Work in progress

A look at student projects as they develop

Documentary photographer Fati Abubakar

From the minute I arrived in the United States from Nigeria as an international student, my instinct was to look for an African community—a restaurant, a mosque, an association. And in the African diasporic community, I found happiness, a sense of belonging. However, as a photojournalist, I wondered why so many of us Africans leave home. What was the pull to the United States or to Europe? I was aware of the many turbulent times we have faced in our different African countries, but I always wondered what would happen if we stayed in Africa. Could we build the continent of our dreams?

I decided to document why people leave. The project evolved to posed portraits, while documenting everyday lives of Africans. “An African in America” took on a life of its own as I traveled for engagements and met more people. Where do Africans congregate? What do they do for fun? How are they coping in a foreign, often alienating country? How do they find each other? I went to churches, parties, mosques, markets, dorm rooms, hair salons, fashion shows, restaurants, and many homes.

I was very much aware of the problematic storytelling of African migration. Much of what we see are Africans on a boat, fleeing. Yet contrary to the standard migration story fed to the American audience, there is an eclectic array of migrants. Many flee conflicts; others arrive with a suitcase of certificates and degrees. Often unaddressed were the fierce people who brave treacherous unknown territories to explore the unfamiliar. There were never the stories of resilience or the many contributions of migrants to the American societies they inhabited—the doctors, the nurses, the scientists.

Migration is complex and will always remain so, compounded by many unending issues. Dealing with themes of loneliness, financial instability, racism, mockery, depression, and success, I experienced fluctuating feelings of hurt and dismay; other days, I was in awe of the bravery of the people I met. In the end, this project has taught me that Africans will always be on the move. Migration will be an eternal phenomenon. But of paramount importance is this: Wherever you happen to migrate to, being happy with the choice is all that matters.

This project has also made me more resolute, as an aid worker with experiences of working with internally displaced persons in Nigeria, in my unwavering need to ensure that we are forever working to improve the lives of everyone who arrives in any country for whatever reason. Empathy is the only way.

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