CHICAGO – From the outside, parking garage attendant Kobina Azhir looks like an American-born Black man. But Azhir, a Ghanaian seaman who came to the city 22 years ago, is one of 23,000 African immigrants living in metropolitan Chicago.
On May 31, the United African Organization, a partnership of 20 African immigrant communities, held a summit at the DuSable Museum of African American History, to shed light on immigrants like Azhir. Alie Kabba, executive director of UAO, said that “public eduction” is necessary since African immigrants are often overlooked, or misunderstood.
“We realized a few years ago that the challenge for (African immigrants) is to end our invisibility and help to educate people about contemporary African issues in order to better understand the experience of African immigrants and refugees in Illinois,” said Kabba, who came to Chicago from Sierra Leone in 1991.
The second Chicago Summit on African Immigrants and Refugees attracted more than 200 African, Arab and Latino immigrants, as well as African American supporters. Issues that Africans face within their own countries, as well as in Illinois, were discussed in plenary sessions. Though the number of participants is higher than last year’s 160, the modest turn out is a reflection of Africans’ struggle to catch broad attention and support.
“Within the larger immigrant community, we tend to be overshadowed by the Latino community because they have the numbers. So when people think about immigrants, they think about Latinos, and not Africans,” Kabba said. According to 2000 U.S. Census data, there are approximately 582,000 Mexican immigrants living in metropolitan Chicago, compared to just 23,000 African immigrants.
Nigerians make up the majority of that count. European and Asian immigrants account for 366,000 and 321,000 respectively. Like most immigrants, Africans come to America to flee political instability, pursue education, or establish a better life.
They are the most educated immigrant group in metropolitan Chicago and nationally, Kabba said. According to 2000 U.S. Census data, 95.4 percent of African immigrants who had entered metropolitan Chicago in the past 10 years had a high school degree or more, compared to 39.1 percent of Latin American immigrants, 73.8 percent of European immigrants and 85.3 percent of Asian immigrants.
But when it comes to accessing language, housing, employment and medical services African immigrants still suffer “institutional neglect,” Kabba said. He added that this is particularly damaging since African immigrants face the dual challenge of being Black and foreign.
“Resources are directed to the community with the largest numbers, which is Latin Americans… The francophone (those from French-speaking African countries) have a language barrier.
When I hear about bilingual resources, I think, ‘The definition of bilingual has got to go beyond Spanish. It’s got to include those in other communities’,” Kabba said. Carol Adams, secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services, spoke at the summit and said that the state would take an “extra step to be inclusive” of African immigrants.
“When we talk about doing things for African American women, we are also including women who come from Africa,” Adams said. And the relationship between Africans and African Americans is critical, though plagued by miscommunication. The selection of DuSable for the summit was to represent the link between African Americans and African immigrants, who Kabba described as the “new African Americans.”
“Culture is a dynamic process,” said Kabba, and it’s a fact he has himself experienced. He had plans to move back to Sierra Leone after getting a degree in public policy from the University of Illinois, but a lengthy civil war in his homeland kept him here, where he is raising his 7-, 9-, and 12-year old children.
“Being an African here is such a temporary identity. It’s a bridge to connect us to a more permanent space, and that permanent space is, naturally, within the African American community,” Kabba said. “When my kids grow up, they’re not going to think Sierra Leone. They’re going to think South Side, West Side, Chicago.”