Saturday, December 5, 2009

African immigrant seeks alliance with Chicago's Mexicans

A few months after arriving from Sierra Leone, Alie Kabba learned the dynamics of Chicago immigrant life when he found a pickup soccer game near his Rogers Park apartment. All of the players were Mexicans.

"I didn't have enough for my own team," he recalled. "They had the numbers."

Now head of the United African Organization, Kabba is pursuing an intriguing and complicated experiment: to see whether Africans can forge a political alliance with the Mexicans, who make up the largest share of immigrants in Chicago.

Last month, Kabba's group organized a first large-scale meeting with Mexican leaders, in which the sounds of Liberian drummers meshed with casual conversations in Spanish.

Both sides say broadening their base is crucial because lawmakers in Washington are set to debate a plan to legalize illegal immigrants and bring in foreign "guest workers," an idea unpopular with many Americans.

Kabba, 47, has been stirring the pot since he was a university student leader in the western African nation of Sierra Leone. A "liberal, almost radical leader," as he now describes himself when younger, Kabba spent regular stints in jail after challenging a longtime dictatorship.

In the early 1990s, while Kabba was attending the University of Illinois at Chicago on a student visa, a full-fledged civil war broke out in Sierra Leone. Fearing for his life if he returned, Kabba was granted political asylum. He is now a U.S. citizen.

Almost immediately, he revived his activism in Chicago as a man who could blend scholarly explanations about global economics with a warm smile that pops up even when discussing his own political persecution.

A natural storyteller, Kabba recounted how he was hunting for plantains one day in Rogers Park and finally found them -- in a Latin American grocery store. As a Puerto Rican merengue tune thumped in the store, Kabba realized that the rhythms came from Africa.

Those touchy-feely anecdotes have a broader purpose, in Kabba's view. As he told those at last week's meeting, "We realize that the right thing is to build a common front and find our common humanity."

In 2006, Kabba opted to establish the United African Organization's office in the black cultural hotbed of Bronzeville instead of the usual African immigrant enclaves of Uptown, Edgewater and Rogers Park.

Read more at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-africa-activist_aviladec06,0,2887331.story .

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