Mayalan Keita-Brown Interview Transcript

MAYALAN KEITA-BROWN: My name is Mayalan Keita-Brown. It's spelled, Mayalan, is M A Y A L A N, and Keita, K E I T A, hyphen, Brown. B R O W N. Mayalan Keita-Brown. MATT JACOBSON: OK, thank you. And, so tell me first, just give me a brief sketch of your life. Where you're from, how you came to be in Minnesota, how long you've been here, what you're doing, the kinds of work that you're engaged in. MKB: I'm originally from Liberia, West Africa, and I was a lawyer in Liberia. And I won a lottery visa, so I was able to come here with my green card already. I've been here for the past in six years, and I've been working with the Women's Initiative for Self Empowerment, WISE. And we collaborate and partner with the African and American Friendship Association for Cooperation and Development, AAFACD. This is my call who worked with the Foreign Trained Healthcare Professional Program. These are medical doctors and nurses who are already credentialed in their countries of origin, but coming here, they are not allowed to practice. So they are not licensed to work in their area of expertise. And many of them end up being taxi drivers, parking attendants, and maybe hotel attendants. Just at entry-level jobs. And our organization, or the Program, the Foreign Trained Healthcare Professional Program, is to ensure that these people's voices are heard. And we do a lot of advocacy for policy changes, for them to get into residency and be able to get their licensure. And with the advocacy, we start on the grassroots level, with community-based organizations, or community-based leadership. And we also go to the level of the legislature, of local and federal, and we work with so many other foundations that have been funding us, and with the Office of Refugee Resettlement. They are our main funnel on this program. And recently, we just realized that what we have been advocating for is like recertification of these professionals, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement is more or less giving us that credential, to go ahead and see how we can really get them recertified. Because when we first started the program, it was like 25 persons that we identified through technical assistance from CURA, the University-- CURA is part of the U of M program. They give us technical assistance to identify foreign trained healthcare professionals in Minnesota. And through that program, we have been able to identify, we have been able to enroll in the program over 200 persons. MJ: Wow, 200 people representing about how many different nationalities? MKB: These are people from all over. Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Central and Latin America. And our agency is so diverse. And we just work within a group of people. The reason we are not presently supporting the other immigrants is because of funding. The funding that we have really for only refugees are Sudanese and entrants from Cuba. So we are very limited. But two years ago, the state funded us, also, but that was a pilot program. MJ: So how long is the process for someone who finds your organization to get recertified? How long does that generally take? MKB: It depends on the individual, but we have found out that the younger group of people who are just coming out of medical school quickly get recertified than the older folks, because there is a policy that states that, if you are out of a medical school after seven years, then it makes it more difficult for you to get licensed because of the time factor, and also the age factor. And there are so many other challenges and barriers that stop these people from getting into the medical profession. MJ: And probably trust, too. I mean, does it take -- MKB: That is quite true. Because when we talk with some agencies, to extend internships to these medical professionals, they're like, oh, we really don't know these people. But through our working with the stakeholders in the healthcare system, our agency, AAFACD, and the Women's Initiative for Self Empowerment, are be coming reputable and becoming known that our clients are of reputable character. Because we do a lot of vetting, screening of these people, and making sure that they are of the best. And some of them take their exam, the medical exam, and they pass, 90, 95. One even had a 98%! So it's not a matter of not knowing what to do. Because most of these people, and even though they were trained outside of the United States, but they are trained with United States materials, educational materials. So you cannot say that they don't know what they are doing. And also, the challenge could be language barrier, so we have, we collaborate with an agency also, the Language Global Institute, that will teach them the American culture of speaking, or culture of communication. So they have been helpful, also. MJ: Is it your sense that the healthcare establishment, or establishments, that whole configuration, that that's a place that has been in general more hospitable to immigrant workers? MKB: I'm not sure if you would say, they have been hospitable. Because what I have noticed, personally, is that when immigrants come into the United States, they are categorized according to which country they are coming from. Most English-speaking immigrants are put into the healthcare areas, because they are like, ooh, they speak English. And take the Mexicans, for example. They are put into construction area, because most of them come as masons or carpenters, and the Hmong are put into farming areas. So people-- MJ: They're very different avenues. MKB: