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‘Rock star factor’: a key to full immigrant integration

Last summer, Minneapolis City Council Member Robert Lilligren and I traveled overseas to present the success of our Twin Cities community in dealing with immigration from African nations, a vexing problem for our Swedish hosts.

There and in Denmark we made several presentations to academics, policy experts and immigrant-affairs groups in a trip organized by a Swedish colleague, Dr. Benny Carlson of the ZUFI Foundation, and sponsored by the U.S. State Department. The experience solidified an impression formed during my tour of five other European cities as part of the German Marshall Memorial Fellowship program: that the governments of Europe have generally failed to integrate immigrants into the productive side of the economy, and African refugees represent the most demonstrable failure in this regard. Too many languish on public assistance, straining their broader acceptance by society. There’s no shortage of thoughtful solutions in Europe, only a shortage of results. Why?

There are many political and social factors contributing to the frustrating problem of integration. But, from my perspective as a naturalized American, lack of opportunity for self-determination has stifled the economic potential of Africans in even the most progressive European nations. Despite their enlightened ideals, these countries are still stuck in the view that immigration is a problem rather than an opportunity.

Moving into the middle class
By contrast, Minnesota, which claims the highest percentage of African immigrants of any U.S. state, has enabled substantial economic productivity. Here, while continuing to face familiar cultural hurdles, the African diaspora has built wealth and joined society like nowhere else. While political representation remains scant, Africans are moving into the middle class, America’s political bedrock.

In Minnesota, we see good things ahead. This outlook makes Minnesota’s African community the envy of Europe. Again: how to explain this relative success? We are, of course, a nation of immigrants, and Minnesota is among the most educated, affluent and progressive states, so upward mobility is a historical, natural process. But this doesn’t explain everything.

In my recent travels to Europe I became aware of a distinguishing trait I’ll call “the rock star factor.”

After Council Member Lilligren and I would speak, we would receive polite applause. But the real interest, excitement, even adulation, was invariably reserved for Nimo Farah, the African Development Center’s program coordinator, who accompanied us on the trip. Now, for those of you unacquainted with Nimo, she is a delightful, intelligent and beautiful young woman who graduated last year from the University of Minnesota and before that was an intern for ADC. In Northern Europe, she was our Elvis Presley.

They’d seen nothing like her before
The academics and policy wonks we addressed, the immigrant groups we met with, the journalists who covered our tour — nobody had seen anything like her before. Educated, outgoing, conversant in business issues, and expecting to be accepted while dressed, albeit stylishly, in observance of her Muslim faith, Nimo engaged the imagination and the emotion of our European friends in a way that two middle-aged suits — a city official and a nonprofit executive — could not hope to equal.

Though composed and diplomatic throughout, Nimo embodied the youthful spirit of rock ‘n roll, an American invention that reacted to stifling social conditions with bold self-determination and obliterated countless barriers to social mobility and economic attainment.

Such barriers are high for my generation of African refugees, which has labored hard to find a footing in our adopted homelands. Nimo’s generation is the one that will climb on the back of mine to achieve the success we are only beginning to envision with meaningful clarity in the United States.

Our African brothers and sisters in Europe — and those few in the European mainstream who advocate for them — have suffered for lack of such a vision.

Hussein Samatar is executive director of the African Development Center, which works with African immigrants in Minnesota. The original version of this article appeared on the Random Stuff From Sheldon blog

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