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The Washington metropolitan area is home to the largest number of African immigrants in the United States. But these communities– dispersed across Maryland, Virginia and D.C.— have not traditionally wielded very much political power at the local level. This weekend, four Maryland gubernatorial candidates addressed African immigrant voters at a special forum in Silver Spring. We explore how African diasporas are mobilizing to engage local political institutions.
- Semhar Araia Executive Director, Diaspora African Women's Network
- Ngozi Azubike Co-founder, African Immigrant Caucus (AIC)
- Bishop Darlingston Johnson Senior Pastor, Bethel World Outreach Church (Silver Spring, MD); Co-founder, African Immigrant Caucus (AIC)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIYesterday, four candidates for Maryland governor appeared in front of a packed crowd at a Silver Spring church. In many ways, it was just another campaign event, like dozens of other forums put on by local chambers of commerce and advocacy groups. What made this event unique was the audience, hundreds of African immigrants from around the state who are mobilizing under a new organization called the African Immigrant Caucus.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe Washington region is said to have the largest population of African immigrants in the entire country. And while Ethiopians, Nigerians, and Liberians have made a major impact on local culture, they have never wielded much political clout. But that may be changing. Joining us to discuss this is Bishop Darlingston Johnson. He is senior pastor at Bethel World Outreach Church in Silver Spring, Md. and co-founder of the African Immigrant Caucus. Bishop Johnson, thank you for joining us.
BISHOP DARLINGSTON JOHNSONThank you, Kojo, for having us.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Semhar Araia, executive director of the Diaspora African Women's Network. Semhar Araia, thank you for joining us.
MS. SEMHAR ARAIAThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Ngozi Azubike is co-founder of the African Immigrant Caucus. She moderated yesterday's candidate event. Ngozi, you should probably be sitting in this chair. Thank you for joining us.
MS. NGOZI AZUBIKEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIFour of the major candidates for Maryland governor appeared at that even organized by the African Immigrant Caucus in Silver Spring yesterday. Bishop Johnson, and when Democrats Anthony Brown, Doug Gansler, Heather Mizeur, and Republican Charles Lollar spoke at Jesus House DC, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, it was the culmination of a lot of hard work for this new organization. How did this event come about?
JOHNSONWell, my own story is that I've been in the U.S. since 1990 continually pastoring the church. We try to get certain things approved, in terms of a building -- permits. And I sat in a room and realized that we were making no progress because the people who were making those decisions perceived that we were politically powerless. I walked away from that -- I was an immigrant then. I decided, I'll become a citizen.
JOHNSONAnd I -- because I became keenly aware that my story was not just unique to me, that this was a story of so many of our people. And so we've been engaged in a process more recently of organizing the African immigrants in this area in order to give us a voice 'cause we're tired of being voiceless and ignored. And this is the beginning of what we believe is a movement.
NNAMDINgozi, this was marketed in part as an accountability assembly to -- quoting here -- "hold the candidates for governor accountable to our issues." What are your issues?
AZUBIKEWell, there are so many issues in the African community. And, frankly, yesterday was not so much about the specific issues, but about recognition for the African community. We wanted the candidates to know that we are here, we're voting people, and we can help shape election results.
NNAMDIDid any of the candidates come with a particular message, a particular policy proposal for African immigrant communities, or was this just a chance for you to meet them and get in the room, let them know you're here?
AZUBIKEYesterday was the beginning of getting to know us. The issues were not tabled, and we told them that it was not about any specific issue. And our request was to get to know them, and they are going to have to do that with us between now and January.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for us, give us a call at 800-433-8850, or send email to email@example.com. Semhar, when immigrants arrive in this country from Nigeria or Eritrea, they're often coming here to pursue economic goals, to try to get their kids into good schools, and perhaps they look inward to members of their own communities. What we're talking about here is a step towards engaging the broader community. Is this a natural evolution in much the same way that Bishop Johnson described it?
