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African Immigrants Among Obama's Enthusiastic Backers

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008

A catered fundraiser for Sen. Barack Obama was held recently at Duke's City, an upscale restaurant and bar nestled amid the hip new condominiums in the District's U Street corridor, where up-and-coming white professionals are slowly taking over an area that was once mostly black.

But the owner of Duke's City, Donato Sinaci, is not one of Obama's many young, white supporters. And the host of the event, Michael Endale, is not a native-born black American. They are members of Ethiopians for Obama, one of several campaign groups made up of African immigrants who are rallying around the first black American to win a major party's presidential primary, and the son of a Kenyan immigrant.

From coast to coast, Somali, Ethiopian, Nigerian and Kenyan Americans are knocking on the doors of their fellow African immigrants, registering new citizens to vote, raising money and preaching Obama's mantra of hope and change. They hope that his prominence will change their status as one of the nation's least-recognized immigrant groups, and that he will one day provide aid to help ease the turmoil and poverty in countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.

At a Caribou Coffee shop on East West Highway in Silver Spring, where Somalis and Ethiopians often gather, Ahmed Eyow, a Somali, said supporting Obama is a no-brainer.

"Obama is one generation away from Africa," said Eyow, who immigrated to the United States nearly 30 years ago. "I have nothing against my brothers and sisters, black people who were born here, but his father is like me. His father was an immigrant. I can relate to him the way I can relate to my own children. He's almost like my son."

Eyow and five friends who joined him said Somalis who were unconcerned with past presidential elections are now deeply engaged, following every development on cable news channels.

At the Ghana Cafe in Adams Morgan, owner Anthony Opare said enthusiastic customers are urging that a brewer in Kenya change the name of its popular beer from Tusker to Obama. "The fact that he's been able to come this far has opened doors for Africans and African descents," Opare said. "To the African, it tells us that . . . one can work hard and get whatever you want. This is the land of opportunity."

In New York, "there is intense excitement" about Obama, said Kim Nichols, co-executive director of the African Services Committee in Harlem. A native-born American whose husband is an Ethiopian refugee, Nichols said she sees the enthusiasm in her home and her office.

"One of my kids was born in Sudan in a refugee camp and is intensely excited about Obama. One of the people on my staff is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who's thinking about changing his affiliation so that he can vote for Obama," she said.

Michael Endale, an Ethiopian who immigrated to the United States eight years ago, said he co-founded Ethiopians for Obama in the District because "I can relate to his story."

"He is an underdog," Endale said. "He has the hardship story of an immigrant. My mom was a single mom. She didn't have much. But I went to school. I'm getting my master's now."

Ethiopians for Obama has done far more than entice potential donors with wine and a featured "Obama T-bone steak" at the Duke's City fundraiser. Endale said the group has raised more than $30,000 for the Illinois Democrat. On top of that, it posted an Ethiopian-language promotion for Obama that has received nearly 15,000 views on YouTube, and members caravanned to Pennsylvania in late April to get Ethiopians out to vote, trying to make even a small difference in a primary that Obama ended up losing to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

The Obama campaign embraced the support, with a spokeswoman saying it reflects the candidate's "unique ability to connect with Americans from all backgrounds" and shows "why this presidential campaign has become a real force for change."

Although the enthusiastic political activism by African immigrants is groundbreaking, it is difficult for many Americans to take seriously.

There are not many Somalis, Ethiopians, Nigerians and other African immigrants in the United States -- about 1.2 million, only 3.4 percent of all immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute -- and they stand little chance of influencing a presidential election.

They are concentrated in a few metropolitan areas, primarily in Washington and New York, with scatterings in Atlanta, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. About one in 10 African-born immigrants live in the District, according to the city's Office on African Affairs. Nichols, of the African Services Committee, said half a million African-born immigrants live in the New York area.

But what African immigrants lack in numbers, they make up for somewhat in education and income. A 2003 report by the State University of New York at Albany found that African immigrants in the United States have a higher level of education than all other groups, including white and Asian Americans, staying in school an average of 14.5 years. They have a median household income that is higher than that of black Americans, West Indians and Hispanics.

Endale said that in the District, Ethiopians for Obama will not try to influence the national race between Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Instead, the group will target Ethiopian households in the Northern Virginia suburbs.

"There's a possibility of getting 10,000 Ethiopians in Virginia," Endale said. "That could be a game-changer."

Talking with friends at Caribou Coffee, Yusuf Aden said support for Obama in the community "is 100 percent. You can't even measure. The Somali community, the East African community, the Kenyan community. Obama makes us stronger."

But across the table, Abukar Fidow was not buying it. "I don't support anybody because of the color of his skin or where he's from," he said. "I don't like his ideology, and I don't think he can win." Speaking of Clinton, Fidow said: "The lady was my choice. Now she's gone. A black man can't win."

Silence followed Fidow's words, along with cold stares from his friends. Eyow spoke first, saying that the few Somalis who think like Fidow are ignorant: "It's not like they don't support him. It's that they believe that a black can't win. But it's not like he's way down, like Ralph Nader. You're not wasting your vote. Wake up."

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