Posts Tagged ‘African’

The Challenge of Integration

December 5, 2008

Walking from the U of M West Bank to the Cedar-Riverside Lightrail station, one is awed by the looming towers affectionately dubbed the “Crack Shacks” (I am told the name dates back to their former use as college dorms).  Awe may  not be the right word to describe what one feels looking up at these misshapen Eastern European towers distinguished only by their refusal to blend and their randomly-positioned multicolor panels.  These Riverside Plaza towers, once highlighted as the residence of Mary Richards from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, are now home to almost 3500 people, predominantly immigrant families, and they give this portion of Minneapolis a distinct multicultural feel.  Somali cafes, Thai restaurants, the Cedar Cultural Center, Halal groceries, Ethiopian eateries – all of these are a welcome change to the gentrified Seven Corners just down the street.

As I continue walking the 15 minutes to the LightRail stop, I pass the Brian Coyle Community Center (BCCC).  Often crowds of teenagers are outside playing basketball or catching up on gossip.  Some stand, heads together, listening to the latest tunes.  Somali elders walk the sidewalk with canes, and an old woman in a hijab flosses her teeth with a twig.  This Community Center is always alive, always full of laughter and shouting and life.  It is sobering to think that just a few months ago a 22-year-old Somali man was shot to death right where I am standing.

By all accounts, this Augsburg College student had big dreams of achieving great things and contributing to his Somali community.  He chose to work at BCCC because he hoped to have an impact on Somali youth.  It is unfathomable to think that he was shot at 5 p.m., in broad daylight, after finishing his routine volunteer shift; it is similarly shocking to think that five young Somalis have been murdered in the past 12 months.

Prior to the Somali Civil War beginning in 1991, about 20-30 Somalis called Minnesota home.  Local Somali historian Saeed Osman Fahia, executive director of the Somali Community in Minnesota, now estimates that number at nearly 60,000. While this past month saw the United States refuse to accept any more Somali refugees due to suspected fraudulent papers, the Somali community here in Minnesota is a well-established and vibrant ethnic community. (Carlyle, Erin CityPages)

Fahia says it all began as young Africans tried to fit in to American schools.  Feeling ostractized, they formed ganges called the Rough Tough Somalis and the Hot Boyz to defend themselves and carve out a community niche for themselves.  The No Child Left Behind Act, which placed significantly stricter laws on foreign language instruction, shook the very core of the Somali academic community.  In reaction to what Somali youth saw as a disrespect and ignorance of their culture, some youth formed gangs called the Murda Squad, the Riverside Riders, the Somali Mafia, and Madhibaan With Attitude.  These informal “gangs” never really achieved widespread popularity (Minneapolis police estimate 150 out of the 60,000 Somalis belong to a gang), but their sheer existence denotes a growing discontent in the Somali youth community following the turn of the millenium. ((Carlyle, Erin CityPages)

Police are still investigating Ahmednur Ali‘s murder.  It is frustrating for everyone to see an ethnic group like the Somalis struggle with this inter-cultural conflict.  Sadly, this is the expression of far too many disadvantaged or discriminated immigrant communities.  Lacking a viable way to address the root of their problems, often the worst violence is directed within the community.  The rise in gang violence and tribalism in the Somali community coincided with the downsizing of foreign language and international appreciation programs in American schools.  As the economy tightens and Latino immigrants struggle over the same jobs as Somali refugees, both groups have tended to blame each other rather than the industries and employers who deliberately hire unauthorized workers and then keep then undocumented as long as possible. (Relerford, Patrice The Star Tribune)

People acculturate.  People change.  The only reason immigrant communities fail to integrate is because the community they join refuses to be responsible for their integration.  While some Minnesota schools have risen to this challenge, other ESL departments and core curriculum courses have not given a good-faith effort to ensure these first-generation Somali youths have a decent chance in America. It is all too easy to write off these gang murders as echoes of the lawlessness and piracy of current Somalia.  However, a true look at these tragic killings reveals our own failure to advocate for integration of ALL.  America has always been a land of immigrants, and as international conflicts and nation-state boundaries create a growing number of refugees, America must live up to its responsibility to integrate these refugees and asylum-seekers into our nation.  The Beloved Community Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about so often at the end of his life has yet to be fully realized.  Integration is the last civil rights issue – economic crisis or not, this must be one of the most pressing issues for us all.

