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Engaged Learning spotlights Dallas’ African immigrants

Engaged Learning spotlights Dallas’ African immigrants

African immigrants come to Dallas for a multitude of reasons. Some come to escape political turmoil. Others come for better educational opportunities.

Mary Ondari, a native Kenyan, came to the United States at 19, almost eight years ago, to help one of her older sisters with her new baby. Since immigrating, she explained that her experience here has been a learning one.

“I’ve had, and I still am having, a lot of opportunity to learn just about myself, for awhile, and learn about other people and other cultures, and that’s been really, really important to me,” she said.

Sarah Rahimi, a third-year undergraduate with senior status, is working on an Engaged Learning project considering the stories of African immigrants like Ondari. Rahimi’s plan is to record the oral histories of 30 African immigrants in total, made up of ten immigrants from each of the black, white, and Indian races.

Rahimi, who is pursuing majors in history and education, will conclude her project next semester with a 50-page paper about research on “the immigration pattern from Africa to Dallas” and participants’ stories. The paper will be donated to the DeGolyer Library at SMU and the Vickery Meadow Learning Center, an educational facility available to refugees and immigrants living in the northeast Dallas neighborhood.

“I think that a lot of people haven’t gotten a chance to share their stories, their memories, their experiences,” Rahimi said. “It’s just a great way for them to show who they are, you know, and it’s a great way for them to self-reflect.”

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Sarah Rahimi’s Engaged Learning photo (Photo by: Sarah Rahimi)

Dr. Jill Kelly, Rahimi’s mentor and an assistant professor of African and South African history, noted that Texas has the third largest population of African immigrants in the United States. Rahimi noticed a trend of immigrants coming to Dallas to be close to relatives who already live here. But it probably isn’t surprising that many people in the city know little to nothing about the population.

“A lot of people are thinking about immigration, but the face of that immigration is not always thought about as being from Africa,” said Kelly.

Dr. Caroline Brettell, a Ruth Collins Altshuler professor and the director of the Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute, and Kelly also both pointed out that Dallas’ African immigrant population gained attention last fall when Thomas Eric Duncan, an immigrant to Dallas from Liberia, was diagnosed with the first case of Ebola in the United States.

“I think that Dallasites are unaware of the diversity that exists in this city. It’s very easy to live in your own bubble,” said Brettell.

Brettell also pointed out that misconceptions about immigrants are an issue, but one that Rahimi’s project will help to alleviate.

“Often immigrants are numbers, and they’re faceless. And they’re lawbreakers to people,” Brettell explained. “I think these stories put faces onto people, and they actually probably reveal our shared humanity.”

Rahimi was first introduced to Engaged Learning while taking a junior seminar class with Kelly, who also prompted her to pursue a history major as a freshman.

“We just had a daily warm-up, and she asked, ‘What’s your favorite type of history?’ And so I said ‘oral history’ and that’s kind of all where it began,” she said of the inspiration for her project.

Though her studies influenced her topic, her background also had an impact. Rahimi’s mother immigrated from Pakistan and her father from India, and she was an International Baccalaureate graduate at North Hills Preparatory in Irving.

“I’ve always learned to be a global-minded citizen,” she said of her education at North Hills. “They always promoted diversity, pluralism.”

Rahimi’s project is an ideal example of the purpose of Engaged Learning. Susan Kress, director of Engaged Learning, explained that the program is “experiential learning,” allowing students a hands-on opportunity to expand upon classroom learning.

“This is the experience part. It’s taking that knowledge and those skills and applying it in a real, practical application in the real world,” Kress said.

Though there are around 130 projects in process, Kress noted that Rahimi’s project stands out because of its relatable nature.

“What is the thing that makes us all human?” Kress questioned. “That’s that we all have stories.”

Besides writing the paper, Rahimi said that an intended outcome of her project is personal gain. She believes that everyone has their own “struggle story” and that immigrants should be given resources and a chance to share the good they have to offer, but longs for an even more intimate connection with their experiences.

“I personally always wish that I was able to put myself in their shoes and experience the same things that they did,” she said. “I feel like I would be even more grateful for the opportunities that I have in America.”

Ondari echoed this, asserting that many falsely believe that immigrants only want to take, or “have a little less to give.”

“Whether it’s from Africa, or from Mexico, or from Europe, there’s always something more. There’s something we have to give too,” she said.

Ultimately, Ondari noted that it’s not only important for people to be aware of immigrant experiences, but about the world as a whole.

“It’s really important to see the world in somebody else’s eyes,” said Ondari.

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