Students from Africa are a growing presence in our classrooms at Language ETC. That’s not surprising, because immigration from Africa is increasing rapidly across the nation. And the DC metropolitan area is a major magnet for African immigrants.
I have a cab driver from Eritrea in my class this summer, and I had two Ethiopians and a Rwandan last winter. Before that, I had students from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In all, LETC had 97 students from 20 African countries during the 2010–2011 school year. By far the largest contingent, 30 students, came from Ethiopia. The next largest group, 12, came from Eritrea, so we have a strong presence of students from the Horn of Africa.
That mirrors immigration trends in the area. Africans make up 14 percent of the foreign-born in DC and its suburbs, and the largest share comes from Ethiopia. Ethiopians have been arriving since the 1970s, to seek education or escape political repression or both. Initially centered in Adams Morgan, the Ethiopian community shifted south to Shaw when Adams Morgan gentrified. The neighborhood around 9th and U Streets NW, dense with Ethiopian restaurants, has been dubbed “Little Ethiopia.”
Ghanaians and Nigerians are the second- and third-largest African groups in the DC area, but we seldom see them in our classes. Both countries were colonized by Britain, and their schools use English as the language of instruction. Most of our African students come from countries where education is in either French or Arabic. Our French-speaking African students typically speak at least one African language too, so they’re learning English as a third or fourth language.
The third-largest African group at LETC last year, 7 students, came from Mauritania. There aren’t that many Mauritanians in Washington, so this might seem strange — until you realize that the Embassy of Mauritania is a block away. Many, though by no means all, of our African students have been associated with their countries’ embassies.
We also had students last year from Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo, and Tunisia.
African Migration to DC
Why are so many Africans coming to the DC area?
In part it’s a reflection of national trends. Significant voluntary migration from Africa to the United States began in the 1980s. The pace quickened after 2000, and by 2009 the African-born population in the United States had reached 1.5 million. Africans are still a small share of the nation’s immigrants — just under 4 percent — but immigration from Africa is increasing faster than from any other world region. Almost half of the African-born population of the United States arrived within the last decade.
A new report by the Migration Policy Institute profiles this growing population. Nationwide, the top countries of origin for African immigrants in 2009 were Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Ghana, and Kenya. Compared to the foreign-born population as a whole, African immigrants are more likely to speak English well, to have higher education, and to be in the workforce. But they are also less likely to be US citizens — many having arrived very recently — and more likely to live in poverty.
Nearly 10 percent of the nation’s African-born population lives in the DC metropolitan area, mainly in the central city and the inner-ring suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. The nation’s capital has been a magnet for African immigrants for decades, according to Jill H. Wilson of the Brookings Institution:
Black African immigrants began arriving in the Washington, DC, area in the late 1950s and early 1960s as diplomats of newly independent African countries and as students, particularly at historically black Howard University. Beginning in the 1980s, these early immigrants were joined by growing numbers of refugees, diversity visa holders, and other immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
Interviews with black African immigrants in Washington revealed that the metropolitan area is attractive to them for four main reasons: its cosmopolitan nature (including its racial diversity); its manageability (especially compared with New York, which was noted as too big and too expensive); its status as a center for international work; and its standing as the capital city (which is viewed as the most important city in many African countries).
The DC metropolitan area’s Ethiopian community is the largest in the nation — up to 100,000 people, according to the Arlington-based Ethiopian Community Development Council. Ethiopians in the city have traditionally worked as parking attendants and taxicab drivers. But many have gone on to become entrepreneurs, opening restaurants and other ventures that have helped revive rundown neighborhoods. An Ethiopian Yellow Pages includes hundreds of businesses run by local Ethiopian Americans.
All these trends come together in our classrooms. I think of my Ethiopian student who wanted to improve her English and get a better job, because sitting all day in a parking garage booth was boring . . . the student from Congo, who was thrilled to land a low-wage, backbreaking job in a hotel . . . the student from Cameroon, working as a home health aide, who dominated the class with his keen intellect. Numbers help us see the bigger picture, but what we really care about at LETC is individuals — our students.