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African Immigrants Increase US Presence - 2003-12-06

The past decade has seen hundreds of thousands of African refugees and immigrants settle in the United States. Their growing presence also brings to the forefront their successes and the challenges they face in America.

According to a U.S. Census Bureau report there were 881,300 African immigrants in the United States in 2000. They represent about three percent of the total foreign-born population in the country. The Census Bureau says more than 50 percent of them entered and settled in the country between 1990 and 2000. Immigration experts say African citizens came to the United States as students. Some stayed after graduation. In the late 1970s and the 1980s Africans arrived seeking work as economic opportunities lessened in many African nations.

Brookings Institution researcher Jill Wilson says a record number of African immigrants have spread throughout the United States and are now buying homes.

"Africans are scattered around the country," said Ms. Wilson. "The largest concentration [is] near large metropolitan areas and especially in the northeastern region of the country. There are four states that have 40 percent of Africans, and these are New York, California, Texas and Maryland. Ninety five percent of them were living in a metropolitan area in the year 2000 and half of those live in just 10 cities. The five top cities are New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Atlanta and Minneapolis."

The actual number of Africans living in America is an arguable issue. Many African activists believe the U.S. Census Bureau 2000 report seriously under-reported the number of Africans by hundreds of thousands. Like many other immigrants, activists say, Africans who are in the country illegally are not willing to participate in the census exercise or even seek government help in other matters. In the 1990s internal strife, natural disasters and economic hardships in some African countries forced thousands of people to flee the continent to find political as well as economic security elsewhere. The United States has been one of the most coveted destinations.

As their numbers swelled, population experts in the U.S. began to take note of the African presence as immigrants. At a recent conference in Maryland entitled "Working with African Immigrants and Refugees", the reality of African refugees in America was aptly described by Ethiopian-born Abdulaziz Kamus who runs an African Community Center in Washington, D.C.

"The number of refugees coming from Africa is 50 percent," he said. "Out of 50,000 refugees, 25,000 refugees are coming from the African continent. For the first time it's really making a record. Therefore, for all of us who are here today, why [do] we have to talk about refugees from Africa? [It is] because they are coming. And we have to prepare ourselves [for] who these people are, and how will we be able to welcome them in a new country."

As their presence grows, so are the challenges facing local U.S. authorities and social services responsible for smooth integration of immigrants.

Douglas Duncan,County Executive of Montgomery County, Maryland, spoke at a recent conference on African immigrants and refugees.

"The African immigrant community is somewhat of a new factor for us," Mr. Duncan said. "We see many more African immigrants and refugees come to our community. And just as we have welcomed Asians, just as we have welcomed Latinos, we want to make sure we are here for the African community."

But adjusting to life in a new country is not easy. Fatou Gaye-Coulibay, born in Ivory Coast, came to the United States five years ago from France after she and her husband received life-threatening messages from the Ivorian government. She describes some of the frustrations facing her family as new immigrants in the U.S.

"To keep a roof over our head, [my husband] took a job at the State Department as a translator but he is not happy," she said. "He is not a translator, he is a historian. For me, I have a PhD in anthropology but I cannot do anything. Now I am trying to be a substitute teacher whose requirement is just a bachelor's [degree]."

Although small compared to other immigrant groups, the African presence is becoming increasingly noticeable in many U.S. cities. Early last month, in what looked like a coming-out party, hundreds of Africans packed the Washington Convention Center in Washington D.C. to witness the first Miss Africa International pageant. Organizers say it was a big success, and are planning an expanded event next year.