On Jan. 20, 2021 Kamala Harris, the daughter of an Asian-American mother and father from Jamaica, will take the oath of office as the Vice President of the United States. Let us now celebrate immigrants of color. In 2013, we began to interview immigrants from African countries for what we titled “African Immigrants in the Bluegrass,” an oral history project at University of Kentucky’s Nunn Center for Oral History. We completed almost 50 interviews in 2017, just before President Trump’s infamous comment in 2018 about immigrants from “s—hole countries.”
We applaud incoming President Joe Biden’s plans to reverse the outgoing administration’s extreme immigration policies such as the “Muslim travel bans,” and to reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees, review the rescinded temporary protected status for people fleeing war and natural disaster, and keep the Diversity Visa lottery, all of which affect Africans.
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In our interviews, we asked immigrants from 27 different African countries about their lives in their birth countries, about why and how they came to the United States, about their struggles and successes, and about how they connected and contributed to both the US and Africa. We heard stories about their growing up, sometimes happy ones, sometimes stories of war. Opportunity was the most common reason for coming to the US. Young, middle aged, and older immigrants came as students, refugees, asylum-seekers, diversity visa holders. Struggles for African immigrants included language, cultural differences (the importance of the individual in the US versus community in Africa, for example), and the need to have American credentials for good jobs. Our interviewees reported helpful people, including other immigrants, who were “in-between advocates” at schools, universities, churches, and Kentucky Refugee Ministries.
African immigrants also talked about confronting racism and considering their identity. Khadar Abdullahi (Somalia) described his mother being pushed aside at a grocery store and told, “Go back where you came from.” Gashaw Lake (Ethiopia) shared a poem entitled “Mercedes” that he wrote after retiring as a decades-long professor at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. He noted that people gazed at him with “strange looks and frowning faces” when he drove his car “with pride,” but wrote “So far the police have not pulled me over.” Professor Iddah Otieno (Kenya) explained that “home is here, there, confusing and uplifting because I get the chance to live in two cultures.” She wrote a poem that begins “They traverse the borderland.” Jacob Guot, one of the “lost boys” of Sudan who now lives in Wilmore says “I am from South Sudan, but I am also American. It’s both of me. I have to stand in the middle.” Like many Africa-born immigrants, he gives back to where he is from, in his case through his NGO Africa Sunrise Communities.
Kennedy Boateng (Ghana) pointed out that African immigrants are “teachers, doctors, and working in other fields. All are contributing to build Kentucky in one way or another. They contribute by paying taxes. They spend money. They want to own houses. Their kids are going to grow up and become productive citizens.”
We understood his point as we interviewed professors such as Nkongolo Kalala (Democratic Republic of Congo), who teaches economics at Bluegrass Community and Technical College and heads the Mayor’s International Affairs Advisory Commission, and his colleague Robert Chirwa (Malawi) who teaches computer science and has just received a grant from the National Security Agency to increase minority cybersecurity degrees in the Bluegrass. Sam Vorkpor (Liberia) who is a doctor of family medicine at Manchester Memorial Hospital, now Advent Health, in Clay County, is comfortable there because he grew up in a rural county in Liberia. Lexingtonians know small business owners like successful entrepreneur Mamadou Savane (Guinea) who owns Sav’s Restaurant and Gourmet Ice Cream on East Main St. in Lexington and Ibrahim Bakoush (Libya) who owns Abe’s Foreign Auto Repair. Our interviewees included women such as Abigail Unuakhalu (Nigeria) who is an accountant in Kentucky’s state government and Beatrice Mbayo (Democratic Republic of Congo) who works with mentally challenged adults.
Second generation African immigrants, children born in the US or brought here as children, also form a significant part of the story. Some young men and women have since gone to aviation and medical school, participated in non-profit advocacy groups, and joined other frontline workers in the fight against Covid-19.
Thanks to this African diaspora, which has increased in Kentucky from about 1,000 immigrants in 1990 to about 22,000, our state has also become a more colorful, richer mosaic. Kentucky gains from “just the diversity we bring,” Karin Krain (South Africa) told us. Rahel Bosson (Ethiopia) said, “People have learned from me that there is not one way.”
Black Kentuckian author bell hooks has written about Kentucky’s “culture of belonging.” Let us make a New Year’s resolution for 2021 to bring to Kentucky the excitement of Kamala Harris’s inauguration as Vice President of the US: We hereby resolve to wholeheartedly welcome African immigrants — those here now and those to come — into Kentucky’s culture of belonging and to cheer their contributions to the Commonwealth.
Wilson is a coauthor with Francis Musoni, Iddah Otieno, and Jack Wilson of “Voices of African Immigrants in Kentucky: Migration, Identity, and Transnationality,” University Press of Kentucky, 2019
Read from source Lexington Herald Leader