BUENOS AIRES — If you lived in Zaire in the 1990s, you didn't want to get on the wrong side of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. That's what pro-democracy activist Celestin Nengumbi Sukama did and it landed him, of all places, in Argentina.
Before coming, he didn't even know what language Argentines spoke. All he knew was that he had to get out of Zaire, and the Argentine visa was the only one he managed to get, so he seized the opening before the Mobutu regime could throw him back in jail.
Upon his arrival here in 1995, Sukama was the epitome of a stranger in a strange land, as foreign to Argentines as they were to him. “At that time, one could spend the whole week without seeing an African,” he said. “It was extremely hard.”
But things have changed in the last decade in Argentina. It's now estimated that there are at least 5,000 Africans from at least 29 countries here, with Senegal, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana topping the list. Africans can be seen in Buenos Aires and a few other Argentine cities — often peddling inexpensive merchandise on the streets.
Now that more Africans are arriving, they're gaining visibility and publicity. But it's not clear that they're any less marginalized now than when they were invisible.
Argentina has fashioned itself as a European country — even as indigenous Americans from Bolivia and Peru flooded into Buenos Aires — and this self-image is unlikely to change soon no matter the number of immigrants making their home here.
Like Sukama, nearly all Africans arrive seeking asylum from the Argentine state, which has granted 440 such requests from Africans to date. That's about 15 percent of Argentina's total recognized refugee population, which is growing every year. Argentina received a record number of asylum requests in 2008, with the most coming from Africans.
There are war victims here, some of them orphaned children, who crossed the Atlantic spontaneously as stowaways in boats. Others, just fed up with poverty at home, bought a flight and a visa to Brazil, and then illegally crossed the border into Argentina.
That latter is the usual route for Senegalese immigrants, lately the largest and most visible contingent of asylum seekers. Senegalese men can be seen on every busy street corner in Buenos Aires, selling cheap jewelry and watches out of suitcases.
Seeking economic opportunity rather than fleeing violent persecution, many Senegalese immigrants pay travel agents who promise them legal Argentine papers upon arrival in Brazil, only to find themselves led wading across a river into Argentina to avoid border control.
“If I had understood that I was going to have to cross a border illegally, I wouldn't have come,” said Abdoul Aziz Mbaye, who made the journey from Senegal over a year ago. “I'm not that stupid.”
Entering illegally might not be such a bad option for refugees, though, since they're pardoned through Argentina's 2006 “Law of Refugee Recognition and Protection.” But that immunity only comes when asylum is officially granted, a process that can take months or years.
In the meantime, asylum seekers are given the appropriately named “Precarious Residency” permit that must be renewed every three months. Every African street vendor has stories of police officers who don't recognize the document and demand bribes of cash or merchandise. Their precarious status bars them from signing leases, so nearly all of them live in cheap hotels, two or three to a room.
In the case of Senegalese immigrants, one of the reasons they hang in limbo for so long is the question of whether they qualify as refugees. The United Nations definition is limited to people subject to persecution in their home country, and does not include those simply seeking to better their economic situation.
But Monica Olmedo, a lawyer representing about 300 Senegalese asylum cases that remain unresolved after more than a year, argues that these economic migrants are bona fide refugees. “They're escaping an economic policy that makes it so that they must leave their country,” said Olmedo, who has married a Senegalese man and is now known as Mamdiarra in the community.
“Everything is bad back home; nothing's going right,” said Senegalese asylum-seeker Mbaye. “If someone has come here from Africa, it's because it was the last option that they had.” He says that the dearth of options explains why they would come to Argentina, a developing country whose language is almost nonexistent in Africa, rather than the usual northern destinations, which have become increasingly strict on immigration over the years.
Mbaye is ambivalent about having made the move, he said, but on balance, “it's better to stay here.” Like most of his compatriots, he lives simply, with a shared bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. He must work hard out in the street nearly every day to earn an average of about 1,000 pesos — about $270 — per month. He pays a quarter of that in rent, but most months he's able to set aside enough to send home to his family in Dakar. After all, the whole reason he came to Argentina was to support his family back home.
But finding work is not always easy. In his 15 years here, Celestin Nengumbi Sukama has never held a sustained job. This despite his bachelor's degree in finance, local courses in accounting and Spanish, fluency in four languages — including excellent English, a highly sought skill — and his adopted Argentine citizenship. He says that prospective employers always give him the run-around when they see his African name or face, as do government offices when he appeals for help.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina's identity as a European country in the
New World had taken hold. But its population is beginning to shift and as that happens, said Sukama, a subtle racism is beginning to appear in the culture, which views Africans as capable only of construction work or street-vending.
“It's extremely hard to understand that there is racism in Argentina,” Sukama said. “But a black man who is facing rejection from one office to another one when going and asking for some help or trying to stand for his rights will come to that conclusion.”
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