Ten years after arriving in the United States as a refugee, Daniel Majok Gai, one of the famed Lost Boys of Sudan, is back in Africa. Now 30, Gai is on a quest to build a sustainable education system in his homeland.
Armed with bachelor degrees in psychology and sociology from the University of Colorado at Denver and a year-long, representative in residence position for NGO, Project Education Sudan, Gai presents the sort of immigration success story that makes philanthropists ecstatic — and elicits worry in other corners that U.S. born African-Americans will be viewed as inferior to their immigrant kin.
By all accounts, those concerns are valid.
“The same conversation took place in the 70s when African-Americans were compared to Jamaicans,” says Charles Gallagher, PhD, professor of sociology and chair of the sociology and criminal justice program at La Salle University. ”’Why are Jamaicans doing so well? What’s wrong with these blacks from the United States?’ This kind of narrative emerges every time there’s a new immigrant group that comes to the United States that’s black.”
In 2007, Camille Zubrinsky Charles, PhD, professor of sociology and director of The Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, coauthored a study that showed black immigrants or their U.S. born children comprise a disproportionate number of black students at top universities. Although four years have elapsed, she says the data are still relevant, and she agrees with Gallagher’s observation that findings such as hers tend to be oversimplified.
“I get frustrated because what ends up happening is that the conversation very quickly devolves into American blacks have bad culture and immigrant blacks have good culture,” Charles says. “We’re comparing apples to oranges. When we look at the immigrant black population, we’re looking at a subset. These are the people with the wherewithal to leave everything they knew for something different, something better. They’re here for a particular reason and that reason is upward economic mobility.
“When we look at the domestic black population, we get all of it. Yet [many] assume immigrants place greater value on education or on work ethic,” Charles adds. “We underestimate the motivation, the potential and the desire of black Americans, particularly those who disadvantaged. We’re too quick to believe that blacks from other places are better.”
One size doesn’t fit all
Although three-quarters of the immigrant students Charles studied had fathers with advanced degrees, others, like Gai, who arrived with nothing, are also in the mix.
Millete Birhanemaskel was born in a Sudanese refugee camp. Her family immigrated to the United States when she was three months old.
“My family was poor. We were refugees who lost everything in Ethiopia,” Birhanemaskel says. “My father attended Bible College but dropped out when his father died. My mom never went to high school.”
Today, Birhanemaskel is a licensed financial advisor, an MBA candidate and a member of Project Education Sudan’s board.
“The story of many successful immigrants is that their children are given opportunities their parents only dreamed of. That’s what America provides,” Birhanemaskel says.
“Coming to America cost our parents their dignity, working as maids and janitors given little respect. But they brought the American dream within the grasp of their children. That’s why first-generations succeed — they owe it to their parents and to themselves.”
Omissions and similarities
There are several important stories that are often omitted during comparisons between immigrant Africans and their U.S. born African-American counterparts.
One is that low African American college enrollment numbers are deceiving.
“If you just look at enrollments, you’ll find that African American enrollments are pretty close to what their percentage of the population is, and that’s a huge improvement over the last generation,” says Robert Bruce Slater, managing editor of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.
Another is that African-Americans from deprived backgrounds who make it to college often arrive with the same determination to succeed as immigrants.
“I will take the valedictorian of one of the worst schools in the city over the valedictorian of some prep school where life was easy any day of the week,” Charles says. “The kid who managed to make the most of a jacked up environment knows how to survive, knows how to overcome obstacles, and understands how important getting education is.”
During slavery, blacks were denied access to education of any type. After emancipation, learning became a top priority for many African American families. Today, immigrants share similar stories of a need to triumph over adversity.
“They can take your clothes, your home, even your life. But education is the one thing no dictator, communist, enemy or any other perpetrator can take from you,” Birhanemaskel says.
Return on investment
Although he became a U.S. citizen in 2007 and plans to obtain a Ph.D. from a U.S. university in the future, Gai says building an education infrastructure in the Republic of South Sudan is his current, top priority.
“My experience of being a child born into an uneducated family, leaving home at gunpoint, going into exile and starting education without someone to support me was terrible,” Gai says. “Sudanese like myself, who are in the diaspora, value education more than anything else. There is nothing more valuable to bring back to your country.”
This is a refrain Project Education Sudan’s executive director, Carol Rinehart, hears frequently. It’s part of the reason her organization is spearheading Climb for Sudan, an effort to raise funds to build additional schools in South Sudan.
“The Lost Boys of Sudan are often the first in their ancestral families to graduate from college or university. They are considered as emergent leaders in their new country,” Rinehart says. “Parents realize their children need to become educated in order to be a part of the modern world.”
Are African American students equally committed to bettering their communities? Anecdotal evidence indicates they are.
“There are plenty of domestic students who know deprivation in our context and who understand the importance and value of an education,” U. Penn’s Charles says.
“They know what their families have sacrificed and they know what they’ve overcome. Some do go back to their communities and try to make them better. They do some amazing things.”