In a sticky afternoon in downtown Manhattan (New York), “top-heavy” Laila lumbered slowly into a roadside store to buy a “pain-killer” and sooth the pain from her pregnancy which keeps her awake at night. She had left her husband in far away Atlanta, and moved in with her mum in New York’s city of Bronx (heavily populated by West Africans)—to access the city’s “generous” medical insurance system.
“Health insurance system in many parts of US simply sucks!” laments Bawa, her cousin—while hailing the Medicare and Medicaid system in New York.
Laila’s case is only a microcosm of the wide range of problems being encountered by African immigrants all over the United States—particularly the undocumented lot in the DC (District of Columbia), Maryland (MD), and Virginia (VA) metropolitan areas—lack of access to health insurance and other vital services information.
According to the data released by the United States Census Bureau, (USCB), about 1.5 million Africans live in the US—with nearly a quarter of this population—a whopping 170,000, living in the Greater Washington DC Metropolitan Area (DC, MD, VA). As the newest immigrant group with over half of whom arriving in the US after the year 2000, Sixteen thousand (16,000) Africans—drawn from over 50 countries, live in DC—with top ten in terms of population size being: Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Egypt, Liberia, Somalia, Guinea, Sudan, and Eritrea.
But “there are a slew of socio-political as well as economic issues that affect the African immigrant population, the biggest being lack of accurate and reliable data—which disaggregate the African immigrant community from African-Americans or Black race,” lamented Ngozi Nmezi, Executive Director of the DC Mayor’s Office on African Affairs (OAA), in a media interview.
“The lack of such data continues to be a barrier to understanding the full picture and experience of African-born members of the District’s community in particular and the nation in general. It subsequently, blurs the knowledge and understanding of the African community’s contributions, complexities, and needs,” she added.
But all is not lost. The government of DC has since risen to the occasion, for nearly a decade, when it passed the D.C Act 16-313 — establishing the Office on African Affairs (OAA), which is under the Executive Office of Mayor Vincent C. Gray — tasked with ensuring access to connectedness of District government services, information and resources to the DC African community. OAA provide a broad range of services, information and resources — ranging from health and housing, business and economic development, human rights and public safety, education and employment.
“The aim is, to improve the quality of life of Africans in the District while increasing the District government’s understanding of the African community’s complexities by educating on the unique needs and trends (which) shape the city’s overall policy and programming and OAA’s strategic goals, objectives, programs, and activities,” explained Ngozi, a Nigerian-American.
So far, a 13-member committee known as T.E.A.M (Think. Eat. Act. Move) Africa co-coordinated a health education and outreach campaign to create awareness about these services and how to access them.
The last leg of the 3-month campaign came in a pitch-perfect style that resonated across Africa — the DC Mayor’s proclamation of the last Saturday of May 25th 2013 as “Africa Day” in the District of Columbia — which was in striking co-incidence with the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of African Liberation Day in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when the OAA’s T.E.A.M Africa partnered with the Muslim Society of Washington, DC and First Hijra Foundation among others, to host an informational workshop titled, Health Literacy and Wellness: Harnessing Culture for Community Health.
Health Insurance has been a serious issue among African immigrant community—with about 25% of them who live in Greater DC Metropolitan area lacking any form of health insurance plan.
“Immigrants, overall in the United States, are generally healthier than native-born Americans for the first couple of years after they arrive on America’s shores. However, their health declines, as they adapt to the American lifestyle,” Ngozi revealed.
“By highlighting health and wellness issues affecting our city’s diverse African population, the Africa Day observance presents an opportunity to increase awareness across all communities,” DC Mayor Vincent Gray said.
“I am delighted that OAA is working with city agencies and community partners to ensure that African immigrants are aware of resources available to them,” he added.
The campaign ended with the DC Africa Wellness fete — a cultural celebration of individual and community wellness which staged workshops, health screening, mobile testing, government and community resources fair, mini-workshops for the youth and adults, African movement and dance lessons, African cooking demonstrations among others.
Mayor Gray graced the occasion with a short speech in which he affirmed his administration’s continues support for African immigrants. Executive Director Ngozi Nmezi, who introduced the Mayor to the stage, thanked him for his tremendous support to the DC African immigrant community.
OAA’s Public Health and Policy Specialist Sherif Elhassan, who is linked to OAA via Atlas Corp, an organization that connects trained international professionals with U.S. social change organizations, was encouraged by the 300 participants who attended the event. He also noted the utmost importance of OAA’s role in promoting the city’s Language Access Act of 2004, which assuages access issues for the city’s Limited English Proficient and Non-English Proficient residents.