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Amaha Kassa: Reforming the African Immigrant Experience

Bold Idea: While debates brew about immigration reform in the United States, Amaha Kassa is reframing the problem and turning his efforts to helping African immigrants in the U.S. improve their lives, the country they live in, and their countries of origin.

Most approaches to the issue of immigration start with by seeing it as a big picture problem. A concept that affects foreign relations, the economy, law, the environment.

2012 Open Society Black Male Achievement Fellow Amaha Kassa takes a different approach. He begins with the immigrants—the individuals whose desire for change was powerful enough to make them uproot from everything familiar and start their lives from square one. Focusing it even further, he begins with the immigrant community he knows best, from personal experience.

His parents came from Ethiopia, and Amaha was a first-generation college student in the US. He doesn’t attribute his own success to a boot-strapping initiative; he remembers instead the family members and community that supported him through college and into his budding career in activism. While working in Oakland on behalf of workers’ rights, he realized that other ethnic communities had a strong base of collective support, but that African immigrants, typically, did not.

ACT brings together members from diverse communities of residence, countries of origin, and backgrounds around common issues, values, and identities. Amaha starts by becoming intimately acquainted with immigrant groups in various parts of the city, identifying the communities’ natural leaders, and equipping them to create their own solutions for thriving in the United States.This idea is the cornerstone of African Communities Together (ACT), the fledgling organization he leads in New York City working to support and empower Africans in America and on the African continent in order to increase the diaspora’s social, economic, and political power.

This idea of thriving is a harder sell than you might guess. Amaha says that while other ethnic immigrants in ages past came to the US principally to reinvent their lives as Americans, Africans tend to maintain the mindset of refugees. Many of them intend only to stay as long as they must, saving enough money or waiting out a political storm, before returning to their homeland.

Statistically, that return almost never happens. But the belief that it will, or that it should, creates an impediment to these immigrant communities learning how to thrive within their new homeland.

“I think that, frankly, people have sort of taken for granted that [Africans] don’t want to integrate, when a lot of times it has to do with not being able, or not knowing how,” Amaha explains.

Knowing this mindset gives him an edge on knowing how to inform communities, and it starts with connecting with individuals. People like Mary, the Ghanian woman in the Bronx, who approached Amaha after a presentation ACT gave in her neighborhood about the impact of currently debated immigration reform policies on the African immigrant community.

“She said, ‘You were talking about the 11 million people without papers here in the U.S. I wanted you to know that I am one of the 11 million, and I want to do something about this.’ She then went back to the store where she works, and as African immigrants come into the store, she talks to them about these issues. She signs them up to be part of a presentation about ACT and what we’re doing. She’s signed fifteen people up who have come to her store.

“I could tell a dozen more stories of folks like that,” he says fondly, sounding like a proud parent. “People who have been waiting for something like this, who are ready to go, to take on and do so much more than I ever would have expected.”

The hope is that the result of these individual connections will be a collective change in the African diaspora. And that, he says, adds up to a change in the major issues that concern immigration.

“Diasporas matter a lot in how the U.S. relates to where people come from,” Amaha says. “And given the profound struggles for democracy, development, and progress that people are facing on the African continent, our long-term ambition for ACT is that we not only help people improve their quality of life in the communities where we’re organizing, but that we’re adding their voice to national policy debates.”

“Immigration is such a huge and diverse phenomenon; it’s transforming the world.” Amaha is clear that it’s a transformation that happens not only on a global political scale, but also in real time, with real people. “Watching the relief, the excitement, that people feel that they’re not alone, and know that help is available—that’s been really inspiring.”

Be Bold: When Amaha shifted his focus from the problem—disconnected and unsupported communities—to the assets—natural leaders within a vibrant diaspora—he became capable of working towards a unique solution. Follow African Communities Together to learn more about the resources for African immigrants.

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