The Dream: Coming to America

Jasmyne A. Cannick | 11/2/2011, 5 p.m.

Los Angeles has long been a dream for immigrants haling from various parts of Africa. The United States Census estimates the current population of African immigrants at about 881,300. With so few numbers in the disparate communities, Africans are a silent minority, carrying a very low profile. They are less likely than other immigrants, say Latinos, to question political decisions. And many come from countries where the political consequences for questioning government can be harsh.

Most Africans seem to take the position, that while things are not perfect here, African Americans, comparatively speaking, have it much better than they realize.

In Los Angeles County, there are about 26,000 Africans, representing almost 3 percent of the Black population. The African nations with the most immigrants in Los Angeles County include Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. Like immigrants from other places, Africans tend to congregate in areas where other countrymen already are. Inglewood has become ground zero for many Nigerian families while Carson boasts a large number of Ghanaians. Orange County is a popular destination for both Sierra Leoneans and Kenyans, and Ethiopians numbers are largest in the Fairfax District of the city.

While this survey involves only four African communities, it hopefully gives a glimpse into an often overlooked segment of immigrants. In the city's close-knit African communities, many still view America's educational system as among the best in the world, despite its problems. One reason why: it's free.

"In Africa, nothing was given to us," explains Nigerian native and business owner Kehinde Ololade, 46. "I had to walk to school. My parents had to pay for our tuition and for us to have a desk, a chair, textbooks, and uniforms. Education was not free. Our classrooms had no air conditioning. Too many American children take education for granted. I stress the importance of a good education every day with my children."

She's not alone. Ololade, like millions of other African immigrants, finds it hard to believe that American children don't want to go to school.

"You read about the dropout rates, especially among Black American students, and it's sad," she says. "There are so many African kids who would risk their lives for the chance to come here and go to school."

The Lagos, Nigeria, native and popular mid-city hair salon owner, recalls coming to America in 1987, following the pattern of other African nationals who took advantage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that saw an estimated 1 million Africans immigrate to the United States.

"I came here alone," she recalls. First arriving in San Diego, she remembers getting her first job at a local Jack in the Box restaurant.

From there, Ololade says she had a string of jobs, ranging from a parking-lot attendant in Boston, home health aide in New York, before eventually settling in Houston as a shipping and receiving manager with a part-time seasonal job at the post office.

By the time Ololade moved to Houston, she was a single mother, having been married and divorced.