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When Wanjiru Kamau, a university administrator and adjunct professor, met the asylum seekers – victims of the Rwandan genocide and relatives of her colleagues at Penn State – she saw that some were illiterate and bewildered by modern city life. Seeing them took her back to her own childhood, growing up in rural Kenya without running water or electricity, carrying so much well and spring water on her head it permanently creased her skull. How would they survive in a complex society like the United States?


“I need to help,” she thought, knowing both what the Rwandans had suffered and what lay in store for them here. An immigrant with expertise in mental health and intercultural communication, she knew she was well equipped to help Africans adjust to American life. “This is why I was educated, to give back,” she thought. Her four children were grown. She was free of that responsibility. Rather than “Why me?” she thought, “If not me, who else”?


She quit her job, withdrew $10,000 from her retirement account, and moved from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. in 1998 to start a nonprofit to help African refugees and immigrants.  


Since 2000, the organization has provided professional help and referral services to over 6,000 immigrants from 45 countries. It has offered mentoring and tutoring to over 600 students in nine schools, guided over 200 families through African parent empowerment training, assisted 13 girls in trafficking cases, mediated 17 domestic violence cases and served over 1,400 mental health clients in 27 different languages. The group has given African cultural training to over 2,500 school counselors, caregivers and others who work with this population, and held eight national conferences.


In the 1990s Africans started pouring into the U.S., becoming the fastest growing immigrant population. Their numbers in the Washington area grew from approximately 80,000 to 200,000 in 10 years. On arrival Africans, like other immigrants, are overwhelmed by an endless “to do” list—from finding housing, jobs, and child care to learning English and survival skills. Unlike many foreigners, they also bear an array of burdens stemming largely from colonial exploitation and the continent’s wars—trauma from loss and family separation, severe poverty, cultural and linguistic barriers, and, often, illiteracy.


Yet local social service agencies often lack the cultural knowledge, sensitivity and skills required to address the immediate needs of Africans effectively. Kamau founded the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation (AIRF) to remedy this problem.


Take Sukali (a pseudonym), a Congolese refugee who arrived in Washington in 2004 with four of her children, a niece and three orphans whose parents had been killed during the war. The family spoke no English, and the children were teased and bullied by other kids in their low-income apartment complex. Lutheran Social Services provided for their physical resettlement needs, says Kamau, “but not emotional, cultural and linguistic needs.”

Not knowing where to turn, Sukali ordered the children to always to keep their windows shut with the curtains drawn and the younger ones never to go outside alone to play. The harassment did not stop. One day, the bullies invaded the apartment and fought with the children. Sukali called 911, but when the police came the intruders showed their bruises and accused her. Sukali, who could only say, “No English, no English,” was taken away in handcuffs.


Though traumatized, the older children were able to call a teacher for help. The teacher contacted Kamau’s group, which posted bail for Sukali and drove her home. Later, the group provided counseling and an interpreter, helped find the family a rental house and connected them with other African immigrants, American families and a church.


The family eventually began to thrive and, with the foundation’s help, the father and the other two children joined them in 2009. AIRF also helped Sukali complete intermediate English classes. She and her husband are now working. Despite serious problems between them due to their long separation, all the children have succeeded academically or are gainfully employed.


Kamau, now 69, orchestrates a host of programs, often leading the hands-on work. “Mama Kamau,” the kids call her, and African parents, respectful of age, listen to her.  A dozen consultants (most part-time) and some 35 volunteers (including pro bono lawyers and psychologists) help her, and the foundation partners with state and local governments, schools, and universities. The programs include:


  • Comprehensive mental health help, including home visits and case management  

  • English classes, some tailored for those with no schooling

  • Mentors who help students “catch up” socially and emotionally in nine schools

  • Retired African-American fraternity members who read weekly to Africans in elementary school

  • A council of community members, using the traditional African approach to resolving conflict, deals with domestic violence

  • A series of workshops for parents on various issues to foster communication with their kids.


The foundation’s signature effort is the Catching Up Program for students to address issues such as low self-esteem (African students are picked on and bullied for such things as their “smell” and their accents and told to “go back to Africa”), education interrupted by war, and difficulties with parents and grandparents still following African ways.


CUP groups meet twice a week after school in “Africa Clubs” at nine high, middle, and elementary schools. School staff and outside volunteers attend and provide support and counseling to promote good relationships at school and home. Leadership training, civic education, and Africa-focused discussions are part of the mix. On Saturdays all the students get together with college students for academic help, discussions, games, sports, field trips and meals.


CUP seeks to give students a positive African self-image that can co-exist with the American identity they crave. Kamau likes to begin conversations with “Where are you from?” She always carries a map of Africa. “We become Africans at the port of entry,” she explains. “Before that we are Nigerian or Kenyan or…” She wants students to get curious about different countries on that continent.


Members support each other in many ways – help with homework, advice on how to navigate the school system and on extracurricular activities and work opportunities. They cook native dishes together and join in representing their country in dance, song or play.


College junior Ruby B. Johnson, who immigrated from Sierra Leone and Nigeria at age 12, says her high school Africa Club provided a “space for me to bond with other Africans” that led to strong friendships. The club also gave her the chance to write and direct a play that was performed at AIRF’s annual conference.


Troy Massa, a college senior born here to a Sierra Leonean mother, says Africa Club and an internship with AIRF taught him to walk tall and say, “Yes, I am an African,” rather than take refuge in “I was born in America.”  He also learned that Africans could succeed, contrary to the negative message about Africa he says he found in his school curriculum.                                                                                                                                                                                   


CUP has had a remarkable record at Cordozo High School in Washington, D.C. In the past two years, all 17 students in the club graduated, and last year all 13 went to college. The class valedictorian was Ethiopian. Before the club, says sponsor and ESL teacher Waheedah Shakoor, some Africans were harassed by other students and dropped out.


CUP illustrates Kamau’s holistic attempt to treat whatever ails the African immigrant student. A problem evident at school may originate at home. Kamau calls CUP “the door” to the family, because students also tell her what problems the parents are experiencing.

After 11 years, Kamau is still going strong, though she draws no salary, has no health insurance, and became a vegetarian to save on food costs. “There are days I wake up and feel 15,” she says, smiling.

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