Parenting in a Foreign Society: An African American Immigrant Struggles to Reconcile Two Cultures

The World Bank estimated in 2010 that the US was the fifth most popular destination for African immigrants. If you factor in the fact that Africa’s working age population is projected to double by 2050, there are many indications that the African immigrant experience in the United States is not a temporary one.

Many Congolese immigrants that I’ve spoken to have told me of their problems disciplining or harnessing their children once they are exposed to American culture. The differences in parenting, I’ve discovered, are not just limited to the Congolese immigrant and refugee experience, but are indicative of the African immigrant experience as a whole.

This audio piece tells the story of one Burundian parent from New Hampshire and his struggle with the question: How do you discipline your kids in a completely foreign environment?

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Samba Halkose, Student Liaison

Here’s an article by the Nashua Telegraph’s Michael Brindley that profiles Samba Halkose, a woman I met a few weeks ago in Manchester, New Hampshire. Although the article, which is from late 2009, uses Halkose’s story to drive home a … Continue reading

Do You Sugar-Coat Your Immigrant Experience?

I heard a really interesting piece from WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show where a young immigrant from the Congo named Danielle discussed how difficult her life is in America and how she feels she must lie and “sugar-coat” her situation to her family back in Africa.

Danielle, who lives in New York, had to move to a homeless shelter with her family after her stepmother lost her job. She suffered from the strict rules of the shelter and was embarrassed to explain her situation to her friends at school (“I didn’t want people to see me as a poor person.”)

“When I first came here, I was surprised. I thought everything was just perfect – but it wasn’t,” Danielle says on the show, and says that she lies to her mother back in the Congo, telling her that her life is better in America than it is in reality. “I don’t tell her that I live in a shelter.” She was so miserable that at one point she thought she might want to return to the Congo.

“When new immigrants come to the States they expect a new life… and sometimes what you get is a new life that you might not have expected,” says Kim Nicols of African Services Committee, who also appeared on the segment.

Click to listen to "Being Honest about the American Dream"

Click to listen to “Being Honest about the American Dream”

The idea of sugar-coating the immigrant experience to family and friends back in their native country seemed to strike a chord with the Lehrer audience. The show opened their phone lines to hear from listeners, and got lots of responses.

“I came here during a very traumatic time in my country’s history,” says Idina from New Jersey, who came to America from Liberia at age 13. “But I did realize that my situation was 100 times better than anyone’s situation in my country.”

But the other two callers echoed Danielle’s sentiment that life in America was not congruent to the experience they were expecting. People from home expect you to have money just because you’re in America, says Sulemon from New York. Felix on Staten Island agreed: “You can’t tell them the truth… if you aren’t making it in America, you will be seen as a failure.”

I’m interested in hearing how other peoples’ experience jive with Danielle’s. If you’re an immigrant from the Congo, what do you tell your friends and family back home? What do you say when things aren’t going so well?

New Pew Study on Adult Children of Immigrants

A new Pew Research Center study concludes that the 20 million adult United States-born children of immigrants are largely better off than their parents, with higher incomes, more college graduates, and a lower poverty rate.

Although the report focused on Hispanic and Asian American second generation adults, there were many interesting conclusions that were drawn about the American immigrant experience as a whole (the conclusions from Pew were analyzed from the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data). On the subject of household income, for example, second generation immigrant adults are earning an average of $58,000 to their parents’ generation $46,000 – a marked difference.

The section on education was interesting as well. Thirty-six percent of second generation adult children held college degrees (versus 29 percent of first generation immigrant adults), with only 10 percent failing to finish high school (compared to 28 percent from their parents’ generation). The 36 percent holding at least a bachelor’s degree is impressive, especially when compared to the national average: only 31 percent of all American adults can say the same.

As I am currently working on a report about parenting in Congolese American immigrant families, I was particularly curious about the section raising children in the United States. “Seven-in-ten second-generation Asian Americans and eight-in-ten (81%) second-generation Hispanics say that conditions for raising children are better in the U.S. than in their parents’ country of origin.” The report says in a later chapter that 31 percent of Asian Americans give “family reasons” as the main explanation why they immigrated (and 23 percent of first-generation Hispanics give the same reason). For Hispanics, family reasons were second only to economic reasons (56 percent).

