of facial detection software is rapidly expanding into every corner of our society, from hiring to law enforcement. “Algorithmic bias, like human bias, results in unfairness. However, algorithms, like viruses, can spread bias on a massive scale at a rapid pace, ” she explains in her TED talk “How I’m Fighting Bias in Algorithms.

A former U.S. Fulbright scholar to Zambia, Buolamwini holds two master’s degrees: one from the University of Oxford, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is a PhD candidate and researcher at MIT’s Media Lab. Throughout her studies, Buolamwini has spearheaded a number of initiatives to fight algorithmic bias and expand opportunities for youth in technology. In 2016, she founded the Algorithmic Justice League, which raises awareness of AI bias and pushes policymakers and industry leaders to take action, including using AI training sets reflecting a more diverse society. In 2018, in partnership with the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, Buolamwini launched the Safe Face Pledge to urge companies to publicly commit to mitigating the abuse of facial analysis technology, including banning the lethal use of such technology.

Buolamwini has presented her research on algorithmic bias at the United Nations and serves on the Global Tech Panel set up by the vice president of the European Commission. Her spoken word visual audit, “AI, Ain’t I a Woman?,” showing AI failures on the faces of iconic women such as Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama, has been included in a number of exhibitions. Named to the BBC’s list of “100 inspiring and influential women from around the world” in 2018, Buolamwini was tapped by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” the next year. In 2016, she won one of two grand prizes in the national Search for Hidden Figures contest, which aimed to identify the next generation of women leaders in science, technology, engineering, and math. Buolamwini describes herself like this: “I am a poet of code on a mission to show compassion through computation.”


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