Barriers to Integration

October 26, 2008

Friendship Park in Imperial Beach, California, has long stood as a symbol of Amistad and brotherhood between the United States and Mexico. 160 years after the border was established at this point, people now speak and kiss and sing through the wire fence. At times it is eerily reminiscent of prison visitations, with legal immigrants like Manuel Meza sharing coffee through the fence with his wife who was deported several years ago (Archibold, Randal). If they concentrate on each other’s faces, the fence almost seems to disappear as it moves out of focus…

The Department of Homeland Security, however, is repartitioning this monument to international goodwill. New fencing will create a no-man’s land barrier, ending Meza’s routine coffee hour with his wife, interrupting the yoga sessions that occur on both sides of the border concurrently, solidifying a distance which doesn’t exist between the Mexicans and Americans of San Diego. Another part of this new DHS plan is to fill in Smuggler’s Gulch with tons of dirt, yet one more sacrifice of beauty in exchange for control. Years ago, Pat Nixon came to this place and said, “I hate to see a fence anywhere.” Representative Bob Filner is opposing DHS’s plans to destroy this park & the cooperation it represents, while chief patrol officer Michael Fisher says, “It’s a real shame…[b]ut unfortunately, any time you have an area that is open, the criminal organizations are going to exploit that.” One might say it is akin to permanently shutting down the airports to prevent another 9/11, opting for maximum security at the sake of freedom.

But for now, San Diego and Tijuana are still united, if only here at Friendship Park. Rev. John Fanestil, a United Methodist minister, still conducts communion through the fence to people like Juventino Martin Gonzalez who was deported last month after 20 years working and raising a family on the other side of that fence. It is easy to understand the real reason why a wire fence will no longer do – one look across that fence, north or south, can only remind the viewer that we are all united, all the same, all one. (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/22/us/22border.html?_r=1&emc=tnt&tntemail1=y&oref=slogin)

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Another barrier to immigration is the employers who would just as soon see extralegal immigrants remain illegal and undocumented. As long as our laws allow economy to trump dignity, this abuse of power will continue. This past week, though, Knickerbocker Avenue in Brooklyn saw a victory for immigrant workers. After years of hard work, Andrew Friedman and the Make the Road New York organization have successfully brought civil suits against employers who extorted and took advantage of immigrant workers. The courts ruled that a local fruit stand owed $28,000 in back pay, a dollar store owed $70,000, a sneaker chain $400,000. Yet for every one of these employers, hundreds more continue to profit from the inability of their workers to achieve full citizenship status. (Clines, Francis)

If citizenship is the first step, education is the next on the path to integration. A Migration Policy Institute survey just found that 1/5 immigrants with college degrees are unemployed or working in unskilled labor fields. (Aizenman, N.C.) These 1.3 million legal and extralegal immigrants could be vital contributors to our economy, yet their lack of English fluency and nativist feelings keep them from using their valuable skills. More than half of Latin-American college graduates are working unskilled jobs, and that number only falls to 1/3 for those living here 10 years or more. African immigrants have the highest unemployed rates of all immigrant groups in the U.S.

Iraqi refugees are given three-month stipends when they come here. Pressed to find a job and integrate rapidly, many highly-skilled professionals are scrambling for a minimum-wage job. My friend and ESL conversation partner starts his job at a furniture factory tomorrow, despite the fact that he ran two such factories in Iraq. His friend, a nationally renowned sculptor, hopes to get a job laying bathroom tile.

Because few foreign credentials transfer to the United States and few immigrants are given the language education they need, we miss out on the contributions of so many. Surely we can do better.

