On a recent chilly fall day, Bourema Niambele wore a black dashiki—a thin, loose, dress-like garment worn by West African men—to work. He complemented the African attire with his regular cowboy hat and orange, pointed toe shoes.
In the past, distinctive outfits like this would have made African immigrants in the Bronx vulnerable to hate crimes. But Niambele now wears it with confidence. After two years of outreach programs, Niambele and other African community leaders have carved a place for their traditions in the Boogie Down Bronx.
For many years, Africans in the Bronx felt targeted by African-American youth because of their “otherness,” which was evident from the way they dressed. The two groups led a frosty coexistence with very little contact. But in 2009, when violence against African immigrants reached its peak, community leaders began speaking out. The Bronx police crime investigation unit looked at 21 reported incidents involving African immigrants and determined that some were hate crimes.
The number of African immigrants in the Bronx has grown substantially in recent years. The 2010 Census estimate puts African-born populations in the borough at 70,000 – a significant increase from only 12,063 sub-Saharan Africans in 1990. Community leaders believe the number could surpass 100,000 if their American-born children and those in the country illegally were counted.
The community’s campaign for recognition began with two public forums in 2009 that launched a partnership with police, the New York City Housing Authority, schools, and other service agencies in the borough.
“The forum was a historic event for the African community because, if we were not organized, all those things couldn’t have come to light,” said Niambele, who emigrated from Mali in 1998.
By the end of 2010, African immigrants reported fewer than five incidents. Niambele, a father of four who splits his time between New York and Mali, attributes most of the success to a dialogue between African and African-American youth and community leaders.
“There were a lot of misunderstandings,” he said. “The criminals attacked Africans thinking that they are weak and they carried money around because they don’t have bank accounts.”
Niambele, 48, is a community liaison for the African Advisory Council, a group that advises the Bronx borough president on issues involving Africans immigrants. In early 2010, after a series of meetings, the council was set up to address concerns raised by African community members about crimes, housing and discrimination in schools.
Since it was founded, Niambele’s advisory council, in collaboration with religious and community leaders, has been running intercultural education workshops. Members regularly meet with elected officials and attend police precinct and community board meetings to create visibility for African immigrants.
“We are no longer watching from the sidelines,” said Niambele. “We are getting involved in the conversations and educating our neighbors about African people and their culture.”
But not everyone agrees that Africans were targeted because of their race or religion. Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, founder of the K-12 Islamic Leadership School in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, doesn’t think the assaults were unique to Africans.
“There is no problem between the Africans and African-Americans – none whatsoever,” said Drammeh, who immigrated from Africa 26 years ago. “There are ample problems in the community in which both groups reside.” He argued that non-Africans have been enduring similar problems in these high-crime neighborhoods. But because Africans “are too small, too new and too unfamiliar with such crimes, anything that affects us gets magnified,” he said.
He admitted that, in a few cases, someone who speaks a different language and dresses differently could be seen as a threat. “But at the end of the day, these are criminals who have nothing to do but hurt people,” said Drammeh.
The father of three who’s labored his way to a modest life by driving a taxi, working as a security guard, doorman, real estate agent and stockbroker, acknowledges some natural tensions are unavoidable. “Tensions between the haves and the have-nots are universal,” Drammeh said.
In a neighborhood that’s already hurting from cycles of poverty and violence, success can be hard for some neighbors to swallow. “The African-American who has been living in these neighborhoods his entire life may say, wait a minute, I can’t even pay my bills – how come this immigrant is driving a fancy car,” said Drammeh.
Such misconceptions may have contributed to discrimination against immigrants from the community. Language problems also lead to suspicions on both sides. Most Africans lack the language skills to explain how they made money.
“That’s how tensions begin to emerge. You hear expressions like ‘go back to your country,’” said Drammeh. Even after having been robbed, shot at twice and beaten up by African-American youth, he insists there is no inborn hatred between the two communities.
Drammeh, who also anchors the African Union Profile at BronxNet television, understands all Africans may not share his views but advises caution about the message the community and mainstream media are sending. “We are not whiners,” he said. “We have to lead.”
The influx of African immigrants is changing the borough in many ways even though they only make up about 6.9 percent of Bronx’s total population. Colorfully dressed Muslim African women and men wearing traditional African clothing are common sights on the streets of Morrisania and Highbridge, two neighborhoods where the group is heavily concentrated. Businesses are booming with strings of African-owned garages, restaurants, hair salons, churches and mosques.
A 2010 study conducted by Fordham University’s African and African-American Studies department found at least 19 mosques, 15 churches, 19 markets, nine restaurants, 19 movie rental stores, six hair-braiding salons, six newspapers and two law firms, all owned and operated by Africans in Bronx. To accommodate this growing community, Fordham University started offering a course in a Ghanaian language, Asante-Twi. According to the study, Bronx is home to the largest community of Ghanaians anywhere outside Ghana.