However, “Less than half of both generations rate the U.S. as better than their ancestral country as a place to maintain strong family ties.” From this it seems that second generation immigrants are happy with the opportunities for their current, more immediate family, but find it more difficult to maintain relationships with extended family than it was in their parents’ home countries.

It is interesting to point out that our subject, adult children of Congolese immigrants, comprises a very small percentage of the “black second generation” represented in this Pew study. Only three percent of black second generation adults, according to Pew, have immigrant parents. Because of this, it is difficult for us to make assertions from the study in terms of Congolese immigrant adult children, although the trends described in this study are indicative of immigrant children in general.

The one statistic I was able to draw from the Pew study that concerned specifically the black second generation immigrant population concerned living arrangements. Among the age group of 25- to 34-year-olds, fully 42 percent of black children of immigrants lived in multi-generation family households. This is much higher than than the national average for immigrants in general (26 percent) and for the American population in general (28 percent).

Despite the fact that the study is concerned mostly with Asian Americans and Hispanics, Congolese immigrants and their children should still care about the results: the projected impact of immigrant children is growing rapidly. According to Pew, “the adult second generation will grow 126% from 2012 to 2050, more sharply than the first generation (103%) or the adult population overall (42%). By 2050, the second generation will account for 16% of adult Americans, compared with about 8% in 2012.”

The proportion of black immigrants to America, in particular, is growing quickly: from 2008 to 2009 1.1 million immigrants came from Africa (second only to immigrants from the Caribbean at 1.7 million). “Immigrants from Africa were among the fastest-growing groups within the U.S. foreign-born population from 2000 to 2009. If current trends continue, some analysts predict that Africa will replace the Caribbean by 2020 as the major source of black immigration to the U.S.,” reads the Pew study.

Capitaine Kabongo: New Leadership for the Congolese Community in New Hampshire

MANCHESTER, N.H. – More than 175 Congolese immigrants and refugees packed function room on Maple Street on January 27 to vote for the next president of the Congolese Community of New Hampshire.

The turnout was larger than expected, a promising sign for the election organizers and president elect, Capitaine Kabongo. Kabongo beat his fellow candidate, Stany Nepa, 55 votes to 22.

Over 100 members of the Congolese community in New Hampshire gathered for the vote.

Over 100 members of the Congolese community in New Hampshire gathered for the vote.

The strong interest in the election meant an investment in the future of the organization to its leadership. “It’s gotten bigger. There are more and more people showing interest,” says Victor Mbuyi, the organization’s Secretary.

The Congolese Community of New Hampshire, now in its third year, offers services, educational opportunities, and support for immigrants from the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo after government-funded services lapse (refugees get six months of government hand-holding, immigrants get nothing).

President-elect Capitaine Kabongo addresses the community.

President-elect Capitaine Kabongo addresses the community.

One of the biggest challenges to the Congolese immigrant community in New Hampshire, according to the organization’s leadership, is the lack of knowledge of local laws and customs. “They don’t integrate into society,” says Mbuyi. “You live in America, but you don’t know the laws. You don’t know how to move ahead in your life.”

Congolese immigrants “live in the American culture but they behave according to the African culture,” says Leonard Lekin, one of three board members on the Congolese Community of New Hampshire.

Because of this, education for community members is the number one priority for the organization and for the new president-elect Kabongo.

CCNH board members discuss how the vote will proceed.

CCNH board members discuss how the vote will proceed.

Kabongo, who came to the United States from the Congo in 2001, worked four jobs in New York before moving to New Hampshire in 2005. He has been involved with the Congolese Community of New Hampshire since its inception in 2009, a fact that won him many votes, according to Mbuyi.

One way Kabongo hopes to educate the community is through educational seminars, and he has already identified his first topic: life insurance. “We want all our people to have life insurance,” says Kabongo. He hopes to partner with a bank or insurance company to bring them to a meeting to teach the advantages of and options for choosing a policy. “It’s my responsibility to tell people from my community that life insurance is important,” he says.

More opportunities for educating the community come from within the group’s leadership. Mbuyi, who commutes to Boston every day to work as a fund manager at State Street, hopes to give a presentation soon about 401(k)s, and wants to work with people individually to go through their finances.

In the past, the organization has had increased success in getting outside speakers to come talk to the group. In 2012, a representative from the office of New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen came to explain to the community what they could expect from the Senator’s office.

Despite these speakers and educational opportunities, a lot of Congolese are “missing a lot of information” says Kabongo. “We are together, but sometimes we are not all on the same page.”

