Are Immigrants the Secret Weapon to Helping Black People Advance In America?

Updated: Oct 1

And Cleveland, OH Enters the Race to Become the New Wakanda.

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Esther Ngemba says Cleveland feels a bit “relaxed” at the moment. Though, that’s partly because the pandemic has limited the number of things there are to do. It’s also been about four months since the incidents surrounding George Floyd sparked a chain reaction of protests and riots in cities across the country. The present calmness is but a temporary reprieve before the coming chaos. Ohio was a swing-state in 2016; the stakes are higher than ever now. And a presidential debate kicks off in the city tonight. Further, the momentary calm belies the storm of uncertainty amid rising cultural tensions. As a younger millennial, Ngemba is acutely aware of this moment. No stranger to adversity, she heads willingly into the fray with an infectious optimism that may just be the ray of hope we need. Joe Cimperman is a native Ohioan fighting for a renewed vision of the city where others like Ngemba can rise and shine.

@dj_johns1 on Unsplash

In Cleveland, there’s a cultural rift between blacks in America and African immigrants that dates back decades. Of course, the primary distinction boils down to volition—one group has come voluntarily while another are the descendants of those brought here against their will. That context makes all the difference for embracing America as a land of opportunity. However, the connective tissue is the idea of overcoming adversity, of demonstrating resilience even in the face of overwhelming odds. Esther Ngemba’s family became refugees during the Second Congo War. Like other hundreds of thousands, her family fled to Uganda and lived in one of the many settlements before coming to America. Ngemba recalls fragments, being only seven years old at the time. “I remember soldiers yelling for us to open the door,” describes Ngemba. “My older brother was looking around for the keys and couldn’t find them. If we didn’t open the door, they threatened to start shooting.”

Ngemba notes that her parents had hoped she might’ve been young enough to forget the entire ordeal (Indeed, she has a way of factually describing things, without the accompanying trauma one might expect). She was twelve years old when she arrived in America. Now at 21, Ngemba is enrolled in college while interning at Global Cleveland, an organization working to attract more newcomers like herself. She also operates an online business selling Congolese-inspired housewares and cuisine. The circumstances of her arrival are perhaps as complicated and horrifying as slavery itself. And like the black American experience, the residual trauma—however suppressed—remains, even as the memory fades.

Native-born Americans can easily take immigrants for granted or worse, as Joe Cimperman explains. As the President of Global Cleveland, Cimperman spends a great deal of time convening city officials and community stakeholders to discuss the impact of immigrants on the region. He describes immigrants as a “hidden force of excellence”, noting that Cleveland has seen a steady stream of newcomers over the last decade. “I think Cleveland is beginning to recognize [the potential] as it gets around 3,300 new immigrants and refugees a year. Governments are waking up here. People are paying attention. Policies are being written saying, ‘we want more of these newcomers here.”

But the debate over immigration ensues. Just a few days ago, President Trump made his way to Lordstown, OH about an hour outside of Cleveland. There, Trump made claims of an economic resurgence after the town had lost a General Motors plant. He also made separate comments claiming that Joe Biden plans to offer free health care to illegal immigrants. The Associated Press was quick to jump on the falsity of these claims, citing firstly that Lordstown—while gaining jobs via launching a new automotive plant for electric vehicles—still has the third highest unemployment rate in Ohio. In contrast, Cleveland is slowly regaining its economic standing thanks to immigrants flocking to the region. According to Global Cleveland, the region saw nearly thirty percent of new business from immigrants in 2014.

The immigrant perception matters. And a fear-based narrative isn’t helping—it’s only making matters worse. It’s altogether astounding how much immigrants contribute to society and the economy. It’s confounding that they do so while simultaneously receiving neglect and aspersion, particularly when considering how many would’ve otherwise faced certain death. Cimperman—himself a son of immigrants—attributes such irrational fear to the disarming nature of the unfamiliar. He says, “It’s what happens when White America doesn’t know what to do with something that’s different.”

There’s a two-fold dilemma concerning both immigrants and people of color in this regard. When slavery ended, White America wasn’t quite sure what to do with the nearly four million newly freed slaves on its hands. Lincoln had even speculated on shipping blacks back to West Africa, but the logistics of this plan would prove untenable. America was now left with millions of native African descendants without any real sense of ethnic belonging. The narrative of scary difference persisted through the years of Jim Crow and Civil Rights. It continues in the notion of the frightening black male today. And the reprehensible framework for “shithole countries” allows for an even greater degree of dehumanization.

It was in 2016 that Esther Ngemba remembers first taking notice of this paradigm. During Trump’s first years, the dialogue gave her pause, as she previously had little cause to question her perceived worth as a refugee. “There were so many stereotypes [being said] about refugees—it didn’t make sense to me,” says Ngemba. Perplexed by certain negative assertions, Ngemba began to inquire of her parents more about the nature of their exodus from the DRC. She was confused why some would believe that immigrants are merely driven by opportunistic intent. “I started gaining more knowledge about our story and what it means to face persecution as a refugee. When we left Congo, it was because people were trying to kill us.”

“I started gaining more knowledge about our story and what it means to face persecution as a refugee. When we left Congo, it was because people were trying to kill us.”

An added layer of complexity landed for Ngemba as she came of age in America as a black woman. She would now be confronted by a baffling dichotomy. As Ngemba met strangers they’d initially view her as just another black person. As her dialect emerged in conversation, others would discover her ethnicity, thereby elevating her to a more exceptional category of blackness. Ngemba became outraged by this vicious brand of racism—indeed just as pernicious as the racial classifications that had fueled civil unrest in her native country, leading to the deaths of millions of Africans across the region.

@estherngemba on Instagram

Ngemba sees it as crucial to call out racism whenever and wherever she encounters it. Alongside showcasing her business on social media, she posts videos decrying police brutality while promoting social justice. She also advocates the importance of mental health, both for refugees facing trauma as well as others. Ngemba wants more immigrants and blacks coming together. As she proclaims, “I envision a future where blacks and Africans can support one another and build wealth across a larger community.” Her youthful vigor is why Joe Cimperman views Ngemba and others like her as a testament to the city’s revival.

“Younger people have less hang-ups,” quips Cimperman. During Welcoming Week, Global Cleveland worked in partnership with Welcoming America, an organization that helps cities and organizations create safer places of belonging for newcomers. They held a panel involving Ngemba along with several local black community leaders. When he observed how both Africans and native-born blacks were working collaboratively together, Cimperman got excited. “You would’ve never seen this kind of collaboration in ‘old Cleveland’,” recalls Cimperman.

Cimperman imagines what Cleveland could become should the city properly deal with anti-immigrant policy and systemic racism. He draws from the lessons of major urban centers like Atlanta where the black middle class has burgeoned (though Atlanta deals with its own issues).

“Cleveland had the first black mayor of a major American city [with Stokes]. Then somewhere along the line, Atlanta became Wakanda for the black middle class [while] Cleveland became the place where Tamir Rice was killed by police. Not that both cities don’t still struggle—racism is universal. But Cleveland has to go deep within its own soul. And those issues revolved around how this nation treats the ‘other’.”

A lifetime of events has seemingly passed since the tragedy of Tamir Rice in 2014. Meanwhile, an uncertain future looms on the horizon this fall. Like so many other cities, Cleveland reckons with its past while also grappling with its potential future. Cimperman sees a changing of the guard happening. He believes it allows for the next generation of newcomers to bring hope and opportunity, both for themselves and for people of color.

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