Thursday, September 23, 2010

African immigrants make mark on Brooks election

By Tony Seskus
Calgary Herald September 22

BROOKS - Brooks is a pioneer city steeped in cowboy history, but shaped more recently by the thousands of new Canadians who have come to build a life for themselves on the prairies.

This fall, two African-Canadian immigrants each hope to take the next step by making a bid to sit on city council, a significant moment for the century-old community two hours southeast of Calgary.

Born in East Africa, Ahmed Kassem arrived in Canada more than 20 years ago. Today, he's an assistant safety manager at Lakeside Packers and co-founder of an organization that strives to build bridges between new arrivals and the community.

"I am running because I want to make a difference in society," says Kassem, who wants to help grow the city and hopes his efforts will inspire others. "I am very confident my message will relate to all."

Michael Nuul Mayen was a refugee of Sudan's bloody civil war, which claimed nearly two million lives. He arrived in Canada with little more than a bag in 1998. Today, he's executive director of a local language centre.

"I came with nothing, but I got something," Mayen says. "It's time to give it back to the country that nurtured and gave me something."

By all accounts, this is the first time African-Canadian immigrants have made a bid for Brooks council.

Their candidacies are an exciting development for Maureen Chelemu, a pastor at Brooks International Gospel Church and an immigrant from Zambia.

Her hope is that as councillors, Kassem and Mayen would help improve understanding, give new Canadians a greater sense of ownership in their community and bring fresh a perspective to council.

"That's exactly what a community is all about, right? To make a better community," she says. "You bring an idea, I bring an idea and then all of us must have that ownership."

If elected, Kassem and Mayen would add another chapter in the community's history, in which immigration has played a huge part.

More than a century ago, the Brooks area was a hunting ground for First Nations people.

In the late 1880s, European immigrants began to move to the area to farm. More homesteaders arrived as the railroad pushed westward.

A more recent wave of newcomers - mostly refugees from Africa - came about 10 or 15 years ago with a number taking hard-to-fill jobs in the beef-processing industry.

Today, roughly 20 per cent of Brooks' 13,500 residents are new immigrants, with a mother tongue other than English or French.

A visitor these days might hear Filipino, Spanish or Arabic. Indeed, the multicultural community is very much like Canada in miniature.

Yet, local politics - like so many other Alberta communities, including Calgary - has not exactly mirrored that same diversity.

That could change when the ballots are counted on Oct. 18.

Lloyd Wong, a sociologist who studies immigration at the University of Calgary, believes news of two African-Canadian immigrant candidates in Brooks is significant.

"When you run for office, that's a sign of what I would call active citizenship," Wong says.

"That's what democracy is about. So, to me, that's a success story that they would want to run and see that they can potentially help make Brooks a better place to live."

Wong also believes it speaks well of the entire Brooks community, "in the sense that there's encouragement for immigrants to be active."

Brooks Mayor Martin Shields applauds anyone willing to stand for public office, whether "you've been in the community all your life, whether you're new or (been here) 20 years from a different culture."

A total of 13 candidates are vying for six councillor spots. Kassem and Mayen are distinct candidates with their own platforms.

Kassem says it would be an honour to be elected and serve the community. And there's little question that he's passionate about Brooks.

He speaks of the importance of attracting and keeping Brooks residents so that the city can grow and prosper economically.

If elected, "I will be representing the whole residents of Brooks and their interests, you can be sure of that," says Kassem, who also hosts a local radio program promoting cultural understanding.

For his part, Mayen says he is running on a platform of "open, transparent and inclusive representation."

He sees his election bid as a way to contribute to his Canadian home.

Mayen was one of Sudan's thousands of "lost boys" who were displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War.

After arriving in Canada, he pursued his education and graduated from the University of Winnipeg in 2007 with a degree in international development studies.

"I am running as a Canadian citizen," Mayen says. "I felt this is something I should do, something to give back to the community."

The candidates are a hot topic in local coffee shops, according to former mayor Don Weisbeck.

"Municipal politics may be more talked (about) than it has been in years," he adds. "They certainly represent a substantial part of our population and it's good to see ... them running."

On the streets, the news also seems to be largely welcome.

"I don't see why (Brooks) shouldn't move ahead on something like this," says Catherine Burk, who has lived in the area since 1970.

Kashif Mushtaq, a resident of Pakistani origin, believes Kassem's candidacy "will be good for the community and for the city."

But the campaign trail will be full of challenges, especially in a competitive field for a council seat. And some minds will be difficult to change.

"You always have the diehards," adds longtime resident and cabbie Alan Skretting. "The ones who have lived here their whole lives and don't want to see change.

"I've been in the area all my life. I thought it a little early to begin with, but I find good and bad in all cultures, eh? So, I am for it."

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Russia's first black elected official: "I'm not Obama."

