Africa

African migrants abandon the American dream

  • 6 April 2011
  • From the section Africa
A Kenyan immigrant in the US packs to return to Africa. Photo by Gaia Goffe
Image caption Sammy Maina says the ten years he spent in the US would have been more profitable at home in Africa

The American dream is not all it is cut out to be and some Africans are turning their backs on life in the US.

Frustrated by tough economic times in the United States, Sammy Maina is packed, ready and waiting to return to Kenya.

"I'm fed up and finished with the US," declares Mr Maina, 33, owner of a prepaid calling card firm, Myaatel, and a money transfer company, Doubles Xpress, that caters for African immigrants.

But with money scarce because of the recession, fewer and fewer immigrants can afford to purchase his international phone cards or pay to use his money transfer services.

"People here don't have money any more," complains Mr Maina, who says the "American Dream" of a big house, flashy car and piles of money was unrealistic.

Instead he found long hours, little pay and limited joy.

Life in America is so demanding, says Mr Maina, that it has cost several of his African friends their marriages and even led some to commit suicide.

"It is very difficult right now and so many people are packing and going back to Kenya in big, big numbers."

'Little Senegal'

There are an estimated one million Africans in the US.

According to the homeland security department, 130,000 Africans migrate legally to the US each year.

It is impossible to say how many returnees there are, as the evidence is anecdotal but representatives of African community associations in New York, Atlanta and Boston all say they know of large numbers of expatriates making plans to leave the US.

The reason: they cannot find jobs and have become desperate about their future here.

New York's Association of Senegalese in America has been inundated with requests from expatriates who have lost their jobs, are facing homelessness, and who want financial help to return home.

Dame Sy, a volunteer with the association, says members donate money to buy aeroplane tickets to send home Senegalese who are down on their luck in New York.

"We just sent one home in January and before that we sent between 12 and 15 last year," explains Mr Sy. "Everyday, people are talking about it."

At the association's offices in the "Little Senegal" section of Harlem, in New York, I was introduced to a 41-year-old illegal immigrant called Ndoum.

She has been having a very difficult time in the US, she says, and would happily go home to Dakar if she could find the money for a plane ticket.

Before the recession it was possible for an undocumented immigrant like her to find a menial job in a factory. Unable now to find work, and in constant fear of being seized by immigration police, Ndoum does not know what to do.

"I tell people: 'Don't come to the US now'," she says tearfully.

'Sweet Liberia'

Kenyan Irene Onyango is a 37-year-old nurse living in Delaware, near Washington DC. Her income sometimes barely covers her bills. She is also concerned that working a 16-hour day is damaging her health.

Image caption "Africans in the US will leave in record numbers." predicts pastor Shadrach Deline

When she goes to Kenya on holiday, her friends refuse to let her pay for anything because they say she has to slave to earn her money in the US.

Now that the Kenyan constitution has been amended to allow dual citizenship, Ms Onyango says she can go home and not worry that should she need to return to the US one day, she will be stopped.

"Believe me," she says, "the next plane that goes to Jomo Kenyatta airport will have me on it."

But migration expert Kathleen Newland, a director of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington DC, says what Ms Onyango and other Africans resident in the US are doing when they return to Africa, is not reverse migration.

Ms Newland says this is better described as "the formation of transnational populations" - people who keep a foot on two continents.

"I think you are very unlikely to find Africans who have settled in the US giving up the insurance policy of a green card or US citizenship to completely transfer their lives back to Africa," Ms Newland says.

What transnational people like Ms Onyango will do, she adds, is divide their lives between two places.

"What it does tell us about Africa is there is a lot more hope and optimism about the economic prospects," she says.

Liberian singer and pastor Shadrach Deline is one of several African expatriates in the US to recently release a song expressing a longing for Africa.

In Tomorrow I Am Going Home, Deline, a pastor of the Nation of Christ Believers' Fellowship Center in Atlanta, Georgia, sings he has "sweated hard" in the US. Now it is time for him to "sell his house, sell his car, sell his boat" and go home to "sweet, sweet Liberia".

In the video, Deline removes his Western-style three-piece suit and puts on an African robed garment.

Deline says the song's message resonates with African expatriates because no matter how comfortable an exile they enjoy, an African will always yearn for home.

"There will come a time," he says "when Africans will not even bother coming to the US because life will be so beautiful back in Africa. There will be no need to ever leave."

Leslie Goffe is a freelance journalist based in New York

More on this story