To combat this, Kabongo is renewing focus on social meetings. He hopes to organize parties, during which he will share a certain message to the attendees – whether it is about life insurance, taxes, trash pickup days, or something else entirely.

CCNH Secretary Victor Mbuyi registers members to vote.

CCNH Secretary Victor Mbuyi registers members to vote.

Kabongo wants work with and take advantage of the American holiday calendar. For example, for Fathers Day he plans to organize a soccer game where parents play against the community’s youth. This will give parents who work all the time the chance to enjoy themselves, Kabongo explains.

These social and educational opportunities are all to help the immigrant community better understand the American way of life. Kabongo feels that the biggest challenge is pushing his constituents to explore on their own. He feels that if you put the Congolese community into society, the gap in understanding that exists currently will disappear.

Kabongo’s goal for the Congolese to integrate themselves more in American society faces its biggest challenge when it comes to language. Little effort had been made thus far to encourage English use; all three hours of the election proceedings occurred in French, the official language of the Congo.

Kabongo, who speaks, English, French, German, Hebrew, as well as the four indigenous languages of the DRC: Kikongo, Lingala, Swahili and Tshiluba, hopes to use his language skills to be as clear as possible with all members of the New Hampshire Congolese community and to encourage them all to increase their English language skills.

The names of CCNH members are called upon one at a time to vote.

The names of CCNH members are called upon one at a time to vote.

Kabongo, who works full time at Easter Sales in Manchester, will manage his two-year term with the help of a dedicated core board of advisors like Victor Mbuyi. With 10- to 12-hour workdays and two to three hours of commuting each day, Mbuyi has only weekends to focus on his work with the organization. He plans to call every person who registered during the elections – over 150 names – to come into the office and talk.

Kabongo displays a similar doggedness when it comes to his work with the organization. “I can preach… tell them how we can advance in this country,” he says. “Together, we can do something really incredible.”

Comprehensive Immigration Reform Hearings: What Could they Mean for Congolese Immigrants Living in the US?

This morning marked an important step for comprehensive immigration reform in the United States, as many influential leaders testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Comprehensive immigration reform, for many living in the United States, is a way out for undocumented persons. But for many immigrants from the Congo and throughout Africa, comprehensive immigration reform would also mean reforms to employment and for reunification of families.

Among those testifying were Jose Antonio Vargas, the Filipino American journalist and founder of Define American; Jessica Vaughan, the Director of Policy Studies at the Center for Immigration Studies; Chris Crane, the president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council; and Janet Murguía, President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.

You can follow the continuing conversation with the hashtag #CIR. Video of Antonio Vargas’ testimony is below.

What does Comprehensive Immigration Reform mean to you? Leave your comment below.

Policy Changes for US Families Looking to Adopt in the DRC

The U.S. embassy in Kinshasa has announced changes to its adoption policy.

These changes concern families from the United States looking to adopt children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, specifically a change in the order of the visa interview, which will now occur after a full field investigation of the I-600 petition from the American individual or family. These field investigations, the press release states, takes approximately three to six months to complete.

Also of interest for further investigation is mention of the alleged use of “expediting fees,” which act as bribes to speed up the process of adoption.

Here are some examples I found on social media of Americans sharing their experience adopting from the DRC in 2013:



Cleophace Mukeba, Immigrant and Activist

Last week I spoke with Cleophace Mukeba, a Congolese-American living in Vermont. In 2011, Mukeba founded an organization called the Vermont Ibutwa Initiative, dedicated to raising awareness of the situation in the DRC. Mukeba spoke to me about his experience arriving in Vermont and the struggle to adjust in an overwhelmingly foreign culture. “Everything is different,” he told me. “You have to adjust to the weather, learn how to shop, how to take a bath, how to get from one place to another, how to communicate.”

I will be writing more about the experience of Mukeba and other Congolese immigrants in Vermont in the coming weeks. For now, you can get a good introduction to Mukeba and his cause in this interview from Vermont’s Town Meeting Television channel.

Million Women Walk for Congo: Are You Going?

Lema Abeng-Nsah is the publisher for the international magazine DUNIA. A citizen of Cameroon, Abeng-Nsah was inspired to act after reading an article published in November 2012 by Katherina Dabo, detailing the widespread rape and sexual violence occurring in the … Continue reading