ARAIAYeah. I think it is. I mean, what we're going through as an African immigrant community in the larger Diaspora community is what many other immigrant groups have faced. There are unique experiences that we have by virtue of race, by virtue of the circumstances that we're leaving from. In some cases, it isn't always about economic opportunity. It's about needing to leave out of insecurity or conflict.
ARAIASo many of the adjustments that we're going through have -- are common to the new American experience. And I think that's why this event yesterday is so important and remarkable because this is part and parcel the American experience and what the processes of becoming new Americans. And for the continent, which is 54 countries, you're not just experiencing it as an Italian-American.
ARAIAThere's your nationality, but then there's also you represent a continent. And trying to get 54 ethnic groups -- or national groups, rather, together is a remarkable feat. The African Immigrant Caucus and previous attempts, as we've organized in the past -- one of the challenges is how do you make a Sierra Leonian and an Eritrean and a South African, all immigrants or children of immigrants, agree to a certain set of issues that are affecting them in their host country or in their new country?
NNAMDIOn to the telephone because I think Tababu in Silver Spring, Md. was in attendance yesterday. Tababu, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TABABUThis was a remarkable day. I was delighted for the very first time in my life since 1981 I came to the U.S. This is the first time I feel the African story told by Africans themselves. It was such an empowering -- it was a rebirth of my African identity. I was delighted. I just want to say thank you to the leaders. Thank you to Pastor Johnson, Pastor Kimi and the many other -- about 50 organizers who worked tirelessly hard to put this together in one house.
TABABUIt was delighted and empowered, and the movement, as Pastor Johnson said, will continue. And we will be lining up to present -- tell our story from our perspective and ask to sit at the table so that we are -- our contribution will be recognized, and we'll be empowered to do more. I just want to say thank you. It was a wonderful day. It was a rebirth of African identity in the context of the political landscape in the U.S. Thank you.
NNAMDIJudging from the responses around the table, Tababu, I think you made your voice heard yesterday also at the event because everyone here seems to know.
ARAIAWell, he's also, he's also a good friend and ally. We've worked -- we find each other in these spaces over many years. And, hi, Tababu.
NNAMDII'm glad you talked about that. Tababu, thank you for your call. Because at the top of the show we noted that the Washington region is home to the largest concentration of African immigrants in the country. That might be a slightly squishy statistic. But they are spread out across suburbs and the District. What did you see as their imprint on local culture and politics now?
JOHNSONWell, again, I think our issue is we feel that we have made very little impact on local politics. And the thing that is driving this movement now is -- we feel this has to change. And we realized that power recognizes power. If we're going to have an impact on local politics and have a voice, the only way for us to do so as a people is to organize and stop seeing ourselves as Liberians and Nigerians and Cameroonians and Ethiopians and begin to see ourselves as Africans.
JOHNSONBecause the reality is, that's how we are perceived in this country. We're perceived, not as Liberian, as Africans. And if we, ourselves, could begin to act as one people, we would have given ourselves the ability to begin to impact political change. And that is exactly what the goal of this organization is.
NNAMDIYou started Bethel World Outreach Church in 1990, the same year you took asylum in this country. Tell us a little bit about how that church has developed and grown, because that, in a way, is what got you involved in local politics.
JOHNSONIn 1990 I found myself with my wife in the Baltimore/Washington area stranded. I had actually attended school in Oklahoma. Did 10 years in Oklahoma. Went back to Liberia in '87, intended to spend the rest of my life there, very fulfilled in ministry. Came to the country for six weeks. On my way back Liberia was plunged into civil war. Wife and I are stranded in the D.C. area. What are we supposed to do? Be missionaries, don't be refugees.
JOHNSONWe organized a church and God has blessed it. It began to attract a large number of Africans. And today we're in Silver Spring and we have, representing our congregation, more than 40 different African Nations. Francophones, and Anglophones and west…
NNAMDIOh, I know, because I live near Silver Spring. And I drive up that way and down on Sunday. So I…
JOHNSONAnd that by itself is a miracle because that doesn't happen very often. Too often, even in this country, we go to our own churches, based upon our national origin. And that's one of the reasons we've been powerless. And that's one of the reasons AIC has been formed, to change that.