Yeah. And the Liberians mostly have been put into nursing homes, because they speak very good English, and they are compassionate, you know, caring and everything. And I have been involved with the advocacy in the Liberian community for permanent residency for Liberians on Temporary Protected Status, and we have been involved since 2007. And I work with the Jewish Community Action, and others, the Advocates for Human Rights, and the Catholic sisters, and so many other organizations. Also, we work with the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, which is the umbrella organization for all Liberian communities, or entities. We've been trying to you ensure that Liberians who have been here for more than 17, 20 years get their permanent residency, which has been very difficult. MJ: Right. But let me back up just a little bit before we get back to the politics of citizenship. Can you just tell me a little bit more about, I guess, your own decision to come, not just to the U.S., but to Minnesota, and about the longer kind of development of the Liberian community here in Minneapolis, Saint Paul. How is it that, I mean, it's a sizeable community, it seems. I don't know what the numbers are. But how was it that Liberians began finding their way to this area? MKB: Well, then, Minnesota has been a very welcoming community. And Liberians come here because of economic reasons. Many states, compared to Minnesota, from all indications, Liberians found out that it is a bit difficult to get employment in other states. And the job, before the financial crisis, here, you could easily get employed. So people tend to come quickly here. But for me, my siblings were here before me, and many of them are here. So when I decided to come the States, they are like, you have to come here! Normally it's easier and better when you have your relatives all in one area. MJ: Are there still family members back in Liberia who you expect will eventually be coming this direction? MKB: Yes, we hope they can get accepted to come! Yeah. So it's the whole of Liberians being in Minnesota with the rest of us is economic reasons. You have better employment, you have therapy, and everything is just around that. MJ: Okay, so then back to the kind of political struggles. What are the specific challenges that the Liberian community is facing right now, in terms of the kinds of status changes that you were talking about, that they are struggling for? MKB: You know, Liberia has been like a, I would say a stepchild. But Liberia, Liberians were here before and in 1821, '22, ex-slaves were taken from here and sent to Africa, and they end up in Liberia for resettlement. And they were there, but their roots were here. And most Liberians consider themselves, even the whole of Africa, consider Liberians a stepchild or a child of America. So if you run from Liberia, the first place you would think about is coming to America. And when the civil war came to Liberia, many of the Liberians found themselves becoming refugees, and not when they're refugees, just running and coming here, and hoping that this would be better. And from all indications, it was like, we're going back home. But from the time they have been here, every year they have been renewing their Temporary Protective Status. Until the election of the president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, then, when she stated, I think, at the U.N. conference or so, that everything was back to normal in Liberia, the United States government decided, OK, things are all right in Liberia. Now it's time for the Liberians to leave. MJ: to leave, right – MKB: But what the government of America failed to realize that even though you might say to yourself, all right in Liberia, but coming from 17 years of civil war cannot make things right in two to three years. Things are not normal in Liberia. There's a high rate of crime, there's a lower rate of health issues, there's a lower rate of education, and you can't get water, you can't get water, electricity is out of question, and the roads are bad. Everything. The infrastructure, on the whole, is just down to nothing. So the rate of unemployment is so high. So you can't say that things are all right. But I'm thinking, maybe the president, you know, when she said that, she meant good. But it's having a very bad effect on the Liberian group here, because they who are here are also people who sent out money to Liberia, to relatives, and they're more or less sustaining the Liberians back home, their relatives back home. So if you get them out of here and say, go back home, I don't know what that means. It's like sending people to the worst kind of punishment. MJ: Are there people who have already been sent back? MKB: Well, no, not with the termination of the Temporary Protected Status, because fortunately, when the status was terminated, and during President Bush's time, he extended it to 18 months. And that ended last year. Just when that ended, President Obama also extended it for one year. And that one year is ending, the deadline is March 31st. MJ: OK, so soon. MKB: So soon. MJ: Is there any indication of what's going to happen at that point? MKB: We don't know. Because they got all Liberians on edge. And Liberians have been very good citizens, or nationals. Paying taxes and taking care of the old folks in the homes here. And many of the senators, the representatives, or key decision-makers, their old folks are at homes, these, I don't know how you call the homes anyway. But the Liberians take good care of them. So we have been talking to a few legislatures to