SEPTEMBER 14, 2010 4:50PM

NOVOZAVIDOVO, Russia--A small town with a population of 10,000, has elected Russia's first-ever black public official. Last month, Jean Gregoire Sagbo, an African immigrant from Benin, was elected as one of the town's ten municipal councilors, and by all accounts, the townspeople are happy with their choice. The Mayor of Novozavidovo describes him thusly, "his skin is black but he is Russian inside… the way he cares about this place, only a Russian can care."

What do the people say? "We already knew him as a man of strong civic impulse. He had cleaned the entrance to his apartment building, planted flowers and spent his own money on street improvements. Ten years ago he organized volunteers and started what became an annual day of collecting garbage."

When Sagbo first came to Russia in 1982, he and his family faced racial discrimination. The first black person many in the community had ever seen, he had to overcome a great deal to make Russia his home. Over the years he earned the respect of his community and became a prominent, Russian citizen. The people in this little corner of Russia say they don't see him as black, but only as an honest politician.

This election is a significant milestone for Russia, which has long been known for its racist sub-culture. Russia has an estimated 40,000 "Afro-Russians" in the country today. These African immigrants face systemic racism and are often the victims of hate-crimes, which are rarely prosecuted in the Russian legal system.

Russia has the highest rate of race motivated crimes in the world, so it's unlikely that the racial slurs and violence will abate anytime soon, but Sagbo is hopeful. Pleased to be the historic first for his beloved Russia, he has rolled up his sleeves and settled in for the job of reviving his town. Mr. Sagbo is known to be a congenial fellow, but don't call him Russia's Obama; he scoffs at the oversimplification.

“My name is not Obama…it’s sensationalism, he is black and I am black, but it’s a totally different situation.”

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Uganda: Businessman in Chicago Launches Solar Ovens

Phillip Kurata
31 August 2010

An immigrant from Uganda now residing in Chicago has used the first portion of a $100,000 business competition prize he won in January to begin setting up an operation in his homeland to produce and distribute ovens that cook with the heat of the sun.

Ron Mutebi won his $100,000 prize at the African Diaspora Marketplace competition in Washington in January. The competition, sponsored by Western Union Company and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), provided awards of $50,000 to $100,000 to 14 winners. All of them are Africans residing in the United States who had submitted proposals to establish or expand businesses in their home countries with local partners.

After Western Union disbursed $60,000 of the prize money in May, Mutebi arranged to ship from Chicago the components for 365 solar ovens and tools to assemble them in July. The shipment is scheduled to arrive in Uganda in October. In November, Mutebi will travel to Uganda to oversee the completion of an assembly plant and the training of staff to produce, distribute and service the cookers, made by Sun Ovens International in Elgin, Illinois. The ovens will appear in Ugandan markets in January 2011, according to Mutebi.

Mutebi has already compiled a list of nearly 1,000 people who want to buy one of the ovens, which he said will be sold for $170 each.

"We know the payoff is going to be there. It will be big when it happens," Mutebi said. "There is no other technology that can have such an impact on environmental degradation and global warming in a practical sense."

After acquiring solar ovens, villagers will not have to spend their meager incomes to buy firewood or charcoal, the prime sources of cooking fuel in Uganda, Mutebi said. The use of firewood and charcoal has caused widespread deforestation in Uganda.

Mutebi will arrange a second shipment of oven parts when he receives the rest of the prize money, which he expects to be in November.

The Chicago-based businessman said that as Ugandan companies start to provide locally made components over the next two years, he expects the cost of the ovens to come down to about $100, a 41 percent drop in price but still a substantial sum for many Ugandans, whose per capita income is $1,200 per year.

His biggest challenge to growing the business, he said, is the high interest rates that Ugandan banks charge for consumer loans -- around 24 percent. Mutebi said he is looking for ways to allow oven purchasers to buy on installment. "We can't run a business sustainably the way we want to because of the lack of support from financial institutions," he said.

Mutebi also is looking at nonmonetary methods for villagers to buy an oven.

For example, as Mutebi explains it, a Ugandan farmer may plant fruit trees on his land in exchange for an oven. The trees would be Mutebi's property. The farmer and his family would be free to consume the fruit, but Mutebi would have rights to harvest and sell the surplus. This way, he said, "the ovens not only will stop deforestation but also will promote planting of new trees. Farmers will have an economic incentive to do this."

Since winning the prize, Mutebi has spoken on frequent occasions about entrepreneurship in Africa. He was a featured speaker at the Africa Infrastructure Conference, sponsored by the Corporate Council on Africa in April in Washington, and at President Obama's Forum with Young African Leaders in August.

"I am blessed to have this opportunity to bring solar ovens to my people. I'm helping alleviate poverty and global warming and make a profit at the same time," Mutebi said.