The contributions made by African immigrants are nationally and internationally relevant. From food to architecture to music and sport, African immigrants not only enrich existing communities, but add their energy and creativity to help emerging communities prosper. One only has to look at Africans working in areas like “Little Ethiopia” in Washington DC, St. Paul in Minnesota or “Little Senegal” in New York City’s Harlem to see their impact.
Representing 54 countries, African immigrants are one of the fastest growing immigrant communities in New York City. According to the most recent Census data, there are 146,000 African-born New Yorkers.
African immigrants to the US are more likely to settle in the South (39 percent) or the Northeast (25 percent), than in the Midwest (18 percent) or West (17 percent). The largest numbers of African immigrants are found in Texas, New York, California, Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Virginia. Each of these states is home to at least 100,000 foreign-born Africans.
African Communities Together (ACT) is a membership organization with chapters in New York City and DC, which was founded in 2012 by lawyer Amaha Kassa, an immigrant from Ethiopia. ACT is an organization of African immigrants fighting for opportunity, civil rights and a better life for Africans and their families. A large part of ACT’s work has focused on improving language access for immigrants.
In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued an executive order requiring all City agencies to provide services to New Yorkers with limited English in six “top languages.” The six languages included Bengali, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian, and Haitian Creole — but not French or Arabic, and none of the indigenous languages of Africa.
In November 2016, Kassa, ACT’s Executive Director, testified before the City Council Government Operations Committee to highlight that Census Bureau questions underestimated the languages spoken by Africans.
“These questions do not account for African immigrants, many of whom speak local languages like Wolof, Fulani, or Kru at home, but use French and Arabic for official business, higher education, and inter-group communication,” Kassa said.
His testimony confirmed that Africans had been underserved by the City’s language access policy, because they do not speak a single shared language. “In effect, the entire continent of Africa as well as the entire Middle East region have been left out of the City’s Language Access Policy,” Kassa said.
Since 2015, ACT has campaigned for the expansion of New York City’s language access policy to meet the needs of Arab and African immigrants, in conjunction with coalition partners including the New York Immigration Coalition, the Asian-American Federation, the Arab-American Association of New York, Urban Justice Center, African Services Committee, and Sauti Yetu Center for African Women and Families.
A victory in the area of language access was secured in February of 2017, and led to the addition of French, Arabic, Urdu and Polish as City service languages. With citywide agencies delivering services in French or Arabic, African immigrants can now have a deeper understanding of available services.
Fatoumata Waggeh, Civic Organizer at African Communities Together, states that “this language access victory functions as a breakthrough because it shows NYC’s commitment to protecting immigrants.” This win is also significant on a national level because the decisions made in New York City have both a national and international impact.
According to Waggeh, New York is often seen as “a model for the treatment of immigrants.” Waggeh stressed that New York City’s local government has a higher budget than Gambia’s government, again showing the significance of policy decisions made in this economically powerful city.
“Places around the country are turning to New York City for information about how to structure their local systems and processes,” Waggeh said. Consequently, New York City provides a framework for elevating members of African immigrant communities through language access.
New York’s willingness to favor the language needs of African immigrants is especially important given the release of the recent presidential Executive Order, by which which immigrants from six nations, three of which are African — Somalia, Sudan and Libya — face extreme vetting, travel restrictions, and exclusion.
As a corollary of this Executive Order, Africans will be forced to deal with the painful and chaotic repercussions of an overt Muslim ban. And while 2 federal judges have blocked the recent ban, organizations like ACT will be stretched at the seams to address the concerns of their members.
Clearly, language access is a necessary condition for New York City to stay true to its commitment to being a sanctuary city. To protect African immigrants — who are particularly vulnerable to deportation and immigration detention — delivering services in the languages they speak will be crucial. Consequently, the issue of language access is a national issue, affecting African immigrants who reside in cities nationwide.
One member of ACT, Ibrahim who was a teacher in Guinea was unclear about the credentials he needed to become a teacher in the US According to Ibrahim, had information been made available to him in French, he would have had a better chance at exploring career options.
Ibrahim highlighted the implications of this win. “Now that French is included, it will help me get a better job than what I have now. We have a lot of Africans that are educated and have degrees but cannot find jobs because of the language barrier.”
This language access victory is just beginning of the road for ACT. The organization is now able to focus on other projects. Currently, ACT is developing a language access worker cooperative, which serves to help African immigrants gain employment by providing translation services using indigenous languages. The cooperative will also provide adult English language instruction.
ACT will continue to fight for the rights of African immigrants, to ensure their voices are heard.