It is hard to ignore the presence of these diverse communities, hailing from more than 20 African nations. In Morrisania alone, between 163rd and 171st Streets, there are two African restaurants, a chicken slaughter market, half a dozen car repair shops, a mosque, and a shipping agency that transports cars and other items to West Africa and raw materials from Africa to the Bronx.
Tribal, ethnic and national distinctions run deep. In some cases, the political wrangling in their home countries play out intensely in the Bronx. For example, for Guineans of Fulani ethnicity, their country’s president, Alpha Conde, is a despised tyrant. But Mandingo owned stores near 167th Street and Sheridan Avenue proudly display a big picture of the president on their storefront welcoming him to the recent UN General Assembly. The Mandingos, also known as Mandinka, are Conde’s ethnic group and West Africa’s largest.
Tension between the two groups has escalated in recent years. After Conde’s controversial election a year ago, friends in the Bronx have cut ties and do not speak to one another. Amara Kourouma, 43, who owns a specialty store in Highbridge, joked, “Don’t take a photo and send the Fulanis to beat me up.” It is hardly a joke. When Conde spoke at the World Leaders Forum in September, dueling protests erupted outside Columbia University and their confrontation led to arrests.
Drammeh, the Islamic leader and community activist, has grappled with how to address this problem for years. He’s now seeing hope in initiatives like the African Advisory Council. “We come from a continent that is chopped off to the point where we can no longer work together because of our differences,” he said. “The council helps eliminate these kinds of self-destroying backgrounds that we have by bringing people together.”
Their involvement in the council and events in the borough has brought other successes to this thriving immigrant community. There are at least 10 Africans serving on community boards throughout the borough.
A handful of Africans from the Bronx work in city and state governments. “A lot of us are doing well but no one knows us,” Drammeh said sipping tea, his favorite drink, at his Islamic school on a recent Thursday. “Now we have the African Advisory Council that brings our voice to the table –magnifies our strength and lessens our weaknesses.”
Drammeh is active in everything concerning African and Muslim community in the Bronx. He is the CEO of Halalfinder.com, a website that allows users to buy and sell products online; a school principal; an imam; a TV host; a publisher; a community board member, and a member of the Bronx Clergy Task force. But none of those titles can define the six-footer who refuses to identify his country of origin and simply chooses Africa. To him, the boundaries that separate African nations don’t exist. “We are all from Africa,” he said.
Drammeh has bigger dreams for Africans in New York, especially the Bronx. He is training what he calls “the future generation of African leaders” who he hopes will redefine what it is to be an African and also fight the “self-inflicted segregation” among Africans. His students, most of them high-school aged girls, publish the Muslim Community Report, an online and print newspaper he founded earlier this year to cover Muslims and Africans in New York City.
“There are almost one million Africans in New York City. We should not allow anybody to define us,” he said. “We may start small but in the next 10 years, we’re going to build a giant media house that speaks for us, by us and for ourselves.”
Most Africans in the Bronx are faith-based entrepreneurs who are also family oriented. Concerned about the quality and safety of public schools, many send their children back to Africa for schooling. Others are working to instill their Islamic faith in the youth at an early age.
Abraham Jones, an African-American community leader, director of Claremont Neighborhood Inc. and a board member at Community District 3, values the contribution of Africans to the neighborhood. “This is a country where people work hard and get rewarded for it,” said Jones who’s been active in efforts to bridge the gap of understanding between the two communities.
“I’d like to see African-Americans opening businesses like the Africans but because of reasons including the way we’ve been indoctrinated, we don’t work together or work as hard. So we can’t really complain.”
Like Drammeh, Jones is hesitant to categorize the tension between the two groups as race bias. “It may look like prejudice but I think it’s an issue of acclimation,” he said. “If someone is engaged on telephone conversations while walking down the street – not aware of their neighborhood – the criminal elements are going to take advantage of that.”
It is a reason why his center started an outreach program with the aim of teaching African immigrants to be self-aware and understand the social fabric of their neighborhoods. The center offers daycare services and cross-cultural educational opportunities where community members bring food, share and talk about their respective cultures.
Niambele, who’s worked closely with Jones on those community outreach programs, agreed. A lot of the alleged tensions could be attributed to poor adjustment. “We grew up in an environment where in your neighborhoods no one will attack you,” said Niambele. “That is not the case here.”
His advisory council has teamed up with Jones’s center to teach Africans how to avoid those preventable crimes by paying close attention to their surroundings at all times.
As more Africans come to the Bronx, establish themselves and get involved in various organizations, they hope that their community will accept them. “We want to be recognized for our positive contributions to this community,” said Niambele, who works as site supervisor at an afterschool program in Manhattan.
“No one should be targeted for his or her outfit.”