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Western Pennsylvania proves to be a land of opportunity for African immigrants

Sunday, March 16, 2003

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

This winter has given Catholic priest Michael Komakec plenty to miss about the warm, emerald pastures of his homeland.

Sculptor Ibou N'Diaye of Mali, with an unfinished wood carving in his Uptown studio, works by night and cares for his 2-year-old son during the day, when his wife works. N'Diaye misses the friends of his homeland but is carving out a life here in Pittsburgh, as are many other African immigrants. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

"With this weather, there is no green thing," he said. "I get homesick for the green of Uganda. "

Komakec, 38, has been here for 2 1/2 years, earning a master's and finishing the first year of his doctorate in theology at Duquesne University. He has four years to go before he's done.

In the meantime, he works as an assistant at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church in the Hill District. He helps with the holy Eucharist, listens to confession and advises and guides worshippers in their spiritual life.

Father Michael, as he's called by parishioners, grew up in the Archdiocese of Gulu, a town about 200 miles north of the capital, Kampala.

Two years ago, a Ugandan archbishop wanted the soft-spoken priest groomed for greater things. So, he dispatched him to America for more education.

"He gave me his blessings," said Komakec, "and sent me on my way."

When he arrived in Pittsburgh, Komakec joined a community of more than 2,000 immigrant Africans who call this region home.

In the past decade, according to the latest census figures, the African population has doubled in parts of Allegheny and surrounding counties such as Beaver, Butler, Westmoreland, Fayette and Washington.

In 1990, there were 1,241 Africans -- individuals from the Northern or sub-Saharan regions of the world's second largest continent -- in Western Pennsylvania. By 2000, their numbers had jumped to 2,665. More than half make their homes in Pittsburgh; 647 in 1990 and now, more than 1,000.

Across the nation, more than 671,216 native Africans have come to the United States, more than twice the number 10 years ago. African immigrant organizations say there are more. They estimate there are as many as 1.5 million to 3 million, citing huge numbers of undocumented refugees who don't get counted.

Most who come into the United States flow in from nations colonized by Britain.

In the 20th century, they've come in five distinct waves to America, said Chudi Uwazurike, a professor of political sociology at City College in New York.

The first began right after World War I, when North Africans, mostly Arabs, white Africans from South Africa and sub-Saharan black Africans came over as visitors, curious about American civilization.

The second wave, which began around 1920, saw an increase in the number of black African students attending American universities. In their ranks were advocates pushing African independence from colonial powers. Among them was Nnamdi Azikiwe, first president of a free Nigeria, who was a classmate with Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall at Lincoln University in Chester, Pa.

These early nationalists cleared the way for the third group of immigrants -- the progressive-minded teachers, managers and business executives who came to America to learn to lead their newly independent nations.

Unfortunately, independence pushed many African nations into chaos. This spurred the fourth wave of immigration, in the 1970s, when many people left to escape the disorder as countries broke down.

In the 1980s, a fifth group found themselves attracted to the United States and other developed nations. They came seeking a better life, hoping to find America's pot of gold.

Since then, it's the more affluent and educated Africans who come, easing into local communities as those who preach, teach and help us heal. They shape our art and our charity.

In Pittsburgh, many have continued to prosper.

Most African immigrants here are solidly middle class. According to the 2000 census, they live in neighborhoods where the average household income is about $38,000, placing them slightly ahead of the Pittsburgh area median income.

Because marriage is a strong component of the African culture, equal numbers of men and women stream ashore.

That family connection aids in the transition to America, where the biggest hurdle seems to be adjusting to U.S. social customs. In Africa, the village -- their network of extended family and friends and religion -- is the anchor of life. When that is missing, they create their own worlds here.

Settling in mostly large Eastern cities -- Washington, D.C., Atlanta, New York -- their incomes provide enough housing choices to prevent them from being ghettoized.

"There are no African barrios" in America, said Uwazurike.

Deeply rooted tribal, political and religious customs define many of Africa's 53 nations. Immigrants stay connected through religious, ethnic and social groups that emphasize economic and educational issues. Locally, there are the Ghana Association and the Cotton Tree, a organization of people from Sierra Leone.

They quietly and robustly influence the American culture and the economy, said Uwazurike.

Up to 95 percent are entrepreneurs, starting businesses in consulting, restaurants, fashion and cosmetics and hairdressing. More than 25 percent of the women are nurses.

The artist, Mali

To get a sense of the work of Ibou N'Diaye, you need only to look at the wooden African Jesus that greets visitors in St. Benedict the Moor Church.

N'Diaye is from Mali. He perfected his craft growing up near the dusty cliffs of Bandiagara, where he carved, landscaped and made music to earn a living.

A large market, not too far from his village, became a haven for U.S. Peace Corps workers who came there for its splash of foods and crafts. N'Diaye met many of those workers because they were drawn to his handiwork.

