The “American Dream”mostly contradicted by the realities on the ground
A model for an “African Immigrants’ Center for Faith & Family Enrichment” [UZIMA].
It is estimated that the City of Birmingham is home to around 7000 East African immigrants. A majority of these individuals relocate to the U.S. for three reasons – education opportunities, prospects for better quality of life and escape political suppression. It is common knowledge that the ideas about the “American Dream” are mostly contradicted by the realities on the ground once these individual enter the U.S. The all common counsel that new immigrants receive is to “prepare for an initial 1 to 2 years of dire hardship” before settling down (usually to perfect the skills of survival in a very harsh and challenging environment). Stories abound about how new comers struggle at the port of entry after their hosts refuse to take them in. Others endure mistreatment by desperate hosts that lack adequate resources or time to cater for added burdens in their families. Churches have played a major role in rescuing “the lost ones” – new immigrants that knock at their doors by reflecting onto them the love of Christ. Indeed, many successful East African individuals have abundant stories about how churches came to their rescue at a time of great need.
East African Immigrants are widely known to be law-abiding, respectful, and a very hard working group. By the time they arrive, they hold a high value for marriage and the family institution, and a love for children. They are highly spiritual and exercise deep faith in God as the one hope to help alleviate their problems in a hard and stressful culture, as well as to provide for desperate poor family folks back in Africa. After all, a majority of them had the family, friends and neighbors fast and pray for them to earn the entry visa to come and pursue the American Dream. Almost always, the departure from the sending country is akin to that of a “celebrity” holding the key to the demise of the elusive poverty-cycle for the family and kin upon arrival in the U.S.
The truth about the African immigrants is that the traditional and cultural beliefs coupled with the lack of knowledge and guidance about the existing relevant state and federal programs that can help them. They are usually shy to present themselves to the food pantries, hot lunches and the many resources that are availed by churches, federal and state institutions, as well as philanthropic groups; due to deeply held belief systems and cultural inhibitions (for instance, failing to provide for the family or to be homeless, is the worst form of a curse). Such help is sought as a last result and any family that gets to this situation is in total despair – in fact close to death! This is how I found Pastor Ohomba (not real name) a former mentor to my wife in her youth. Ohomba was a much respected sponsoring pastor to her “Life Group” at the time, a staff of an international ministry in Nairobi during the early 1990s. Sad to say, Ohomba is sickly, at this time recuperating at home following a drug and alcohol rehabilitation and cannot hold a job to support his family. Even after being in the U.S. for the last 14 years, and although he has grandchildren, and despite concerted prayers, he has never earned the status to live and work in the U.S. – this goes for all the members of his family living with him in a two bedroom apartment near UAB where he landed on arrival 15 years ago.
What is most feared by many African immigrants is to be sick or to be deported – it is usually stated, “it is better to be poor than to be sick.” Majority will not present themselves for even subsidized health services unless the sickness is serious enough to warrant it or construed to be a terminal condition. There is rampant ignorance and a general lack of knowledge about the availability of human services within reach of most communities. My brief survey has revealed that there aren’t any organized structures or entities to receive new arrivals (green card or otherwise) to induct them into the new American environment and culture – there does not exist any mechanism to help settle new individuals into the new communities, or to assist with knowledge on how: to access services, a place to settle, a school for the children, education and career choices or even employment, health services, emergency care, volunteer services and/or institutions of worship. Most will rely on unqualified bits of information from willing folks that underwent similar fate and have somehow found some way to survive.
What can we do?
There are around 5 small (20 members or less) local African Churches in Alabama (Laborers in Christ, the Light House, Legacy, Presbyterian and the Episcopal churches) located in close proximity to each other and often competing for members from the pool of 7000 individuals. It may be stated that the major focus of the missions of these churches is heavily tilted towards temporary afternoon African-type-of-worship that serve to make the African folks reclaim part of their identity in addition to the regular American worship experience usually attended in the mornings. Churches do not have regular and permanent staff and/or structures to cater for the diverse needs of the individual, and the families that they serve. Pastors on the other hand have to double-up as workers in different fields to eke a living, and at the same time be the part-time pastors – on Sunday afternoon, in prayer meetings and when catastrophe strikes a member either in Africa or in the U.S. It is noteworthy that very rarely will an East African Individual that passes on will be buried in the U.S. Therefore, pastors play a major role in consoling the bereaved as well as mobilizing the community to support transportation of the body to Africa.
As can be noted, the African immigrant community in Birmingham and those in nearby areas are in great need of a well-organized community support system for the individual, the family, the children, those that are not-well, those with varying forms of disabilities, and the disadvantaged. There is need for an East-African-knit culturally sensitive faith and a social support ministry to cater not only for the diverse social-cultural and structural needs of the immigrants, but also to provide a holistic (Word and Deed) leadership, training and a holistic, encompassing faith based ministry. In order to succeed, the ministry must address age specific wholesome developmental needs of the individual, the family; cultural competency, cultural barriers and other issues that inhibit access to services; development of culturally sensitive models of helping, individuals’ integration into the mainstream American society for growth, psychosocial and life skills training for the youth and new arrivals.
This is an initial ideation of a need for ministry to a unique group of people. It is important to develop and grow the ideas towards an eventual establishment of a ministry that will deal effectively with the various challenges that this sector of our population faces. I am currently involved in a non-profit ministry that I have a great passion for – Child Aid Africa advocates for and support the empowerment of HIV/AIDS orphans’ in East Africa through the Gospel of Jesus Christ and access to education. The ministry is currently poised to relocate to a new base in Birmingham. I envisage an amalgam of Child Aid Africa and the African Center for Faith & Family Enrichment – UZIMA (Wholesome life).
Services that would be included – not conclusive:
- Worship services and community initiatives to include the whole array of ministries – physical, mental and spiritual nurturance.
- Cultural education as well as referrals to community service agencies
- Needs assessment of families (risks and protective factors) with an aim to enriching marriages, childrearing, parenting, job searching and coaching, career advice, immigration education, entry to the American culture, family counseling and support to individuals with special challenges.
- Skills training to improve family communication skills, appropriate family boundaries, appropriate child development – expectations and non-violent discipline techniques; understanding the U.S. culture and family policy; Child and other forms of abuse.
- Home and/or group based services – care of the elderly and the intellectually among the East Africans
- Parenting education – helps avoid challenges appertaining to the use of African way child discipline that often cause to break families when one member is in Jail.
- Immigration issues – help the many desperate folks find work authorization in order live a productive life
- Advocacy and social networking – utilize common wisdom and knowledge for the benefit of all
- Legal support – very often, people find themselves at the wrong side of the law. Help is needed to interpret the American legal system and its requirement.
- Teen risk avoidance programs – institute different age specific curriculums for the junior and senior students as well as college students.
- Alcohol and drug rehabilitation – East African folks hide family members –children and individuals with any forms of disability in the house or at the “rear of the house” to safe face. Those with deviant behaviors and the intellectually challenged almost always receive minimal care.
- Language couching – English and Kiswahili and other African Languages
- Referral services – Services are usually available to meet the many needs of the suffering populations; the center should match ever individual with the services to alleviate suffering and to enrich life.
By Dr. Michael N. Mbito
[i] Please do not quote without contacting the author – thank you.
Dr Mbito’s message is a thought provoking and a wake up call for all to take responsibility and join hands to come up with a long lasting solution for the sake of our community.Share your ideas and thoughts by commenting here below or contact Dr.Mbito at [email protected]
A model for an “African Immigrants’ Center for Faith & Family Enrichment” [UZIMA].