NNAMDIYou know, Semhar, the imprint that has been made so far by African immigrants in this country. We see it in music. We see it in food. We see it in styles of dress around. But this is the first concentrated attempt at having a political impact, is it not?
ARAIAI mean, I think what's important is we see it in many ways, but the ones we get most recognized for are often times culture and entertainment and arts. What we're doing even with the Diaspora African Women's Network is highlighting what has been the case for so many years of professional women of African dissent or at the Diaspora who work on Africa. You wouldn't think that there are this many people of color, people of Africa and Diaspora backgrounds and women in particular.
ARAIASo in many ways it's just about working with what already exists and highlighting it. And African Immigrant Caucus -- and previously, in 2008, we organized the African Diaspora for Obama. And we were a coalition of about eight or nine different groups, some national, some interest based. And we were able to find sort of a rhythm among our different ways of working.
ARAIAAnd I would actually say that there is value in keeping our organizing at a national level because our countries still need us, our countries that we come from and the country we live in here. But also when we know how to dance between our national existence, but also our pan-African existence, that's actually where the power comes.
NNAMDINgozi, your family emigrated here from Nigeria when you were but a child. Do you view these issues differently than your parents do?
AZUBIKEActually, I don't. My parents always made sure that we didn't forget where we came from. And, interestingly enough, all the time they lived here, they were always going home. And going home -- we called them the going-home generation, but they never left. And so they never really integrated back home or here.
NNAMDIThey were strangers in both countries.
AZUBIKEThey were strangers in both countries. And so as their offspring, we've decided we're not going to let this happen to us, as well. You know, we're here now as Americans. And we might as well participate fully in this civic activities of this country and, you know, just be part of the landscape.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation. If you have called -- and some of you have -- stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. We're talking about African immigrants involved in local and national politics. 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're having about, a conversation about African immigrants and local politics with Bishop Darlingston Johnson. He is senior pastor at Bethel World Outreach Church in Silver Spring, and co-founder of the African Immigrant Caucus. Semhar Araia is executive director of the Diaspora African Women's Network, and Ngozi Azubike is co-founder of the African Immigrant Caucus.
NNAMDIShe moderated yesterday's candidate event. There are a number of people who would like to join this conversation. Let's to go May, in Washington, D.C. May, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NEEHello, Kojo. This is your old friend Neaquita from TransAfrica day.
NNAMDINee, how's it going?
NEEIt's going well. Thank you so much. I follow your work, of course, but today I'm particularly grateful that you are giving the platform to my sisters and brother. I think they are doing an amazing job. I don't know where to start. I've been in…
NNAMDIWell, you started a long time ago when you were with TransAfrica, Nee.
NEEThat's right. I got to the U.S. in 1975. And I have been focused on U.S. policy. So I just want to add that I support what they are doing. I think it's wonderful. I think they should open it up and encourage all of us to join. The particular stress I want to put is I think local politics is great, but we also need to look at foreign policy, because the United States plays such a huge role in Africa. And when we don't press them, the role is not positive.
NEEAnd I also think that (unintelligible) what was done as for Africans for Obama, if we had had a stronger voice we would have forced -- we have persuaded -- and I think it would have worked on the president, President Obama to do even more for Africa. So I just say kudos to you. Thank you very much. Tell us how to join. And let's move forward. As we say in Ghana (speaks foreign language) which means congratulations and well done.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Nee. Semhar, you are involved in looking at foreign policy, U.S. international policy. How -- by the way, how can individuals join the African Immigrant Caucus?
ARAIAWe have a meeting on 24th of June -- correct -- and we're inviting everybody that's interested in joining to be there. That would be your first entry into…
NNAMDIGot a website?