It was at the market in 1996 that N'Diaye, a Muslim, was introduced to Christine Hoffer, who is Protestant and originally from Nebraska.

The two fell in love and got married in Mali.

The mix of faiths and cultures was not a problem. "I accept any kind of person," he said. "I am very open."

Two years later, the couple repeated their vows in the States, where N'Diaye followed his wife to Pittsburgh to begin a new life.

N'Diaye and his wife make their home, with their 2-year-old son, MaMadou, in Uptown. It's near to Makitaara, the art gallery that N'Diaye and two of his friends opened last year at 1505 Fifth Ave.

He has been in residency programs at Kent State University and California University of Pennsylvania. He sometimes travels to Washington, D.C., to sell his crafts.

"I'm not a citizen," said N'Diaye in his French-tinged accent. "I'm still a Malian. I tell my son, he can grow up to be whatever he wants to be."

By day, N'Diaye cares for his son. He sculpts by night.

Although he's grown accustomed to some American food, N'Diaye misses his Malian couscous and his extended social circle.

In Mali, "every morning, I wake up, I'm surrounded by friends. A lot of people come, we drink tea, we play music. More than 20 people come in the studio every day."

Here, he said, "I wake up, all the day I am alone."

The executive and the entrepreneur, Nigeria

Babatunde Fapohunda was a preacher's kid who grew up in a small Nigerian town.

His father's spiritual influence enriched the community, but the family struggled financially because Anglican ministers didn't make much money.

Abi and Babatunde Fapohunda live in Monroeville with their Australian shepherd dog, Dusty. They left Nigeria to pursue higher education in America. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Fapohunda, 50, looked at the business leaders in the community. Their stylish lives impressed him. He determined that education and hard work would be his ticket to the good life.

His wife, Abi, hailed from Lagos, Nigeria's largest city. She met her husband at a friend's holiday party just before she headed to college in England. Her dad was a quantity surveyor with the Nigerian government, and her mom was a midwife who ran her own maternity clinic. It nourished a desire for her to give back to her community.

Higher education was the bridge that brought them to America and ultimately Pittsburgh. He went to graduate school at Oklahoma State University, where he earned a master's degree in electrical engineering and then on to the University of Pittsburgh for a master's degree in energy resources. After that, he worked as an energy specialist with the state of Pennsylvania before joining Equitable Gas in 1994.

Abi joined her husband in the States in 1990. Once here, she earned a master's degree in food and nutrition at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Today, he works as a senior energy analyst with SAIC, an employee-owned research and engineering firm with a global reach. She began work as a health and nutrition consultant with her own business, FOB Group, after earning a doctorate in public health at the University of Pittsburgh.

Intelligent, social and gracious, the couple enjoy their jobs and their brick home in Monroeville, where they live with their son, Ayo, 18, and daughter, Wunmi, 14, and their dog, Dusty. He plays tennis at Monroeville's Oxford Athletic Club; she mall-walks every morning with a group of women friends.

Is it the American dream?

That is a cliche, said Babatunde Fapohunda and his wife, both naturalized American citizens. "We are blessed, and we know we're blessed," he added.

"Where we come from, it's important that you work hard to feed your family, to educate your children and put a roof over your head. If that is what you mean by the American dream, then I guess we are living the American dream."

Even from a young age, said his wife, they were told education was important because for a place like Nigeria, it was a road out of poverty and uncertainty. Although the Fapohundas enjoy a comfortable life, they remain disappointed at seeing Americans with so much take so much for granted.

"It seems like there are so many wasted opportunities and such a willingness to give up so easily, said Babatunde.

"Me, I would work harder to make a contribution, to reduce the excuses." For Abi, who studied U.S. society as a schoolgirl, Americans' lack of knowledge of global issues is disturbing.

"They know little of Nigeria or Africa," she said. "They think it's all death, disease and corruption." The Fapohundas miss Nigeria and their extended family. They feel their names and accents will forever mark them as foreigners, but they want people to know that when they talk about Pittsburgh, they are talking about home.

The professor, Senegal

For the always-smiling Jean-Jacques Sene, the world is a classroom. The La Roche College professor of African history has lived and studied in Japan, France and now Pittsburgh.

Jean-Jacques Sene, a professor from Senegal, uses a map of 15th-century Africa to teach a world history class at La Roche College. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Sene, 37, is from Dakar, Senegal. He was raised in the West African city by his secretary mom and schoolteacher dad. The family had nine children.

Sene was a graduate student in Dakar when he won a scholarship to Japan for six months. From there he went to Rennes, France, while completing his dissertation, and made a living by working on radio and running a drama program.

