As the American Declaration of Independence proclaims “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. While the debate on the purpose of life is far from being settled, it is widely accepted that we all live in pursuit of a better life, for ourselves and for our children. This means that wherever you find yourself in life, you hope the future holds life, liberty, and happiness. The ability to move up the economic and social ladder, a concept known as upward mobility, is at the heart of this pursuit. For most immigrants, upward mobility is the reason they moved to settle in a foreign land. The pursuit of upward mobility drives every immigrant’s dream.
I thus find it ironic that growing up in Kenya, I did not aspire to one day move to America and establish my life there. It just happened and as I try to reflect, it’s hard for me to pinpoint when the idea of moving to America came into my life. From speaking with my fellow neo-African diasporans, most of us did not grow up planning that one day we will come to America. A few people did, but not the majority of the folks I interact with. If you did, it’s mostly because you knew someone in your inner circle who had gone to America and even then, most just came to get an education, and then they came back to the country when they were born.
The reason why migrating to the West was not in most African’s plan for the future is because the odds were pretty high. You may have admired the western lifestyle and all it had to offer from TV shows, movies, and publications, but we knew that getting there was quite improbable. And so we lived on in Africa, working hard to get an education and hopefully get a job, start a family and own your house—against many odds. But along that journey of growing up, things changed. We run into life challenges and started looking for opportunities beyond our borders. For most Africans, this happened in their adulthood, some in their youth and others as older adults. You explored options and pursued leads until one day, you got on the plane. You boarded the plane not because you had a defined plan for establishing your life in the West but rather because you had faith that the so-called “land of opportunities” will not disappoint. And hence your immigrant journey started.
Start of a Journey
Looking back, it is amazing how much of the immigrant journey was left to chance. While things may have turned out okay, I can’t help but wonder what a young version of me would do differently if I knew what I know now. The truth is that Africans migrating to settle in the West by choice is a relatively new phenomenon. As a result, many African immigrants did not have a lot to go by, they had to chart the unknown waters for themselves. They became pioneers settlers. Yet as the population of African immigrants in Western countries, especially in North America, has continued to grow, we are accumulating a wealth of knowledge on what it takes to be successful in achieving the immigrant dream and realizing the highest level of upward mobility.
There are many factors that determine whether someone in Africa sees immigrating to the West as a possibility. A lot of it depends on your socioeconomic status, exposure, and linkages to people and institutions in Western countries. If migrating to settle in the West is a possibility, there are also a variety of factors that determine the pathway you choose in realizing the dream. Most Africans move to the West in search of higher education, others move as a result of forced migration e.g. resettled refugees coming from war-torn countries. A minority of Africans move to take on jobs where demand is high. Still, others move by pure luck if, for example, they were beneficiaries of the green card lottery system in the US. How you move to the West determines how you settle.
The ability to work legally makes a big difference hence it is maybe an easier pathway for those who come in authorized to work. For those who come in as legal aliens, meaning they don’t have resident status, their ability to change their status to residents can open up a world of opportunity. The same applies for those who may find themselves without legal immigration status. One thing that has surprised me over the years is the vast number of options (though they are dwindling as countries tighten borders) available for immigrants to come and settle in the West. Most Africans have very limited information on those pathways so the first thing I would advise a prospective African immigrant with the means is to do their homework on the options available and the avenues for migrating legally.
Once you get to the West, your immigrant dream is like a seed that has just been planted. So much could go wrong but there is also a pretty good chance that you could succeed. It all depends on the decisions you make and how determined you are in pursuing your immigrant dream. Where you land makes a difference, some places have more opportunities than others even within one country. Just because your contacts live in a specific region, doesn’t mean that’s the only place you can succeed. Who receives you and how they receive you matters as you settle in. It is important to surround yourself with people who not only share your values but are also willing to challenge you to pursue greater heights. Often, the people who receive you will guide you based on their capacity so it is always important to diversify your social circles. Education and discipline in pursuing a trade are critical, no matter what line of work you choose.
As an immigrant of color, you will encounter structural bias, be it racism or xenophobia. You need to be aware and equip yourself with coping skills for society’s ills. This is important for yourself but even more so for your children. Raising kids in the West requires courage and perseverance but the results can be rewarding for parents who make the sacrifice. Once you get established, you will have to balance the pursuit of upward mobility with supporting your extended family. No immigrant ever forgets where they came from and if they do, people back home will be sure to remind them. It is always good to give back to society and to maintain the most positive aspects of your heritage.
My hope is that we who have moved will be willing to reflect and share our experiences and the wisdom we have gained on what it takes to be successful as an African immigrant in the West. There is plenty of focus on the fate of migrants from Africa crossing the Mediterranean yet a significant percentage of Africans fly to Western countries through legal pathways. Legal immigration from Africa to the West is an inevitable part of the future, we need smart immigration policies and smart immigrant mindsets. If you are like me, and I know we are many out there; what do you wish you had known before your moved? What do you wish you did differently? What do you think was most critical to helping you succeed? What would you advise someone in Africa who might one day move to where you live? As the African saying goes, “the person who has not traveled widely thinks his or her mother is the only cook (the best cook)”, let’s harness collective wisdom for the benefit of future generations.
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