NNAMDIAnd if you go to that website you can find out exactly what you are looking for. Here is David, in Beltsville, Md. David, your turn.
DAVIDYeah, thank you very much, Kojo. My name is David Vandee. I have been part of the AIC. And I just want to commend Bishop Johnson and the entire team for such wonderful work. The thing now is that we have started. And as Africans we have come together. And people are beginning to recognize us. Now is the time for us to put our shoulders to the wheel because to start is one thing, but a continuity is the next.
DAVIDSo we have to prepare more than we did before because the first part of it was just the first phase. And now these people are looking up to us to see if we can continue what we have started. So Bishop Johnson and all of you guys that are there and all of our team, this is the time for us to get up as Africans and raise up our voices. So we can…
DAVID…get a voice. Thank you, man.
NNAMDILet's talk about some of the specific issues. In 2012, Maryland became the first state to pass the so-called Dream Act, by popular referendum. These laws allowed children of undocumented immigrants to attend state schools as residents. It was an issue that was very important to Africa communities around the state. Was this the first time that we saw mobilization among these communities for a referendum?
JOHNSONWell, that was the first time that Bethel World Outreach Church became actively involved in mobilizing our folks. I played a significant role in that process. We marched and we did what we could. And we got a taste. We got a taste at that time of what could be done if we would organize and begin to speak. I said yesterday we've discovered we have a voice. And now we're going to speak. We discovered we have suffrage and we're going to vote. And having discovered this, we're not going back. We're going forward.
NNAMDIAnother issue many African Immigrants arrived here with advanced academic degrees from their home countries, but they can't find work in their chosen fields because American institutions don't recognize them. Is that a policy issue, Ngozi, that can be addressed with this kind of activism and mobilization?
AZUBIKEThat is certainly one of the issues that the African community is concerned about. And it's one of many issues that we will be addressing as AIC moves forward. It is unconscionable to have such highly educated people sit on the sidelines and not find jobs in their area. Can I…
JOHNSONMay, may I…
NNAMDIPlease go. Go ahead.
JOHNSONMay I just make a comment there? I just discovered this myself, that African immigrants are the most highly educated of all immigrants. And that African immigrants, percentage-wise, have twice the rate of college graduates, then even white Americans, native-born Americans. That's a -- yet we're highly, highly underemployed.
ARAIAOne of the challenges is how that translates into domestic policy. And so the issue of highly educated African immigrants having degrees and not having jobs really comes down to labor certification processes, whether or not they're professional, technical or technical training is recognized in the university and professional systems here. There are so many nurses and doctors and lawyers, around the world, actually. There isn't unique to Africa. There's quite a few foreign professionals who move here and their licenses aren't recognized.
ARAIAAnd what we have to do, as a constituency, is whittle down into here are the three domestic issues we have. And then to Nee's point earlier, we have these three domestic issues or national, nationally important issues. And on foreign policy, you know, there needs to be room for foreign policy. One of the challenges I had -- and I still believe we have this asset or this leverage -- is in discussing foreign policy, U.S. foreign policy towards Africa with our decision makers, it's also vital that we can show that we are active, engaged citizens in the district and in the state.
ARAIAAnd those are the numbers that decision makers need in order to push on the foreign policy. They need to know how many we are in numbers, how many times we voted, what we think of domestic issues like education, property, taxes, the job -- the economy outlook. They're going to ask those questions because it matters to the state.
NNAMDIBishop Johnson, many members of the Liberian community face an uncertain future because of their immigration status. Thousands of people came over during the civil wars in the 1990. They've raised families in Maryland. But they don't have permanent status. Talk a little bit about immigration as a policy issue for this community.
JOHNSONWell, obviously -- and that is something that we all share in common as immigrants. You're right. In 1990, because of the war, Liberians were granted TPS. That's -- what -- 24 years ago. And they are still Temporary Protected Status. That plays a severe limit on what they can do, in terms of career. There's always this uncertainty. These people have had children here, and some of them have grandchildren. They pay taxes. They've started businesses. And, yet, for some strange reason, they have not been given permanent status. So those are the kinds of things that we need to address.
