When Fatou-Seydi Sarr immigrated to Detroit from Senegal in 2003, she had a Bachelor’s in Business Administration and Management and several years of work experience in France. But when she first arrived here, she recalls experiencing racism and microaggressions when searching for a job.
Fatou-Seydi Sarr“That’s the story of a lot of immigrants here. When I came here at age 26 or 27 I found myself going back from scratch to school because my degree was not recognized and my three or four years of experience in France before I came here were not recognized either,” she says. “Some of them told me straight that they could not call in French to verify my employment.”
That experience led Sarr to become a grassroots community organizer and social justice activist. In 2007, she started the African Bureau of Immigration and Social Affairs (ABISA), a 501(c)3 nonprofit identifying and addressing the needs of black immigrants and refugees. The organization hopes to bridge the resource and information access gap by increasing the visibility of Detroit’s black and African immigrants.
Fatou-Seydi Sarr wears a long dress and head-tie made from colorful West African print in her small office at the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit in Midtown. She is confident — keeping eye contact through large glasses that rest on her high cheekbones. Her Senegalese accent sounds French while she speaks calmly about her experiences, but with an intensity that is channeled into advocacy. On the wall next to her is a map of Detroit’s 129-square-mile radius, her desk is covered in books like “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by Richard Rothstein.
“We have to have a face, and a voice,” she says. “The national narrative doesn’t identify black immigrants as being part of the conversation. You really have to push and force that to happen.”
Specific needs in the black, African immigrant community
After seeing how black immigrants in the United States were treated, Sarr explored the work of the Latinx community in Detroit by “crisscrossing needs and conversations and seeing what happens, what doesn’t happen, and how things are being done; seeing if here in the State of Michigan, we are really advocating for immigrants.”
Although Sarr was inspired by the work of the Latinx community, she believed the specific challenges faced by black immigrants would require its own approach.
While Detroit has a long history of immigration and prevalent Latinx and Arab immigrant populations, there is little knowledge of the community of Africans in the city. Businesses like Maty’s African Cuisine and small Senegalese markets have rooted in Northwest Detroit, but there are black immigrants living all over Southeastern Michigan. The community is very diverse, hailing from African nations like Senegal, Nigeria, Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, as well as Caribbean countries like Jamaica and Haiti.
A family volunteers together at a Springboard to Excellence meeting. The program is open to girls of any immigrant background, as well as non-immigrant Black girls. Photo by Lauren Santucci.
Overall, there are around 14,000 African immigrants living in Metro Detroit and roughly 53,000 black immigrants in the State of Michigan. “They are everywhere in the city. They are everywhere on the outskirts. … You have a lot of West Africans, French-speaking, who live on the border with Southfield and Detroit.” Sarr explains. “You do have some folks in Sterling Heights, Farmington Hills, Ypsilanti, Garden City.”
According to a study from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, the black immigrant population in the United States is growing fast, but remains detached from the broader immigration discourse.
Oftentimes, this means their needs are not being met — one in five African immigrants live below the poverty line and the community has a joblessness rate of nearly 10 percent, despite being some of the most educated immigrants in the country. “If they don’t know where the resources are, or, if they don’t know where the information is, they can’t use it,” says Sarr.
ABISA’s response to these realities are threefold: to address the social services gap by connecting black immigrants with resources, to halt the rate of deportation by providing legal counsel and community awareness campaigns, and to support women and girls in the community.
“We try to address things that I believe can be helpful and can help folks to sustain themselves.” Sarr says.
A focus on women and girls
In 2017, ABISA launched a youth leadership program — Springboard to Excellence for black immigrant girls — in Detroit. Sarr designed the program to encourage the educational and socio-cultural inclusion of women through personal and career development, positive self-image, and leadership. Seeing that young women in her community were not reaching their full potential at school or work, Sarr decided to mentor children from 8th to 12th grade to send them on a “path of excellence and success.”
Fanta Jatta, ABISA’s Community Outreach and Engagement Coordinator, shovels dirt during a Springboard to Excellence meeting. The program meets bi-monthly. Photo by Lauren Santucci.
A large component of Springboard to Excellence is community service. Girls volunteer at non-profit organizations around the city, spending their Saturdays urban farming at the Brightmoor Artisans Collective or cleaning up neighborhood streets during Motor City Makeover.
“We try to really expose them to things that are in this city.” says Sarr. “You are responsible for making sure your community is the best one to live in. … If you clean up your neighborhood, who enjoys it? Before anyone else in the city of Detroit enjoys it, you are first.”
Non-immigrant black girls, as well as girls from other immigrant groups, are welcome to join Springboard to Excellence.
“We set the programs so we can pick up the slack in an environment where these children know each other or they share something together,” Sarr explains. “They are half-immigrant, they are first-generation or second-generation, their parents are immigrants but they are not, they may wear hijab or they may not wear hijab.”
The long fight
Sarr runs ABISA without consistent funding or general operating money. With the help of full-time volunteers Fanta Jatta and Jainabou Barry-Danfa, ABISA has served 800 clients with nearly 4,000 contact hours with immigrant families between 2016 and 2018. Moving forward, Sarr is determined to find the funding to sustain their work in the long-term.
Another challenge for ABISA today is the increasing presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Michigan, a border state. “Deportation has driven people out of their house,” Sarr says. “We see the number of deportees growing, but what is very painful for me is to see the revival of the underground railroad, where we see African immigrants and families leave in droves and trying to make it by crossing the border to Canada.”
Girls attending a Springboard to Excellence meeting dig a space for flower beds at the Brightmoor Artisans Collective. Photo by Lauren Santucci.
Sarr often goes to her client’s homes, consulting families on their immigration issues, providing English as a second language (ESL) resources, and even domestic violence support for women. Her work is non-stop, but she does it for her community.
“My father used to say, ‘if you have knowledge, expertise, and access, and none of it serves your community, it is worthless.’” she says. “The people closest to these issues have to be at the center of finding the solution.”
This article is part of “Detroit Innovation,” a series highlighting community-led projects that are improving the vitality of neighborhoods in Detroit, while recognizing the potential of residents to work with partners to solve the most pressing challenges facing their communities.
The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that’s working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.