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Economy Tops Concerns of Many US Voters in African Diaspora

Nearly two million immigrants have come to the United States in the last 30 years. Hundreds of thousands are registered voters who are expected to go to the polls next week to choose a new US president, as well as state legislators and local officials. William Eagle asked some African voters around Washington, DC, about the issues of concern to them this election season.

The concerns of many first-generation African voters in the US are not much different from those of others polled. Their overwhelming concern is the economy, followed by worries about health care and the war in Iraq.

Leykun Brouk is a financial adviser in Alexandria, Virginia. Brouk, who is originally from Ethiopia, says many of his African clients are worried about job security and the future.

"[The economy] is on everyone’s mind…the news is unprecedented," says Brouk. "The market is global, and there are no bright signs anywhere. Consumers are tightening their belts to see how far [the market turmoil] will go. On an individual level, people are postponing purchases they had planned, and they are concerned about money they have saved, like bank deposits."

A Shortage of Loans

Consumers and businesses alike are experiencing a credit crunch, with many banks reluctant or unable to grant loans.

That affects new home buyers and those who want to renegotiate loans with high interest rates.

Habte Ghebre, originally from Eritrea, is a mortgage broker in Silver Spring, Maryland.

"We generate our business from people who want to purchase properties [or] refinance their existing mortgage," explains Ghebre. "Our [problem] is we have clients with pending contracts trying to purchase bank properties [such as homes] but for some reason those contracts are[being ratified] in a timely fashion. As long as long as our clients are on hold, our business is on hold."

And, he says customers are not able to renegotiate [refinance] their existing mortgages because falling home prices mean they no longer have enough equity in their property for a new loan.

Food Prices Rising

The global hike in food prices over the past two years has also affected voters. Part of the reason for the rise is the higher cost of fuel to transport food and to the diversion of grains to make biofuels like ethanol, rather than for human consumption or as livestock feed.

Yared Mamo, who is originally from Ethiopia, is the co-owner of Habesha Market and Carry Out in downtown Washington, DC.

"Each time food prices go up," he says, "we don’t want to raise the price but it’s becoming hard to survive in this kind of atmosphere."

The US secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Ed Schafer, told the press that food costs are likely to rise over 40 percent this year.

Mamo says he’s been in the United States for nearly 20 years and has never seen such inflation.

"The corn [maize] oil we used last year it was 19 dollars for five gallons, now it’s 42 dollars. The price went up over 100 percent and meat, flour, you name it, ....everything has gone up."

Mamo says he’s also concerned with the spiraling cost of health insurance, for himself and his workers. He says he and other small business owners cannot afford to buy health insurance for employees. He’d also like an end to the war in Iraq. He says he’s familiar with the financial and human costs of conflict, since in recent years his own country of origin, Ethiopia, has endured a civil war and one with neighboring Eritrea.

What Kind of Change ?

For some of the Africans interviewed, a desire for change mixes with ethnic pride, leading them to support Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama.

But not all. Businessman James Enos-Edu of Burke, Virginia, favors the Republican Party, which he says is better for business, national defense, and moral values. Enos-Edu, who is originally from Ghana and Liberia, is the CEO of an information technology security firm, and the former owner of a restaurant and catering firm.

"Being a business owner working 60 hours in a restaurant [in the 1980s]," he says, "you go to purchase things and you see someone [buying] food items and at the end, paying with food stamps [government subsidized coupons]. And when they walk out, you see them driving a brand new car and wearing "bling-bling", gold. If this person is paying with welfare and I’m working 24 hours and barely making it, is it a good system ?" He notes that President Bill Clinton and a Republican-led Congress reformed the welfare system over 10 years ago.

On the other hand, mortgage broker Habte Ghebre says an Obama win would remind his young daughter that if you work hard, you can do anything in the US, regardless of gender, race or religion.

Restaurant owner Yared Mamo says it’s the candidates’ policies, not race, that’s important.
He says if it were only about electing a black president, he says he could have stayed in Ethiopia.