appeal to them to sign onto today's Dear Colleague letters, and be able to talk to their other colleagues to sign onto letters, or bills, to allow Liberians to gain permanent residency. And we are hopeful that finally, it will work out. But it's not to the best interests to both Liberia and to America by sending out Liberians back home. Because the whole world, like I said, Africa especially, they're looking out to see how America will treat Liberia. If Liberia is not being treated well by Africa, even if America goes to other African states to work with them, but there will always be that doubt of trust. If you cannot treat people who were originally from your home, who are considered part of you, if you can't treat them well, will you be able to treat us, you know? MJ: From the point of view of both Africans in Africa and Africans here in the United States, can you talk about how this political change here has been experienced, the change from the Bush administration to the Obama administration? Because my sense is that most Americans feel that there couldn't be more difference between those two people, right? But on certain issues, there's been, I think, less difference between the two administrations than some people might expect. So how have the politics of all these things looked, as the U.S. has gone through these political changes in the last year or 18 months? MKB: Well, you know, like I told you before, I'm not a, I don't have my citizenship. And I have not voted for any government yet. And it's the same thing with Liberians. Majority of them don't have their citizenship, especially these people that we have been advocating for. So when it comes to politics, it's like, we just have to appeal to the government to give us some sort of citizenship, recognition. And make sure that we stay here legally. Because we hate to be here illegally. It would affect us and the children who are born here, also. And also, it would affect the education of these children, who are born here and who will remain here. Because this, they recognize as their own. So we're coming to the politics era of Bush and Obama, we just hope for the best for them. For the whole country. That's what I would think, I hope that the country and the decision that is being made at the highest level, is being made with the interests of the citizens and the whole country at heart. MJ: Here in Minnesota, I mean, it's a complicated picture, because, for example, the Liberians are facing a very particular challenge, based on something that's happening or has happened in their home country that is different from other immigrant groups around. So here in Minnesota, I mean, how much contact is there between different immigrant groups around the broader questions of immigrants' rights, citizenship, anti-deportation, all of those kinds of issues, that affect different groups differently, but are kind of connected? Is there a lot of coordination and communication between different groups? MKB: Yeah, there's a lot of coordination. Through our organizing and mobilizing on the Liberian issue, we're over to work with some other organizations to the point of where we form the coalition for permanent residency. And this coalition, and purpose or aim is to include all immigrants, regardless of where you're from, and be able to advocate for your permanent residency. And we also affiliate ourselves with AFFIRM, Alliance For Fair Immigration Reform Acts. And also the CIR, the comprehensive immigration reform that we try to work with, because all the Liberians or other immigrants all have commonality. We've the same comprehensive immigration reform, and we think that as Liberians, if that reform is passed, that bill is enacted, it would benefit us, too. Even if it doesn't benefit us, it might benefit a larger group of immigrants who are similarly situated like the Liberian community. And we hope that also with the DREAM Acts, we would be able to have our kids, and the kids of other immigrants, to be able to go to college and gain education. Because we feel that if a country is educated, it solves a lot of problems and crimes in the communities too. So we have been very involved with almost 15 different organizations that have the same idea. MJ: In terms the economics of the region, I know that Minnesota, or at least this part of Minnesota, has not been hit as hard as many places in the country, if you just look at the unemployment rate over time. Although there have been moments where it's been pretty bad. Have immigrant communities been hit especially hard by that? Or how has the experience of the last two years or so been for the immigrant communities that you're working with? MKB: The immigrants who have suffered a lot of unemployment, like, last year, this year, some of the people you expect are working, you talk to them, they are like, oh! I got laid off, I got laid off. And these are people who really have their families to take care of. And in an economic impact, or in an immigrant here, it will show on the countries of origin, too. Because like I said, most of us send money back home to our relatives. There's no kind of job that the relative back home is doing. And they depend on their relatives here to remit money back home. So that is affecting the immigrant community. And there's another thing, also, there was something else that I was thinking about and I just forgot. About the job issue. MJ: Well, that's OK. We can come back to it. But can you tell me, I know that the organization you're working with, you're dealing mostly with professionals, and mostly health