The African Center for Community Development Seeks to Serve Recent African Immigrants: Meeting an Invisible Societal Need

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ACCD Board Member Aliko Songolo (l-r), ACCD Director of Development Jennifer Lord (on TV screen) and ACCD President Tunji Lesi

By Jonathan Gramling

The African community in the Madison area has its origins in the early 1960s as African countries gained their independence from the European colonialists who had run their countries for 100 years or more. Some of the first Africans came to study — and later to teach — at UW-Madison. Some went back to their home countries, but others stayed and made Madison their home.

But in recent decades, the African community has been expanding both in terms of countries represented and the number of African immigrants living in the Madison area, now estimated to be around 5,000. And many have come as refugees, documented and undocumented, from many parts of the African continent.

“There are refugees from Somali and Ethiopia, but those aren’t the only places,” said Dr. Aliko Songolo, a board member of the African Center for Community Development or ACCD. “I, in particular, am closely involved with refugees from Central Africa. They are

coming from East Africa, for the most part. Some of them have lived there 15-25 years as refugees away from

home. And many of these happen to be from my home country, The Democratic Republic of the Congo. We have many who came from Uganda. Some came from Tanzania, some who came from Malawi, some who came from Zambia and a few other places like that. But of course, there are many Somalians. There are many Ethiopians. There are many Sudanese from North and South Sudan. Those have been troubled areas. But you can find Senegalese as well who don’t necessarily officially come as refugees. There are many. And if you look at immigrants by the numbers in this city, you will find that Senegambians dominate. Traditionally, it’s Nigerians and Ghanaians. But I think between Somalians, Senegambians, you will find they have greater numbers here, especially the Senegambians even more than the Somalians.”

And while the African community is distinctive from the African American community due to historical and cultural developments, many in Madison assume they are one and the same.

“You hear, ‘Why don’t they join what is already here with African Americans’ and so forth,” Songolo said. “That’s not really happening. It may be a pity, but it is a fact that we have a very different background, culturally, historically and so forth and those things need to be brought together. And even within the African community — this speaks to the additional diversity of the African community — of the 54 African countries, about 30 are represented in Madison. And of those, there are many national organizations. I think I counted about 17 different African organizations. There are Nigerians, Liberians, Togolese, Congolese, Cameroonian and so forth. Each of those groups will say, ‘We’re Togolese. We’re not Nigerians.’ But people will think, ‘They are all Africans.’”

Tunji Lesi, the chair of the ACCD, noted that began as a temporary community in some ways, has put down deep roots in the greater Madison area. The community has expanded to cities like Waunakee and Sun Prairie.

“We are all having children here,” Lesi said. “They are all growing up here. They aren’t going anywhere, more than likely. They want to develop here and they want to associate with the community. Many times, children graduate from the university here and then go elsewhere because of the fact that the attachment is not really there for them. They go to other cities and they see the African immigrant population and how they are received and measured in terms of their performance as well as the impact on their communities. They want to stay there. But in the real sense, they still regard Madison as their home. They come back here many times. Many people who have left Madison eventually come back to stay here when they retire. That population is growing and it is important that we take care of that population.”

Songolo reflected that the recent waves of immigrants and refugees are different that previous ones.

“The latest waves are waves of refugees and undocumented people who come by any means possible,” Songolo said. “It’s amazing. I learned recently that Africans of the Atlantic Coast of Central Africa down south actually — places like Gabon, Cameroon, the two Congos and further south — don’t come up north to the Mediterranean like those from Senegal, The Gambia, Liberia and so forth. They go southward. They cross the Atlantic and go to Latin America and then make their way up to the Mexican border. And there are many of us as well. Many who come undocumented or even refugees who are documented, they don’t have the language. They don’t have the skills to do any kind of work. The refugees may have papers. And they are forced to find jobs within months after arriving without language or any skills. In terms of numbers, those are the fastest growing portion of the African immigrant population in Madison.”

While decision-makers in Madison and Dane County may feel that resources allocated to the African American community automatically include African immigrants, the reality is that the recent immigrants, including refugees and the undocumented, may remain isolated from any resources.

“Dane County and the city of Madison don’t know the African community,” Songolo said. “That is true, in part, because we have always remained sort of isolated because we think we’re self-sufficient. And we don’t see those who aren’t self-sufficient. And that becomes a problem for the county and the city in the long run because there is a risk of having people who go hungry or having people who don’t have shelter or having people who are not attached to any kind of community. That brings the whole quality of life of the whole city down a little bit.”

Lesi, Songolo and others connected to the African community established the African Center for Community Development back in 2014 as they saw these needs emerge. But it has been slow going because many assume that Africans are African Americans.

“All of the states in the Midwest have some kind of center for the African immigrant population,” Lesi said. “A case in point is Minneapolis. They are making such an impact into the economy of Minneapolis. Many programs there are exposing people to the diversity of Africans in Minneapolis. Madison is growing. We are beginning to see Africans taking part in many areas and getting into politics and bringing in diversity also. That’s the reason we are having the African Center. We mentioned the refugees and so on. They need to be connected to the resources. Many of these people do not know what resources are available. In fact, when they come into the country, usually within a short time, they have to get jobs to take care of themselves. They can’t be reliant on government. That’s what they are told. That’s one of the reasons why when they come in, they try everything possible to sustain themselves. Many of them don’t look for these government resources, things that would better their lives educationally and through apprenticeship and other things. That takes time. We do need a way of making sure they are aware of all of these resources and funds that the city and the county can provide. A good place to have that would be in a single building where all of this can be linked together and we would have someone who be able to direct them the resources.”

Songolo underlined the need for focused attention on this refugee population.

“It takes people a lot of time,” Songolo said about people integrating into the community. “I know a number of refugees who have been here for 3-4 years and they are still living hand-to-mouth. That’s not good. And there are more and more people like that. The ACCD is not here to beg. It is created to help people so that they can be part of the community, so that they can give to the community. If left to their own resources, they are just going to be draining resources. But if they can build themselves up because of the little help that they get in the beginning, they would be contributors to the advancement of Madison and Dane County.”

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