'We're Fighting Here': Behind Ohio's Stalled African Immigrants Commission

Jun 22, 2017

Despite the fast growth of Ohio's African community, Seleshi Asfaw says one thing has remained constant: "At a state level, we are not represented. Our voice is not heard." 

Ohio now boasts about 110,000 sub-Saharan African immigrants in the state - that's 35,000 more than in 2005, according to the U.S. Census.

It's also why Asfaw was involved in the original effort to establish a New African Immigrants Commission here almost 10 years ago.

"There are so many issues in areas of employment, in areas of health, in areas of affordable housing, in areas of social services, case management," Asfaw says.

State lawmakers created the 11-member board by law in 2008, and it was supposed to start up the following year and advocate for the community's interests. Now, eight years after that deadline, the board remains empty and inactive, and no one can seem to answer why.

Who Should Be Represented?

State senator Charleta Tavares says she worked with Africans over the years to get a list of names. 

"We brought in people from throughout the state to Columbus for two meetings," Tavares says. "We met in Dayton twice, and we had multiple meetings with refugee immigrant representatives from throughout the state."

But there was a lot of disagreement on how to proceed. According to Djiby Sall, a Senegalese man who attended some of the meetings, Somali community members wanted to control about half of the board's 11 seats because they represent the largest population of Africans in the state.

But other Africans felt that would be unfair.

"Us as adults, as being in Africa and now our second home, usually we bring our divisions back home and political differences, ethnic differences we brought here," Asfaw says. "We’re fighting here."

Seleshi Asfaw was part of the original effort to establish a New African Immigrants Commission, but says it's hit a number of roadblocks since.
Credit Adora Namigadde

Trying Other Routes

The delay has caused some groups to start looking at alternatives. In May, SomaliCAN announced it would start a civil leadership training program for Somalis. That program is slated to begin in July.

"Providing them advocacy skills, connecting them with leadership through political parties and elected officials and city council, the Statehouse," says SomaliCAN director Jibril Mohamed.

Mohamed says it's not ideal, but it beats waiting around.

"If the New African Immigrants Commission had existed, it would have been the proper channel to profile this kind of civic engagement," he says. "It would have provided a channel through which we could, you know, give our opinions and our concerns to elected officials from the governor through the mayor and everybody in between."

A common goal is to involve more young Africans at the forefront of government. That's something where Ohio, and Columbus in particular, lag in comparison to other heavily African immigrant-populated cities like Minneapolis.

"That will be symbolized in the image for our young generation to be part of the City Council, part of the county commissioners, or at the state level, state or senators," Asfaw says.

Work Left To Do

Other ethnic groups, including Latinos and Asian American Pacific Islanders, have been more successful establishing commissions to advise state government and link constituents to services.

Every year, the Ohio Latino Affairs Commission sends reports to the state legislature about issues affecting the community.

"We’ve done reports on cultural competence and making the case for culturally responsive institutions," says Andrea Magaña Lewis of the Ohio Latino Affairs Commission. "We’ve done reports on Ohio Hispanic business owners, talking about their rates."

Lewis says they holds yearly events, as well as education and health outreach efforts, for Ohio's 400,000 Latinos.

As for the Africans, Tavares says it's uncertain when that commission will be filled.

"We followed up again and haven't heard back to find out when those names are going to be submitted," Tavares says. "Based on various pieces of information I've been able to gather, (the governor's office) is waiting on the House of Representatives."

In an email, governor spokesperson Emmalee Kalmbach said, “We’re actually close to wrapping up appointments on our end and should have some soon.”