professionals. But what other kinds of work are Liberians doing in Minneapolis-St. Paul? MKB: Most Liberians are in the nursing homes. Yeah, that's the word I wanted to use before. In the nursing homes. But some of them, most of them, who are not in nursing homes are being supported by their spouses, so they are in schools, maybe trying to get their master's also. And that makes it difficult for their family also, or for their community. And few of them into other areas. But our program right now, we're trying to write a proposal to see how we can incorporate or expand the program to other professionals, not only medical professionals, but teachers, accountants, lawyers, engineers. MJ: Well, speaking of which. So you're a lawyer. You studied in Liberia. And what did you have to do to be able to practice? MKB: I'm not practicing. MJ: So your law degree, actually, I mean, it benefits you in the store of knowledge that you have, but you're not using it. MKB: No, I'm not licensed to practice here, so I'm not practicing as a lawyer. I consider myself more as a social worker and a community organizer. MJ: Is this the kind of work that you thought you would be doing when you came, six years ago? MKB: Well, I didn't think that I would be-- I don't know. Because when I was back in Liberia, even though I was a lawyer, and sometimes I would go in the courtroom, doing trials for my colleagues, but I was also working with the female lawyers of Liberia. And we used to do a lot of community organizing and civic engagement, community education. So when I came here, I was like, oh, OK. I just go back and do those things, reach out to the community. So I've been doing a lot of outreaching for these two organizations, and doing a lot of awareness-building of the issues that we have in our programs, because many Americans did not know that they have a lot of resources in these immigrants that come, professional immigrants. So our organizations have been building awareness among decision-makers, key decision-makers. We're in the communities, with healthcare institutions, and the senate, the legislature. So it is like I've stayed in my area! MJ: What's the thing that has surprised you the most about your experience in the United States? MKB: What is really surprising me the most is that even though immigrants and refugees are allowed to come, there's not much, they are not encouraged, or they are not given, the best opportunity to get into jobs that they really learned, from back home, or they were experts in from back home. Because I think that is due to the culture of employment here. People come, very different, with different ideas and expectations, and when we get here, we see that it's a different attitude altogether. And I don't know whether it's because the normal American does not trust immigrants, or what's the reason. Or they just, some will think that, oh, these immigrants come and get our jobs from us. But-- MJ: Do you hear that? Is that a real part of your kind of daily experience here? That level of hostility against immigrants? MKB: Well, from questions asked, is like, what are you doing here? Do you think you know how to do this job? Can you do this? So when you're asked those kinds of questions, it's like, you're trying to take my job away from me! So I have the idea that these people have been worried and protective of their jobs. But what is happening, is that it's not necessary. Because the jobs that immigrants are doing, are mostly jobs that Americans themselves don't want. So why be so overprotective? Give the immigrants a chance to do their jobs. And give them the opportunity to get the license, those who are professionals, to get their licenses, to be able to practice in their area or field. Like for instance, with the foreign- trained healthcare professionals, they tell them, you have to take tests, or even though we see your credential is good, but you have to go back and start from Chemistry 101. That is like saying no. Because these people already have gone, maybe, have done 10, 15 years in the medical area back home. And then you say, go back to Chemistry 101. And these schools are doing that! So it becomes very frustrating for people. And most times, they are like, okay, I will take anything, any kind of job, to sustain my family. And that means that the American dream is down the line. MJ: Yeah. What did that phrase, the American dream, what did that mean to you when you were still in Liberia? MKB: When I was still in Liberia, I really had no American dream! Because like I said, I was already working. I had a very good job, and I was there during the 17 years of war in Liberia. Even the last one, 2003, I was there. But my siblings who came out here, they were so worried about me during the war. And when the bombs were dropping all over, and they called, they said, what are you doing there? I said, I don't know! Where do I go? I never had an inkling I would, you know, say, oh, let me pack up and go to America. So one of them said, why don't you apply for the lottery visa? I said, usually I do those things, I don't win. So I'm not even applying. And my brother was like, apply. If you win, it would not be for you, but for your kids. At least get your kids out of the country. Ah, then it clicked. Yeah, my kids! I'd like to get my kids out to safety. And fortunately for me when I applied, sent in my application for the lottery diversity visa, I won. Then we started working from there to come. The day I get my application-- no, when I was informed that I won the lotto, I was told to get some applications together, some