On Feb. 24, Mohamedtaha Omar, 23, Adam K. Mekki, 20, and Muhannad A. Tairab, 17, three Black Muslim refugees from Sudan, were found dead in Fort Wayne, Ind. Though police describe the tragedy as “execution style” killings, they refuse to investigate the incident as a hate crime, though all three young men are Black and two of the three are Muslim, prompting a social media outcry and petitions demanding investigations and justice under the hashtag #OurThreeBrothers.
As the nation is stunned and perplexed around the overwhelming silence around these horrific murders it is clear that despite the fact the Black Lives Matter movement has pushed issues of racial inequity to the front of our social and political agenda there are still attempts to diminish the lives of some Blacks. It is not clear if the silence around #OurThreeBrothers is because of the convergence of their identities as Blacks or as Muslims or as refugees, but the muteness is palpable.
As the director of the nation’s only national immigrant rights organization for people of African descent, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), I’ve witnessed how the discussion around Black immigrants is often used in an attempt to draw distinctions and even paint Black immigrants in a more favored or advantaged position over African Americans. These attempts to distance Black refugees and immigrants from African-Americans ring hollow. The horrific incident in Fort Wayne and the shooting of Abdi Mohamed in Salt Lake City have made it very clear that one’s country of origin or immigration status does not protect one from the reality of being Black in the U.S. Currently, 17-year-old Abdi Mohamed, born in Kenya, is fighting for his life after being shot on Saturday by Salt Lake City police for allegedly holding what witnesses describe as a broomstick. Unrest broke out in support of Abdi and his family is demanding answers.
These terrifying incidents and similar cases of racialized violence directed at Black refugees and immigrants in recent years bring into painful and all too clear focus that race matters – and for Black people from various nations – this impacts them, too. The tragic killing of 23-year old Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, at the hands of New York Police Department in 1999 reminds us of this as his death spurred rebuke and widespread protest. More recently, the killing of Charly Keunang (aka "Brother Afrika") by Los Angeles Police Department, an immigrant from the Cameroon who lived on Skid Row, inspired homeless advocates and activists from the Black Lives Matter network and the African migrant community to demand justice for Brother Afrika under the banner #CantKillAfrika. Sadly, there are dozens more stories like this in Black immigrant and refugee community.
As Black immigrants are migrating to the U.S. in record numbers, they are experiencing unique challenges and varied success in shaping their lives. Too often, the bootstrap narratives around education and financial success ignore the reality of structural racism they face. Black immigrants similar to African Americans have the highest unemployment rates of any foreign born population, are being profiled and detained in immigration facilities disproportionately and face tremendous amounts of discrimination in the workplace and wage theft.
It is with this understanding about the interconnected nature of all Black existence that BAJI initiated the formation of a national member-based network of nearly 40 organizations representing both African-American and Black immigrant communities. The Black Immigration Network (BIN) works to build economic, social and political agenda towards our common goals.
The Black immigrant experience in the U.S. must be understood not in contrast to the African American experience, but as an integral part of it. Activists and organizers with BAJI, and with Movement for Black Lives and Immigrant Justice movement, have begun to focus on the shared experiences of Black immigrants and African-Americans, including systemic racism that results in violence against our families. This is critical as the movement is not only concerned with extrajudicial killings, but racism in various systems – like the immigration system.
It’s going to take the leadership of diverse Black people to champion solutions where all of our communities can thrive. Fortunately, the leadership of Black immigrant communities has always been present in all Black liberation movements, from leaders like Marcus Garvey to Shirley Chisholm to Malcolm X and Harry Belafonte we know this is our legacy. These leaders were either immigrants themselves or the direct descendants of Black migrants.
Thankfully, one of the few times that Black people, specifically Black immigrants and refugees will come together to discuss these issues is the Black Immigration Network Kinship Assembly in Los Angeles, April 8-10. With the theme “Black Love Beyond Borders”, this gathering is needed now more than ever as Black communities must connect to determine how we will address challenges, celebrate our unique identities and find points of strength and unity that will help us to heal in the face of rising hate and violence.
Black immigrants and refugees have just as much at stake in the fight to make Black Lives Matter as African Americans do. The future success of our diverse Black communities is tied closely together and to progress in achieving immigrant rights, racial justice and economic justice in the U.S. and the world.
Opal Tometi is a New York-based Nigerian-American writer, strategist and community organizer and Executive Director Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). She is also a co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter. To learn more about BAJI please visit www.blackalliance.org.