When he finished there, Senegal was in economic turmoil, and Sene thought he could make a greater contribution to this country and his family by working to influence policy and perceptions of African life from abroad.

He ended up at Duquesne University in 1999 to study conflict resolution and quickly gave lectures to dispel myths about Africa.

The president of La Roche saw his presentation and asked him to teach African history at the college.

Today, Sene, a chatty, vibrant man, makes his home on the South Side with his wife, Valerie, and 5-year-old daughter, Melissa. A younger brother, Pierre, 32, lives in Pittsburgh, too.

In Pittsburgh, Sene said he wants to "tap into people who are open to exploring dimensions of global problems and reach."

Although the Senes like life in America, they have no plans for petitioning for American citizenship. At times, their African values butt heads with the American way of life.

Sene grew up in a compound in Senegal that housed multiple families. The communal life nurtured togetherness and family openness. He misses that in the States.

"In African families," he said, "the home was an open place. Family and friends just dropped in. Living in the West, you have to call or schedule before you come visit."

The business student, Egypt

Hossam El-Saie, now 30, was an infant when his parents, Ahmed and Nagat, came from Cairo to America.

Hossam El-Saie was an infant when his parents came to America, although he has returned many times. His twins, Omar, left, and Salma, right, were 6 weeks old when this photo was taken on Feb. 18. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

His dad earned a doctorate in engineering in Missouri, but the family also has lived in New Jersey and Oklahoma.

In 1985, they settled in Peters, a mostly affluent community that El-Saie joked was like the "Beverly Hills, 90210" of Pittsburgh.

Life in Peters was quiet. El-Saie fit in well, playing soccer and earning membership in several academic societies.

The family spoke both English and Arabic and kept in touch with their roots by visiting Middle Eastern bakeries and finding other homeland treats in the Strip District.

As Muslims, he and his dad occasionally gave presentations on Islam and Egyptian culture during social studies classes.

Like many of us, his quiet life was shaken Sept. 11.

"It was kind of strange," said El-Saie. "On Sept. 10, neighbors and friends were [fine] with me. Then, after Sept. 11, I started to notice stares."

He said he recognizes that there is a lot of ignorance and fear regarding Islam, but he felt betrayed and didn't understand how people could change overnight.

El-Saie graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2002. He was swept away to a career as a technical consultant with a small dot-com. The company went bust, and he is back at Pitt, earning an MBA.

El-Saie has been to Egypt many times.

In January 2002, he was in Cairo for six months. He met his wife, Shereen, and they were married in April. The couple make their home in Shadyside and are the parents of newborn twins.

When he's in Cairo, it feels like home.

The standard of living is different -- roads are haphazard and towns are subject to utility blackouts -- but being around extended family is comforting.

It's always inviting in Egypt, he said. It seems, "Everyone on the street is related to you. People you've never met come up and give you a hug."

The seamstress, Ghana

The chimes tingle as you open the door to Blemahdoos dress shop at 221 E. Eighth Ave., Homestead.

Blemahdoos Dress Shop in Homestead is filled with colorful, patterned fabric and traditional African apparel created by Dosina Blemahdoo of Ghana. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

A broadly smiling, round-cheeked Dosina Blemahdoo waves visitors to come on in.

A seamstress from Ghana, Blemahdoo plans to live up to the meaning of her last name, a Ga word that translates as being older or having endurance.

She's been in Pittsburgh since 1973, coming here when her husband began studying accounting at Point Park College. She opened her dress-making shop in 1991, first in Garfield and then in Homestead.

Today, she makes the colorful, traditional clothing of her homeland, and she sells woodwork and other goods.

She wants to be around for a long time.

"The United States is a nice place to live," she said, "but living here means you have to work hard."

Blemahdoo, who grew up watching her mom sell fabrics in the marketplace, is still adjusting to a different work ethic.

In Accra, where she lived, if an item of clothing wasn't ready, her clients waited.

Here, she keeps long hours and continues to sew when she goes to her North Side home to keep on schedule.

"You have to have it ready," she said.

Blemahdoo has been a U.S. citizen for 12 years. Life has had its struggles. Her three children, ages 30, 27 and 16, were taunted with racial slurs when they first moved into a mostly white neighborhood years ago.

At 56, she can recall when Ghana won its independence from Great Britain in 1957. The unrest that followed meant people couldn't always speak freely against the government.

The ability to criticize leaders here endears her to America.

"In this place, you can fight for your rights," she said.

Blemahdoo gave up her Ghanaian citizenship but travels back about once a year to collect materials for her business.

When she first came to town, she was involved with Pittsburgh's Ghana Association, a group that assists immigrants with relocation and helps them ferry goods and funding back to family living in Africa.

But not any more. "There were a lot of Christmas and birthday parties," she said. "I'm not a party person."

Ervin Dyer can be reached at edyer@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.

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