(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2008/10/23/ST2008102300319.html)

The History of the World in America

May 25, 2008

Traveling Europe, one is enmeshed in a profound history reminiscent of Tolkien´s Middle Earth.  The oaks of Gernika which give the Basques shade also survived both world wars and a bloody civil war as well.  The cathedrals like St. Maria´s in Vitoria or the Cathedral in Burgos have endured the changing of styles, religions, plagues, and multiple conquests, and are still being updated and remodeled today.  Murallas, or city walls, have lasted far beyond their initial purpose of staving of the Moors, or the Romans, or the Crusaders, or the Vikings.  Storefronts and house facades have seen a seemingly infinite cycle of businesses, hopes, and dreams flow through their doors.  Traditional music harks back centuries, foods to times immemorable.  One is overwhelmed with the constant reminders of mankind´s propensity for benificence, penchant for creativity, susceptibility to power´s corrupting influence, and ability to endure, endure, endure.

 America makes up for its lack of profound history with its wide open spaces, its distances which both offer hope and anonymity.  This fledgling country has struggled and largely succeeded in creating a rich history in a matter of centuries.  Being young, it still views itself outside of the history of the rest of the world.  Being new, the United States has been able to escape some of the deep-rooted tribal wars, linguistic and cultural disparities, and woeful dictatorships which have shaped so much of the rest of the world.  Being still green, the United States has been able to be progressive and forward thinking at a rate much faster than more established nations in the rest of the world. 

However, in the past few decades, America has seemingly tried to catch up with the rest of the world´s bloody history by becoming the aggressor and instigator in several violent conflicts which have destroyed nations and families while bolstering our military power in a time when nations should be disarming.  Caught up in a global power struggle for economic dominance, we have been unable to ensure all citizens are ensured basic medical care which is standard throughout the E.U. and our neighbor Canada.  The American motto seems to be that if businesses succeed, then people will also succeed.  In Europe, I have lived with the opposite, this philosophy that if people benefit then surely businesses will also prosper by proxy.  And now our xenophobic and nativist sentiments have become so loud that we are already constructing portions of a 700-mile border wall on our nation´s southern border. 

Traveling Europe, it is impossible to ignore how every decision is steeped in history and every choice has far-reaching repercussions.  Haphazard borders have plagued Europe every bit as much as Asia and Africa.  Rigid borders ignore real problems and so also avoid real solutions.  Rather than focusing on renewed diplomacy and meaningful compromise, borders insist that neighboring countries can continue existing despite a gross disparity of wealth, rights, and standard of living just across an imaginary line. 

The permeability of the E.U.’s open borders should be a model of the rest of the world. Though not perfected as yet, the idea of flexible borders legitimizes the basic human propensity and right to migrate.  It has occurred for thousands and thousands of years, from Phoenicians to the Gaels, from Vikings to African tribes, from the Moors to the Hebrews, from the Greeks to the Romans, from the Gauls and the Polynesians to the Huns and the Mongolians, from the Persians and Babylonians to the Egyptians and Europeans.  Humans migrate.  To deny this basic fact by erecting impassable borders or sinister Secure Fences is to design a system which, by definition, must fall because it is contrary to natural law. 

As a teacher, it pains me to think of the billions which have been spent and the billions proposed to be spent on the completion of a border wall touted as a stalling tactic for immigration.  Working with eager ESL students and their families desiring assimiliation, I weep to think of how much those billions of dollars could mean for their integration into modern American society.  For in the end, the history of the world teaches us that it is not conquest but community that matters, integration not destruction, assimilation not annihilation, love and not fear, nonviolence and not violence.  Dr. King warned us that, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”  I believe MLK would also have extended this apt warning to programs such as anti-immigration tactics like border walls.  Nations which spend more money on separation than integration are bound for disaster.  Countries which hold national security above international community are in a sad state indeed; as Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty or security.” 

From the banks of the Rio Bravo in Texas to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Spain, the whole world is hoping America will learn from history as it continues to write history in this 21st century.  Our legacy is yet unfinished; we still have time to stop such medieval gestures as a border wall and to regain our place as a progressive nation embracing the global community.   


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