By Zeinab Mohammed Salih
Sub-Saharan immigrants to the U.S. challenge preconceptions, reveal highly educated individuals.
Abulrahman Alamin still clearly recalls the choice he faced nearly 40 years ago in Kuwait: Return to his native Sudan, or immigrate to the United States. He chose the latter path to pursue graduate academic studies and journalism, and today the 63-year-old resides in Washington, D.C., while reporting on corruption in his native country.
“I wanted to become a journalist in this country and to explore the culture, especially the African-American one; that’s why I went to Howard University.”
Today Alamin is a father of five and holds a master’s degree in business administration from Howard, a profile similar to that of many immigrants in the U.S. who are from sub-Saharan Africa share.
An analysis by the Pew Research Center finds that sub-Saharan immigrants in the U.S. are generally more highly educated than such immigrants living in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Portugal – the European countries that have historically been the leading destinations for sub-Saharan immigrants. Additionally, the Pew analysis found that sub-Saharan immigrants in the U.S. are more likely than the overall U.S.-born population to have at least some college experience, a pattern also found in the U.K. and Portugal.
The findings are significant as immigration continues to shape the political debates taking place across much of the world, including the U.S. and much of Europe, a continent that this decade has experienced a surge of refugees from Africa, the Middle East and other countries wracked by conflict.
The Pew study was released in the spring and came months after U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly used a derogatory term at the beginning of the year to describe countries in Africa, the Caribbean and in Latin America. The president has repeatedly championed a merit-based system for immigration, implying that immigrants from those countries are a financial drain on U.S. taxpayers.
The Pew study suggests otherwise. Among its most significant findings:
- In the U.S., 69 percent of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa who are 25 and older said in 2015 they had at least some college experience. That compares to 63 percent reported by the U.S.-born population.
- In the U.S., U.K. and Portugal, a higher share of sub-Saharan immigrants than the native born have some college education.
- Immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa living in the U.S. are somewhat more likely to be employed than their counterparts in Portugal, France and Italy.
- The majority of sub-Saharan immigrants in U.S. and top European destinations arrived a decade ago or earlier.
After earning an undergraduate degree in economics in Kuwait, Alamin says he worked in the Middle Eastern country for two years as a journalist. A career in diplomacy was awaiting him in his home of Sudan, but he says he preferred a life chronicling events. He decided to immigrate to the U.S. in November 1978 and first attend the historically black Howard to better understand the experiences of African Americans. He used his savings accrued in Kuwait to earn the MBA.
The early 1980s was an auspicious time to cover Washington politics for Middle Eastern news outlets, Alamin says. The Camp David accords signed between Egypt and Israel, as well as the diplomatic standoff between the U.S. and Iran over the hostage crisis, had heightened the region’s interest in America. He worked as the North America bureau chief for the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and then the Majalla magazine. Alamin later left those positions to found the Washington Agenda, an Arabic daily.
More than a decade after Alamin arrived, the U.S. diversity immigrant visa program, also known as the green card lottery, provided Ian Omole the opportunity to head to America. The lottery requires applicants to have at least a high school education, and in 1996 Omole says the program enabled him to leave his native Kenya.
“By then there were no opportunities in Kenya and it was like a trend, everyone was trying to emigrate and go somewhere else.”
Omole, 44, first completed finishing high school and then studied social work at Nairobi University, allowing him to work with the mentally ill in Kenya for two years. Omole arrived in the U.S. and says he studied interactive television programming in Maryland, a focus that allowed him to work for four years at a broadcasting company before quitting to work as a hotel receptionist. He is now planning to enroll at Howard University to study hotel management and then return to Kenya to establish his own hotels.
The number of immigrants from Africa who have come to the U.S. has sharply increased this century. In 2000, about 800,000 African immigrants lived in the U.S. But by 2015, that figure had increased to 2.1 million, or roughly one out of 20 immigrants in the country. From 2010 to 2016, about a quarter of sub-Saharan Africans entered the U.S. through the green card lottery.
Nearly all sub-Saharan immigrants in the U.S. – 92.9 percent – are employed, a percentage similar to the U.S.-born population, according to Pew. The group of immigrants may initially accept lower-skilled jobs that don’t match their education, says Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies, a New York-based think tank.
“But they are better able to integrate because they can navigate their new environment better, as they likely have a better grasp of English and other life skills,” Appleby says. Sub-Saharan immigrants also are upwardly mobile once they enter the workplace, Appleby adds, noting however that if they are educated at a high school level, they will find that obtaining higher education in the U.S. is difficult because of the cost and competition.
“They are hardworking and are a net benefit to the economy, though.”
Still, African immigrants face many hurdles in building a new life in the U.S., says Imbolo Mbue, an émigré from Cameroon who lives in New York and is author of “Behold the Dreamers,” a PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel that critically examines the American Dream. The U.S. is a difficult nation for immigrants to navigate, Mbue says.
“African immigrants should be better educated about this country and be more aware of what they are getting into.”
Alamin, the journalist, says he is currently pursuing a second master’s degree in strategic studies to boost his investigative reporting skills in the area of financial crimes. He says he is building an as-yet unpublished website specializing in disclosing corruption stories in Sudan.
“I would like to pass on my knowledge and experiences to the younger generations in Sudan, working on some media projects, wishing to have a new generation of investigative journalism reporters … which is absent in Sudan.”
Zeinab Mohammed Salih is a Daniel Pearl Fellow with the Alfred Friendly Press Partners fellowship program.