African Migrants Strive to Preserve Their Cultural Heritage

To experience a taste of African culture deep inside the Big Apple, visitors – including many Senegalese – turn to Le Petit Senegal (Little Senegal), a West African neighborhood in West Harlem, New York.

African grocery shops, fabric stores, hair braiding parlors and regional restaurants sit shoulder to shoulder along the streets. The Sandaga Market of Little Senegal showcases a strong blend of African cultures, customs and languages, symbolizing efforts by African immigrants to project and protect their cultural identities.

Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, also in Harlem, bestrides a wide city block. There, master tailors are busy sewing all manner of African wear: the flowing robes of the boubou and agbada, stylish dresses made from kente cloth, sarongs of kitenge and ever-popular dashiki. Maasai beads, crafts and leather products overflow in traditional baskets, imported from the homeland.

There were about 2.1 million African immigrants living in the U.S. in 2015, up from just 816,000 in 2000 – a substantial increase from 1970, when the U.S. was home to only 80,000 foreign-born Africans, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

Millions of immigrants have left Africa since the turn of the century, many going to Europe and the U.S. One factor behind this recent wave is the Refugee Act of 1980, which made it easier for those fleeing conflict-ridden countries like Somalia and Ethiopia to resettle in the U.S.

With a dream of improving their families’ well-being, many of these immigrants acquire higher education, get well-paying jobs or become entrepreneurs.

Like many immigrant groups, Africans are keen to preserve their cultural identity and ensure their children do not replace their traditional values with foreign ideas.

“When they are in my house, it is the Gambia. When they are outside, they have free will,” said Dembo Jaebeh, a tailor in the Harlem market, in an interview. He was referring to his three children, aged 21, 18, and 16, who relocated to the US from the Gambia four years ago.

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