JOHNSONBut we're not going to have the power to address them if we only address them as Liberians. And this where, again, we have to come together and begin to speak with one voice as Africans. We then can exert the kind of power that will cause people to listen.
NNAMDII'd like to go to Dominic, in Springfield, Va. Dominic, you're on the air. Ngozi, this might be one for you. Dominic, go ahead, please.
DOMINICHey, how you doing, Kojo? I love watching you from on Channel 32 when I was in high school…
NNAMDIThere you go.
DOMINIC…in the '80s.
NNAMDIOkay. So I'm old, but go ahead.
DOMINICYeah, I came here from Africa. My parents brought me here, like, during the Nixon administration when I was, like, real little. I'm 49 years old now. And I came here when I was about six, seven years old. I don't hardly remember anything about Africa. I can't speak the language, barely, any more. My situation was when I graduated from high school, I tried to go in the U.S. Army. And I wasn't raised around kids from Africa or anything, you know.
NNAMDISo there's a, there's a…
DOMINICI grew up, raised in Washington, D.C. area. And…
NNAMDIWhat is your, what is your relationship with your parents like? I'm assuming they're still alive and they're still here.
DOMINICYeah, yeah, my father's a college professor. But when I tried to go in the Army, that's when my parents -- I guess what you just finished talking about, you know, the overly educated and the very bleak chances of, you know, the horizon. And my father was going through that while I was going through high school.
DOMINICAnd, you know, he tried to teach at American University. He applied at a whole bunch of colleges. And he's also an attorney. And a lot of opportunities were closed to him. So he had a real messed up view of this country. And my growing up here and, you know…
NNAMDIHow do you bridge that divide, Ngozi?
AZUBIKEYou know, Dominic, we may have been on the same flight because that's about the time I came here. And I was quite young when my parents brought us here. But I think part of the challenge we have in our community is some mindset. And I think we've got to change some of that mindset. What happens in a job environment, and as an employer myself, our name is a barrier. The perceived accent that we may have -- I still -- I'm told sometimes that I love your accent. And I'm wondering which accent are we talking about?
AZUBIKEBut that perceived accent is a barrier. And I think we need to just, first of all, understand that those are not barriers for us, they are barriers for others that we are coming encounter with. And unfortunately, that's just the way it is in the marketplace.
NNAMDISomehow we're running out of time very quickly. But are there differences between African issues and African American issues? A couple of years ago -- well, maybe a decade -- Ethiopian immigrants in D.C. mobilized to rename a corridor in the Shaw neighborhood as Little Addis. That move ended up becoming controversial because African American residents felt like it was inappropriate. Have we moved past those arguments?
ARAIAI mean I think there's still a lot of learning about each other within the African community, within the broader African Diaspora community and that is an example of where the traditionally historical African American identity is being challenged. And so I often tell my friends and people who ask me, "Well, what are you?" I'm born in New York. I'm the daughter of Eritrean immigrants. I'm African American. But name is Semhar. That's probably the only thing you need to be worried about.
NNAMDIYou're a lot of people, aren't you?
ARAIAYou are. And that's the beauty of when you say who you are, it isn't just one thing. And this country tries to label you. And I'm not an immigrant, so how can I participate in African Immigrant Caucus? I'm the daughter of immigrants. The point is I think we still need to actually learn about each other's histories and identities and find an understanding.
NNAMDISemhar Araia's executive director of the Diaspora African Women's Network. Semhar, good to see you. Thank you for joining us. Bishop Darlingston Johnson is senior pastor at Bethel World Outreach Church in Silver Spring, Md., and the co-founder of the African Immigrant Caucus. Bishop Johnson, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Ngozi Azubike is a co-founder of the African Immigrant Caucus. Azubike, good to see you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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