By Sagine Morency and Cyprien Kodjo
Video by Onaka Fiedtkou
Photos by Michael Dendariarena
Immigration from Africa has exploded all over the country. The U.S. census reports that 1.6 million African immigrants live in the U.S.—or 4 percent of the country’s foreign born population--and the influx has exceeded 300 years of the slave trade. In New York City, the African-born population increased about 39 percent, to 128,200, over the past decade, according to the Department of Planning. African groups do not make the city’s top-20 list of the foreign-born, but represent a growing presence among recent entrants to the city, notes the planning agency.
Though a sizable number of people from Senegal, Gambia, and Ethiopia have always lived in Harlem, sections of the community, including Little Senegal on 116th Street, have felt the impact of this increase. You can see it in growing numbers of restaurants, hair salons, tailors and other small businesses throughout the community.
Why have so many Africans come here? According to a research paper released by The Migration Policy Institute, immigrants from all over the continent have come here for refugee asylum, economic opportunities and educational pursuits.
Providing for his wife and six-year-old daughter led Bertin Yabre to emmigrate from Cote d’Ivoire to Harlem six years ago. “My daughter is over there. This is all for her,” says Yabre, 36, who owns a tailor shop on West 121 Street. Though he loves Harlem, he misses home. What would he do if given a free round trip ticket to Cote d’Ivoire? “I would stay for about 6 months,” Yabre admits. “I get lonely sometimes. But that’s when I make my best [outfits]; it motivates me to work harder.”
Paulette Sade Evande has similar mixed feelings. She left Cameroon in 2010 to study media, and though she enjoys Harlem, she has nostalgia for her country. “I miss natural food and the nature in general from home, she says. “I plan to stay in the USA because of the diversity of the people and culture. And I like Harlem; there are so many things to learn and also a lot to do.”
But even as new residents settle comfortably in the community raising children, running businesses and putting down roots, many became unsettled last fall with news of Ebola and the discrimination that has followed. The Ebola crisis, the say, changed the way many African immigrants feel about New York City. Thousands of people have died as a result of the virus, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. As news of the virus spread and infected travelers and health-care workers entered the country, immigrants from West Africa and even their children became victims of stigma and bullying at school and work. In late October, a group of students in the Bronx attacked two middle school brothers who had recently returned from Senegal while yelling "Ebola."
Though much of the hysteria has waned, Mariam, a resident of Harlem and immigrant from Cote ‘Ivoire, chooses her words carefully when talking about the virus. She worries that what she says could worsen the image of her continent and its people. “They are bombarding us with this Ebola story,” says Mariam, 60. (She declined to give her last name because of her undocumented immigration status.)
Mariam prefers to talk about immigration and the changes that may make living here easier for people like her if President Obama has his wish. The proposed bill would grant citizen-like status to millions of undocumented U.S. residents. Mariam first travelled to New York in 1992, making round trip visits to and from her country. Now, after cooking all day long, she packages her food and travels with it in a shopping cart to sell African meals at a taxi garage in mid-Manhattan. Her customers, mostly West Africans, usually order special meals on the weekends.
As debate about immigration and the President’s legislation continues, Mariam remains sanguine. “I will get a lawyer if I have to,” she says. Like Mariam, many immigrants from the continent will turn to the African Services Committee on West 127th Street for help. The organization provides many services, including legal.
“There is still hope for people like me,” Mariam continues. “It doesn’t matter how much money I will put in it, but I want to be citizen, too.”
Yabre sums up how many African immigrants feel about their country and community: “Everything here is hard, but it’s an interesting, big country.”