African community prospers in St. Louis

 

By: Tavia Evans, St. Louis American Staff Writer

February 12, 2004

 

 

 

Fatima's popular walk-up counter in the U-City Loop serves authentic Nigerian cuisine. Photo by Wiley Price

ST. LOUIS - The Yohannes brothers' restaurant, Bar Italia, has been the buzz since they set up shop in the Central West End nearly 20 years ago.

"We had the first espresso bar in St. Louis, and we introduced gelato, homemade Italian ice cream to the city," boasts co-owner Mengesha Yohannes, who manages the restaurant.

The brothers are natives of Ethiopia, and settled here 20 years ago to attend school. Mengesha graduated from St. Louis University with degrees in biology and chemistry and attended Washington University Medical School.

 

Their restaurant offers "authentic" Italian cuisine, influenced by that country's brief colonization of portions of Ethiopia.

The Yohannes brothers are among the city's growing population of African immigrants who have transplanted their families and parts of their native culture to St. Louis in recent years.

More than one million African immigrants live in the U.S., according to the 2000 census. And nearly half of African adult immigrants hold a bachelors degree, making them the most educated of all American immigrants.

Increasingly, they are making their presence known throughout the city of St. Louis, from academe to business, including niche cuisine that is rare in this city.

"You can't get this a lot of places here," says Fatima, spooning healthy portions of jollof rice on a plate at the walk-up lunch counter named after her in the U. City Loop.

The popular lunch spot is the latest and most successful business venture for Fatima, a native of Nigeria who goes by her first name. She owned an African clothing store 10 years ago and spent the early part of her career with Monsanto.

She and her husband moved to St. Louis over 25 years ago, after he completed graduate school in Iowa. Friends told them the city had cheap housing, good jobs, and diversity.

Since then, all five of their children have gone to college and Fatima received a master's degree in management from Webster University.

She attributes their success to a work ethic that she says was ingrained in her native Nigerian upbringing that included hard work and thrift.

"Every Nigerian is an entrepreneur," she says, while serving customers.

"America is a land of opportunity, but only if you work hard and stay focused. If you cut your coat to size, you can survive."

It's part of a hard work ethic that many immigrants have, says Mungai Mutonya, a senior lecturer in African and Afro-American studies at Washington university.

"They work very hard and education is often very important because its seen as the only way poor families know they can break the cycle of poverty. They also have strong expectations and responsibilities back home they must meet."

Education as a way out of poverty has been the driving philosophy of Benjamin Akande, a native Nigerian and dean of Webster University's School of Business & Technology,

Akande immigrated to the U.S. 26 years ago to attend a small Baptist college in western Texas. After receiving a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Oklahoma, he settled in St. Louis with his wife and three daughters.

"Our past is a reflection of the present and it reminds us of where we've come from," Akande says.

"A lot of us came from nothing but hope and sought opportunities to make things different and to be participants in the economic progress of this country called America."

St. Louis is usually the second stop for many of the immigrants, migrating from bigger cities like New York and Chicago. The city's affordable housing, world-class universities and job opportunities are the biggest draws.

The city's African-American presence is also a big factor, as many African immigrants look to raise their families in diverse communities where Blacks have already been integrated and accepted. They are even often identified as American-born Blacks, but most retain strong ties to their native countries.

Those ties are aided by the string of African clothing stores, ethnic grocers that serve African beer and native spices in South St. Louis and hair braiding salons. The stores are places of employment and transplanted cultural spaces from their home countries.

"People immediately identify African immigrants and refugees as African Americans but they say no, we are Nigerian and Ethiopian and Somalian, cultures with diverse histories and identities that are very different from what African Americans have experienced," says Uma Segal, whose research includes immigrant and refugee resettlement.

It's the reason why they Yohannes family support an Egyptian congregation in West County with mostly East African members.

And why Dr. Akande asked his parents in Nigeria to name all three of his American-born daughters.

"It's what I call a dual identity," Akande says. "My daughters see themselves as Americans because they have been raised here but I constantly celebrate my culture and tradition and remind them that they are Nigerian also."

A second chance
At the African Mutual Assistance Association of Missouri (AMAAM), visitors with brightly colored headwraps and thick accents bustle in and out of the converted home at 2348 Tennessee Ave.

These offices have become an international way station for the city's population of African refugees who seek out neighborhood associations to ease their transition to life in St. Louis and as American citizens.

Nearly 3,000 African refugees have been resettled her in recent years, according to the International Institute, a non-profit agency that provides resettlement services for the newcomers.

While Bosnians have made up the bulk of the city's refugee population, Eritreans and Liberians have also been resettled here through programs sponsored by the U.S. government. Last year, the International Institute served 8,000 refugees and expects nearly 300 Somali Bantu, many of whom were enslaved in their own country of Somalia, to arrive in St. Louis throughout the year.

Much of the refugee population is clustered on the Southside, near the aid and faith-based organizations that provide them with assistance.

It's also where many of the refugees may see familiar faces, and they often settle in ethnic clusters near other immigrants who may have come from the same part of Africa.

"A lot of them are sent here but some do end up moving here because they have friends or other relatives here and they're attracted by what they see as good jobs, cheap housing and friendly people," said Beth Radtke vice president of development and communication at the Institute.

For all of the refugees, life in St. Louis has become their second chance, where they can seek opportunities to get an education, find stable jobs and rebuild their lives.

Sawood Sheikh, a mother of five from Somalia, arrives early at the AMAAM's offices on Saturday morning to take English classes and study for the American citizenship test.

Yusuf, 21, a Swahili interpreter, assists with the classes, but also enjoys hanging out with the visitors who share her religion and culture.

In the citizenship class, Idris Abdinalk, from Somalia, is unsure who's running for office, but already knows how he will vote: Democrat.

"This is like an extended family," said Gedlu Metaferia, who founded AMAAM with fellow Ethiopians in 1983. Then, the city's African population consisted mainly of willing immigrants who came to attend school or live with relatives already here.

Now the organization serves nearly 1,500 newcomers, mostly resettled refugees.

"Whether we come here by different circumstances, we are connected as part of the diaspora and work together to make our lives better here and affect change in Africa," Metaferia said.

ęSt Louis American 2004