More African Immigrants Finding a Home in Latin America
More African Immigrants Finding a Home in Latin America
George Kingsley fled his war-torn homeland of Sierra Leone by stowing away on a cargo ship with no idea where his journey would lead him. Three weeks later, he arrived broke, hungry, and dehydrated in Argentina.
``The only thing I knew about the country was that Diego Maradona was the best footballer in the world,'' he said, taking a break from selling cheap, gold-plated jewelry out of a briefcase in a working-class district of Buenos Aires.
As European countries tighten up border controls, more and more Africans fleeing war and poverty in their homelands are landing at ports in Latin America. While some arrive in Mexico as a stepping stone to reach the United States, others find themselves in Brazil and Argentina after sneaking aboard cargo ships in African ports they mistakenly thought were bound for Europe.
More than 3,000 African immigrants now live in Argentina, up from just a few dozen eight years ago, and almost a third of the nation's asylum seekers are from Africa.
``You never used to see an African man in the streets of Buenos Aires. It's a search for new destinations,'' said Carolina Podesta from the Argentine office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Migrants have also been forced to look for alternatives because of tougher immigration policies in European countries and a crackdown on border security since 9/11, Podesta said.
``We're seeing a tendency that's on the rise and that will continue growing,'' she said.
Immigrants, mainly from Senegal, Egypt, Nigeria and Ghana, usually come as stowaways or obtain a Brazilian visa and reach Argentina crossing the border by land.
In Brazil, Africans are now the largest refugee group, making up 65 percent of all asylum seekers, according to the country's national committee for refugees.
``The migratory policies of the country are very favorable,'' said Fernando Manzanares, Argentina's immigration director. His office is next to a building where many immigrants received their first meal; today it's a museum of their photographs, luggage and other belongings.
``It's a reflection of history. What happened with European immigrants 100 years ago is now happening with African immigrants,'' he said.
In the 1990s, Brazil received a large number of Angolans fleeing from the civil war. Now Congolese immigrants are escaping violence back home and seeking asylum in Brazil, which has the largest black population outside Africa.
``The adaptation process is really good,'' said Carolina Montenegro of UNHCR Brazil. ``For Africans it tends to be easier because of this cultural heritage.''
But adapting to a new life in Argentina can be hard in a country where in the last census more than 97 percent of the population describe themselves as white.
Abdou Secka, 30, a refugee from the Gambia, works washing cars in the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
During his first year he has learned Spanish and met an Argentine girlfriend, but he said he often faces discrimination.
``Argentina is a free country,'' Secka said. But, ``I don't like how people stare at me in the street or point at me and say: `Look there goes a black man.' ''
Other immigrants said they had also been discriminated against because of their skin color. But they said it was minor compared to the xenophobia African migrants face in Europe.
Most Argentines descend from Italian migrants. But while Italy enacted legislation that made it a felony to be an illegal immigrant or to help one, in Argentina they can get a temporary work permit while they legalize their immigration status.
They also get free healthcare and many take Spanish lessons taught by Catholic Church charities.
Liberian immigrant Emmanuel Danso, 18, came to Argentina in July, stowing aboard a cargo ship after his parents were killed during his country's civil war. Now he wants to study to become a laboratory technician.
``Back home I'm homeless. I'm an orphan,'' Danso said as he walked into a Spanish lesson at a Catholic charity. ``But in this country there's great opportunity for me. I'd like to stay here because I feel good.''
Most Africans can be seen in the working-class Buenos Aires neighborhood of Once, now also known informally as Little Dakar, for its large Senegalese population. Many settle here and marry Argentines or become citizens even though jobs can be hard to come by in a country where poverty runs at about 30 percent.
Some Africans have become musicians or have been hired by local soccer clubs. But the vast majority end up selling bracelets and watches on the streets of the capital.
Ibrahim Abdoul Rahman, from Sierra Leone, met his Argentine wife when he sold her a ring five years ago.
Every month he sends money to his mother and seven sisters in Africa and keeps up his Muslim religion by visiting Buenos Aires' Alberdi mosque, a focal point for Africans in the city.
On a recent Friday, dozens of African men walked into the prayer room leaving their suitcases and shoes at the entrance, listening closely to the imam, who spoke in Spanish.
At the end, they greeted each other in a mixture of French, English, Spanish and Swahili, with recently arrived immigrants swapping tips from those who have been here the longest such as Emmanuel Rauf from Ghana.
"When I arrived here it was just a few of us Africans. Now there's Africans in every corner,'' said Rauf, who arrived in 1999. ``I have my Argentine citizenship; my two children were born here. So I'm from Argentina, but at the same time I'm 100 percent African.''