During a recent trip to Indonesia, some friends from Britain and I made a pilgrimage to Barack Obama’s old primary school in Jakarta. We stopped to admire a statue that has been erected outside in honour of the school’s most famous former student.
“You may one day become the prime minister of the UK,” I said to a 14-year-old Somali boy in our group, slapping his back encouragingly. The young man seemed taken aback with my remark. “Abti [uncle] Yusuf, he became president by accident. It was the first and last time for a black president in the West. Wallaahi [I swear by Allah] he will not be elected again.”
It was not the first time I had encountered such defeatism from young black men. These views were common among the African men, mostly Somali, from Australia, the US and Britain who I interviewed for my doctorate, which looks at how successfully refugees are integrating in these countries.
In short: young Africans from Australia and Britain routinely display this kind of pessimism, whereas those in the US have a much brighter view. One 19-year-old Australian from the Horn of Africa claimed Australia was a good country, but that its people weren’t ready to elect a black man to political office – not even to local government. Another young man confided that ”Australia is not a good place to be, long term”.
In contrast, their counterparts in the US boasted of being better off there than anywhere else. African migrants were successful and felt welcome, they said. So why the difference between the US, on one hand, and Australia and Britain on the other?
Perhaps the large number of African Americans in the US helps instil a sense of belonging. As a young African girl put it: “America is a place where everyone feels at home.” And yet Britain has a large, well-established black community from the Caribbean. The African American presence is clearly only part of the feel-good American equation. I think differences in education, employment and welfare make up the rest.
In Australia and Britain, generous social welfare benefits tend to discourage Africans from seeking work, and this fosters a culture of dependency and disillusionment. Part of the problem is that refugees also face tough job criteria, which often demand prior employment experience and good English. Many refugees feel discriminated against because they can’t meet the requirements. They also think a negative perception about Africans as employees has taken root.
These employment barriers stand in the way of African integration. And young blacks without jobs are more likely to turn to drugs, gangs and religious extremism. They are also vulnerable to depression.
In the US, by contrast, social welfare is restricted and jobs are more flexible and accessible. Africans can find employment, however poorly paid. Simply being in a job has a positive effect on these young people’s outlook. As a young African man in Minneapolis told me: “Work gets you up in the early morning, gives you direction and makes you a man.”
In the American ethos of ”sink or swim,” employers hire and fire with ease, which makes them more willing to try their luck with young Africans. The statistics are telling. According to the 2006 census, the unemployment rate among Somalis in Australia was 35 per cent – in Britain in 2003 it was 51 per cent. The unemployment rate in the US was just 8 per cent in 2000, although the situation has probably deteriorated recently due to the global financial crisis.
During my research, I came across other comparative studies of African communities in the US and those in Europe. A young African man who grew up in Europe and then moved to the US was interviewed by a Swedish academic. The man described how, in Europe, he had felt like a fly trapped under a glass. He felt as if his dreams were being crushed. But in the US, he said, “you can become what you want – the lowest of the lowest or the highest of the highest’.”
Rageph Omaar, an al-Jazeera journalist and former BBC reporter of Somali background, has recently worked on a documentary on immigrant Muslims in Minneapolis. Comparing the Somali communities in London and Minneapolis, he said: ”My adopted home – England – has a bigger Somali community than Minneapolis and it has been settled for longer. But they [Somalis] don’t tend to think of England as home. Their mental bag is still packed to return to Somalia, but that is not true of here [Minneapolis]. These Somalis are no less scarred or traumatized by their experiences. [But] they have planted their roots deeper and faster than any Somali community I have seen in the world. They don’t talk of returning home. They are home.”
In Australia, everyone has a responsibility for improving the plight of young Africans, including Africans themselves. The wider community, in particular, has the ultimate power to include or exclude African immigrants. Mainstream Australia needs to rise to the challenge and welcome Africans, rather than leave it to the social safety net.
Africans here need to believe that one day Australia might also embrace the idea of a black prime minister. Are Australians ready for this challenge?
Dr. Yusuf Sheikh Omar received his PhD from School of Social Science, La Trobe University specialising in African (Somali) refugee youth and their social integration process into Australia and USA. He is a researcher and ‘Forced Migration Consultant’. Has recently been appointed as a member of African Ministerial Consultative Committee for the Australian Commonwealth Government.