Because they know they’re welcome…


February 12, 2007

BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Immigration to Metro Detroit

African brain drain is gain for region

Gregg Krupa / The Detroit News

Touray Kunda came to Detroit from Gambia for business opportunities. He stayed because Touray Kunda Enterprises, his importing business, boomed.

“If business is not good back home, you think, ‘Let me go to America, home of the immigrant,’ ” Kunda said.

After she finished medical school in Nigeria, Kehinde Ayeni, came for more post-graduate work. The psychiatrist stayed because economic and social circumstances in Nigeria made it impossible to find work.

“Most professionals still can’t find jobs there,” Ayeni said. “I believe many people migrate for the same reason.”

African immigration to Metro Detroit is at a historically high level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, having grown by about 400 percent since 1990. The African brain drain is a brain gain for the region, observers say.

More highly educated than the general population or other communities of recent immigrants, Africans are influencing Metro Detroit professions, higher education, neighborhoods, religions and culture.

Evidence of a viable, expanding ethnic community is ample from growing congregations in churches and mosques, to grocery stores featuring African products, to immigration lawyers and social organizations established for Africans.

Michigan is home to about 40,000 Africans, roughly half of whom live in Wayne or Oakland counties. Many others are in Grand Rapids, Lansing, Ann Arbor and Flint.

“They are smart, motivated, and they do well in this country, and that leads to growth in immigration,” said David Wiley, director of the African Studies Center at Michigan State University. “Of all African-born immigrants to the United States, 50 percent have one or more degrees in higher education.”

African immigrants are less likely than many immigrant groups to confine themselves to certain neighborhoods. But in Metro Detroit, significant pockets of African immigrants are noticeable along Livernois, between West McNichols and Eight Mile and in areas of Southfield and Oak Park. And around the intersection of Eight Mile and Lahser, some denizens refer to a collection of businesses and residences as “Little Africa.”

More Africans have immigrated to the United States since 1975 than the total of number of slaves who were forced into bondage here over parts of three centuries, according to The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in New York City.

“The immigrant population from Africa is a share of the total African-American population that is beginning to be noticed, and people are reacting to it,” said Steven Camarota, director of Center for Immigration Studies. “Washington and New York have the largest populations, and Detroit is down on the list. But it is happening, there, too.”

Many recent immigrants say it is happening in Metro Detroit because their community is now large enough that word circulates about this area.

“The immigration is growing due to the positive nature of the Detroit area,” said Salewa Ola, of Detroit, the leader of the United African Community Organization, a community group. “It is a melting pot where a lot of cultures and people from different cultures are able to come in and blend in.”

And while the metropolitan area is noted for its harshly segregated housing market, the city also has a reputation for welcoming the newly arrived.

“I lived in Pittsburgh for 20 years before I came here,” said Mulugetta Birru, director of the Wayne County Economic Development Corp. and a native of Ethiopia. “You never become a Pittsburgher.

“In Detroit, that is never an issue,” Birru said. “I am a Detroiter.”

The immigrants are affecting spiritual lives in Christian and Muslim congregations.

Two mosques opened recently to accommodate some of the new residents, the Masjid as-Salaam, on West Seven Mile near Lahser, and the Detroit Muslim Community Center, on Marlborough, blocks east of the Chandler Golf Course.

“They add a different perspective to the Muslim community, ” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations of Michigan. Many of the immigrants from West Africa, in particular, are devoted to the more mystical Sufi strain of Islam.

“Their preaching or orientation is more geared towards a discussion of not only a love of God, but the responsibility Muslims have to have a healthy relationship with other human beings and being more considerate of others.”

You can reach Gregg Krupa at (313) 222-2359 or

Notable presence
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2005, significant populations of African immigrants live in both Wayne and Oakland counties. Some of the largest groups in each county are from the following countries:
Kenya: 628 in Oakland, 125 in Wayne
Egypt: 731 in Oakland, 557 in Wayne
Ghana: 88 in Oakland, 210 in Wayne
Liberia: 40 in Oakland, 186 in Wayne
Nigeria: 733 in Oakland, 1,069 in Wayne
Growing numbers
In Michigan, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 10,007 people who said they were born in Africa in 1990.
In 2000, they numbered 16,735, an increase of about 60 percent.
By 2005, according to the census, that number jumped again, by 87.9 percent, to 30,898.


~ by Keith A. Owens on February 14, 2007.

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