Seven African immigrant leaders gathered in a large hall of a newly renovated church on Martin Luther King Jr. Street in Grand Rapids to discuss, among other things, their community’s shattered sense of security in America.
One of the leaders, Israel Siku, who came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2002, recalled being stopped by a cop.
Siku said he handed the officer his insurance card and was met with a condescending “huh, interesting,” which he took to mean the officer doubted the card’s validity.
Even though Siku claimed he wasn’t speeding, the officer eventually issued him a speeding ticket. He’s had similar encounters with cops since then, with officers flexing or abusing their authority, he claims.
“It’s the same thing over and over,” he said, “to show I have nothing against them, whether they’re Black or African.” Siku recalled the story as members of Grand Rapids’ African community mourn Patrick Lyoya’s death and come to terms with the fact that, despite having immigrated to the United States in search of the American dream, they have inherited the Black American reality, which is riddled with a complex racial history that many Africans are still struggling to comprehend.
Lyoya, a Congolese refugee of 26 years old, was shot in the back of the head by a Grand Rapids police officer on April 4 after being pulled over for a license plate that didn’t match his vehicle. The officer shot him while he was facedown on the ground after a struggle. The Rev. Al Sharpton, the host of MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation,” will deliver the eulogy at Lyoya’s funeral on Friday.
Grand Rapids has a thriving African immigrant community, though its exact size is unknown due to the city’s refusal to break down immigrant populations by country, a source of frustration for community members who believe they should be counted separately. The African-born population in Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids, is estimated to be 6,106 people, according to census data from 2020.
Many come here as immigrants to further their education or find work, while others are resettled in the United States after spending years in refugee camps after fleeing war-torn countries such as the Congo. In 2014, Lyoya’s family fled the Congo in search of a better life. Patrick was the sixth child in a family of six.
African immigrants are frequently grateful to be in the United States and revere the country that has given them a second chance, according to Kalumbula. However, once they arrive, they face a new set of challenges, he explained. Mirabel Umenei testified before the Grand Rapids City Council a week after Lyoya’s death, claiming that the city had not done enough to support African immigrants who are thrust into a complicated racial environment they are unfamiliar with.
Esai Umenei, who is married to Mirabel Umenei and serves on the board of the African Collaborative Network, said he has struggled to have “the talk” with his 9-year-old son about why Blacks in America are treated differently than whites and how to respond when approached by police.
She has been lobbying the city of Grand Rapids for years to provide funding for resources, including more education for African communities to better adjust to life in the United States, through her organization. This includes preparing them for interactions with law enforcement and the legal system.
Since Lyoya’s death, the city of Grand Rapids has held “several meetings with members of the African and Congolese Community, including Congolese faith and community leaders,” according to a statement. “The City is currently working with A Glimpse of Africa and other community-based organizations to plan future engagements with the Congolese community to follow-up on concerns, better understand their culture, and identify opportunities to improve their quality of life,” the statement continued.
Meanwhile, a sizable portion of the African community has been vocal in calling for police reform and other measures to make interactions with cops safer. Specifically, it is advocating for cultural sensitivity training so Grand Rapids police officers are better prepared to deal with immigrant communities.