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Africans In US Seek Advice Of Elders - 2003-08-15


There’s a call for African elders to help reduce domestic violence and neighborhood disputes. But the elders are not being sought on the continent, but rather in the US state of Maryland.

The African Immigrants and Refugees Foundation says it’s seeking 32 elders. They would sit on councils of elders in Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties in Maryland. Those counties border Washington, DC, and are home to more than 100-thousand African immigrants. They represent eight countries, with most coming from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana.

Wanjiru Kamau of Kenya is president of the African Immigrants and Refugees Foundation. She says the councils, in some cases, may be more sensitive than state courts to the cultural concerns of immigrants.

She says, "We’ve been receiving referrals from courts, particularly from courts here in Maryland, of people who have had problems. You know, domestic problems, domestic violence. And also from schools. And some of the problems are due to cultural misunderstanding and ignorance. And also, the kids behave differently because some of those children are refugee children. It is through such referrals that the idea was conceived."

Ms. Kamau says the councils of elders will understand both the culture and language of the communities they serve.

She says, "We have in most African countries ways of solving problems. It’s usually through the council of elders, people who are respected, people of substance. And people who see a problem, not as individuals. They see something within the whole system of a home and try to see what is being done. And really it’s kind of a mediation and also conflict resolution. But more than that is the way that elders handle it because you have both males and females interviewing whoever or whatever the problem is and really trying to then have a solution."

Nevertheless, African immigrants in Maryland will not be required to go before the councils if they have a grievance or dispute. The American justice system remains available to them.

She says, "They will be asked because this is not going to be popular with every African, I must warn you. You know there are some people who say, Oh, we don’t want that. We want to go through the western courts. Fine. This council of elders started because the majority of the people that we are seeing are from rural areas throughout Africa who come here as refugees. And these are people who are not used to the court system and find it very embarrassing to have to discuss their personal affairs with the rest of the world. So, people will be given a choice. Do you want to go to the normal court system or do you want to go in front of an African council of elders?"

A Maryland state judge actually helped start the program, saying he was concerned that too many people were relying on lawsuits to settle disputes. The elders’ solutions, Ms. Kamau says, are not punitive, but what she calls “restorative justice.”

She says, "It’s costing the state a lot of money. And I think it’s a whole issue of restorative justice. But we need to change the culture, bringing more understanding. Because sometimes it’s a lack of understanding that we sue each other and sometimes it’s based on wanting money. So a culture of conflict into a culture of conflict resolution is what he wants to do."

Now to be an elder, one must meet certain requirements. First, applicants must demonstrate social, religious or academic leadership qualities. Next, they must be parents of married children. Third, elders must command respect from their communities. And finally, they must be sensitive to American values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. Those who are accepted will make a two-year commitment to the program.

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