The 2000 Census recorded 881,300 U.S. residents who were born in Africa. By 2005, the number had reached 1.25 million, according Brookings Institution researcher Jill Wilson. Since 1990, the African population has more than tripled in places as far-flung as Atlanta, Seattle and Minneapolis, where Africans now constitute more than 15 percent of the black population. The biggest magnets are New York City and greater Washington, including its Maryland and Virginia suburbs; Wilson estimates that the African-born population in each area has soared past 130,000.

African Immigrants Find Opportunity

By David Crary (Saturday, June 16, 2007)

"I feel bad about that racism but when I come here now, I didn't feel it at all. I would never think someone would discriminate against me," she said. "I don't have any bad feelings for black Americans, but I am not one of them. ... I'm not a black American, I'm not a white American. I'm an Ethiopian." -- Tigist Mengesha, Ethiopian Immigrant

They range from surgeons and scholars to illiterate refugees from some of the world's worst hellholes a dizzyingly varied stream of African immigrants to the United States. More than 1 million strong and growing, they are enlivening America's cities and altering how the nation confronts its racial identity.

Some nurture dreams of returning to Africa for good one day. But many are casting their lot permanently in America, trying to assimilate even as they and their children struggle to learn where they fit in a country where black-white relations are a perpetual work-in-progress.

"To white people, we are all black," said Wanjiru Kamau, a Kenyan-born community activist in Washington, D.C. "But as soon as you open your mouth to some African-Americans, they look at you and wonder why you are even here.

"Except for the skin, which is just a facade, there is very little in common between Africans and African-Americans. We need to sit down and listen to each other's story."

The 2000 Census recorded 881,300 U.S. residents who were born in Africa. By 2005, the number had reached 1.25 million, according Brookings Institution researcher Jill Wilson.

Since 1990, the African population has more than tripled in places as far-flung as Atlanta, Seattle and Minneapolis, where Africans now constitute more than 15 percent of the black population. The biggest magnets are New York City and greater Washington, including its Maryland and Virginia suburbs; Wilson estimates that the African-born population in each area has soared past 130,000.

As director of the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation, Kamau deals with some of the most hard-off newcomers dispossessed refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone and other war-ravaged countries. They have been arriving at a pace of roughly 20,000 a year. Many of those from rural areas have never before used modern appliances and, in some cases, can't read or write their native languages, let alone English, she said.

"I cry a lot when I see the people being settled here," Kamau said. "Some are very frustrated, because the culture is so different from what they know."

The flip side of the refugee influx is a wave of sophisticated professionals who also are making their way to the United States. Census data from 2000 shows 43 percent of Africans in the U.S. have college degrees, higher than the adult population as a whole. Compared to African-Americans, the immigrants' average household income is higher and their jobless rate lower.

They include hardworking couples such as Tigist Mengesha and her husband, Girum Ethiopians trying to build their own version of the American dream in the mostly black suburb of Suitland, Md.

Girum, 36, was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2002 because of political tensions in Ethiopia.

Tigist joined him two years later, bringing their sons Biniyam and Fitsum, now 7 and 6.

The family had lived comfortably in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, with their own walled home and servants to look after the children while Girum worked as a bank manager and Tigist as an executive secretary.

In Washington, Girum had to resume his banking career at the bottom, as a teller, but has worked his way up to assistant manager and is pursuing a master's degree at a business college.

Tigist is a family counselor at a Head Start center, advising many Ethiopians as well as a few African-American parents. "In some ways, life is harder here," she said. "But we have hope we are adjusting ourselves to the new situation."

She notes that they can't afford hired help and scramble to raise their sons while working full-time. On the bright side, however, they recently bought a townhouse.

Tigist said her relations with African-Americans have mostly been amicable, though on occasion she has sensed ill-feelings. "Some people, they treat you as if you don't know anything," she said, "as if you're from the jungle."

Lack of knowledge can cut both ways. Tigist is gradually learning details of America's racial history, even watching the TV mini-series "Roots."

"I feel bad about that racism but when I come here now, I didn't feel it at all. I would never think someone would discriminate against me," she said. "I don't have any bad feelings for black Americans, but I am not one of them. ... I'm not a black American, I'm not a white American. I'm an Ethiopian."

Democratic president candidate Barak Obama, son of a black Kenyan father and white American mother, has wrestled with similar issues. Some skeptics have doubted whether his background will appeal to black voters, and he recalled in his memoirs that he was rebuffed by national civil rights groups when he was younger.

Jacqueline Copeland-Carson, an African-American scholar with Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, is optimistic that African immigrants and African-Americans will outgrow any strains, which she blames partly on stereotypes.


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