other forms, and then take them to the embassy. The day I went to the embassy, that's when the whole chaos started again, in 2003. -- MJ: It was that day. -- MKB: That day. So when I get my papers, with my children's papers, the consulate at the booth was like, give me it quick and go. I was like, what happens these days? They are fighting in downtown Monrovia, so they just collected my papers. And we went. From that it was like three months later, every day was bombardment in the country. Every day. In August, there was ceasefire. MJ: What were you doing during those days? I mean, were you trying to work? MKB: Sometimes you would say, you go to work, but it was just occupying your time. Sometimes you couldn't leave your homes because the rebels had taken over the whole city. There was no way you could leave your home. And we actually left our home, like 70 miles away, and went to near the American embassy in Mamba Point. So there were like 300 persons in one building. And I don't know, but you would say go ahead, each and every one of us. Because all around us, there were bullets, they were killing people. But this building here, the only thing that the rebel did was to go, we had a car parked in the yard, and that's all they wanted. So we didn't mind. They didn't bother anybody. But all our neighborhood around the building, people were being taken out and shot. There were so much kills. So when I went in September for the interview and I was told that I'll be able to come with my kids, I was happy. MJ: That must have been a long three months. MKB: Yes. MJ: I can't even imagine. So I mean, there must have been days you thought you were not going to get out. MKB: Yes, yes. I remember one morning they were sending rockets from one part of the city to the next, and it was like the rocket was passing over us. So I'm like, God, I don't know. We are in your hands. And we all were lined up flat on the ground and just prayed. But in my mind, that day I said, boy, this must be my last day on earth. MJ: You must've just been in disbelief when you actually did make it out. MKB: Yes, yeah. Yeah, when we got out, it was unbelievable. So you see, with America, when you come, it's like a savior. Then they say, go back. It's like, are you trying to kill me? MJ: Yeah. Are there American politicians who are really hearing that argument? I mean, are they understanding what this policy means? MKB: Yeah. John Reed of Rhode Island, he sent in a bill that has not been passed. And Senator Kennedy, I think it's John Kennedy, he was also a cosponsor of that bill. And Keith Ellison, Representative Keith Ellison here, he has been at the vanguard in the whole process. And Senator Amy Klobuchar -- MJ: Oh! Uh-huh. -- MKB: Yeah, she helped us when a group of us left from here one time and went to D.C., and we met like 20 senators and representatives, and talked to them. Some of them acted, that's how-- I would say they acted that it was their first time hearing about the Liberian issue. Which I personally did not want to believe. But it was good, because it built some awareness among people. MJ: But now, you must find that all the time. Or I mean, how often do you meet an American who really seems to know much at all about anything that's happened in Africa? MKB: Yeah, you know, because I've been doing a lot of presentations in schools, especially with the schoolkids. They really don't know what is happening, and when you ask about their parents, the parents really don't know. So that's where I became convinced that you have to get out. You have to talk to people, you have to tell your stories, or it would not go anywhere. And in mobilizing, organizing, you have to talk. And if you notice, my voice is very soft, I talk slow, and everything. But I believe that if you are determined, you can do a whole lot. But you have to reach out to the people, and get people involved. Build up their interest. If people are not interested in your issue, it can't go anywhere. MJ: Yeah. Well, on that note. Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you feel we should? MKB: I'd just like to emphasize that immigrants are here to help in the growth and development of the country. And most of them, even though they are running away from persecution, but they are happy to be here, and they should be given a chance of gaining citizenship. Even though I'm not in that category. But I see a lot of immigrants who are considered illegal, undocumented. There should be a system, to create a situation for these people to be legal and documented, so that they don't, they are not forced into situations where they become labeled as criminals. Because the Liberians for instance, if you don't give them a protected status, any kind of protected status here, you just say, you don't extend the deferred enforcement departure, or you don't give them permanent residency, and they are out of status, many of them become criminals, and even their children. They will start working under the table, start doing jobs that they are not supposed to do, and that way even cut down on the taxes that the government is receiving. Because they will not be reporting whatever income they are getting. So it is good to make them legal. Give them documentation. And you can gain a lot from them, than from by sending them home or by taking them out of status. I hope I am making sense! MJ: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, thank you so much. You've been very generous with your time, and I'm really appreciative. MKB: Thank you much.

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