Is it possible to have an Australian Obama?
Good educational, employment opportunities and optimism have created Obama
For a few months, the whole world has been and still is talking about a man called Obama. Various newspapers and radios from different countries have described him as an unbeatable rock star, a miracle in the 21st century, an eloquent man, a new John F. Kennedy, an American savior, a first black American president and so on. His victories in white populated states like Iowa -where 95% are American Anglo- in the primaries, and also his winning more than two-thirds of the states and gaining support from almost all backgrounds in the mosaic of American society surprised cynics, annalists, and election predictors. Additionally, almost every radio you listen to - it doesn’t matter which language– you may understand at least one word ‘Obama, Obama, Obama’ ,as if he is a new messenger in the era of globalisation. Who is this man who has shaken the world and created unprecedented dialogue and discussion in most societies? What are the circumstances that produced him as a leader? In this article I will shed light on three points that seem to be the main reasons for the emergence of Obama. These points are the nature of second generation, equal educational/employment opportunities and African optimism. But before that, I will briefly talk about the history of Obama.
A young African man called Hussein Obama from a tiny village called Alego in Kenya and young white woman called Ann Dunham from Kansas, USA, met at the University of Hawaii as students. They married then Barrack Obama was born in 1961. Two years his parents separated and divorced. His father continued further studies at Harvard University until he obtained his PhD then returned back to Kenya where he was killed in a car accident in the mid 1980s. His mother married another man called Lolo Soetoro from Indonesia. The new family moved to Jakarta where Barrack attended Indonesian schools. His mother died in the mid 1990s from cancer. When Barrack finished high school, he studied at Columbia university and then Harvard Law School. He worked as a community activist and university lecturer and civil rights lawyer. He was elected as a Senator from Illinois state in November 2004 and announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States of American in February 2007.
The nature of the second generation
Last summer, I journeyed to the USA and the UK for preliminary research and to visit my family whom I had not seen then over 17 years because of the civil war in Somalia. My research included interviews with second generation young Somalis and a literature review that related to Horn of Africa communities, particularly Somalis. The relationship of my project and Barrack Obama is that Obama himself represents second generation of Horn of Africa communities in the USA. The main objective of my research is to explore and compare integration experiences and second generation African youth perspectives, particularly of Somalis in Diaspora. I am specifically interested in investigating educational performance, employment opportunities, socialisation and future aspirations of Horn of Africa youth. The reason behind my interest in the second generation is that this generation is assumed to be the most important for migrant studies as explained below. In addition, to understand the circumstances of second generation young Africans such as Somalis in the USA in comparison to their counterparts in Australia and the UK enables policy makers, service providers, academics and community advocates to comprehend the factors that made Obama aspire to Capital Hill and the White House while his counterparts in Australia and the UK might not be so hopeful to reach similar position in their new countries.
So, the question that emerges is: Who is second generation? In some definitions, second generation migrants are those people who came to the new country under the age of 10 years or were born in the new country by two parents of whom at least one is a first generation migrant, born in another country - like Barrack Obama whose father was born in Kenya. The second generation represents the central point of migrant groups, because it is the medium between the first generation, who brought their culture with them and are less adjusted to the new culture, and the third generation who have acclimatised and adopted the new culture. The second generation is the negotiator between different cultures, mentalities, and ways of life. It is a multi-lingual and multicultural group. In fact if it is invested in properly and given a good chance, it can be a solid bridge that connects different societies and cultures like Obama. Because of its position, the second generation acquires incredible social skills, and wonderful life experience. It forms its unique and profoundly influential interwoven culture made out of migrant and mainstream cultures. Thus both migrant and mainstream groups are culturally represented by the second generation migrants. Barrack Obama is a living example for such second generation people, one who apparently seems to harmonise and give American diversity and multiculturalism a new positive direction and vision in 21st century - a real and living example.
If the second generation of migrants are given equal educational and employment opportunities as their dominant group, they may outperform educationally and professionally not only the first and third generations of their cultural backgrounds but also their mainstream counterparts. This is not surprising since second generation migrants acquire significant social skills and diverse experiences from both migrant and mainstream groups. Obama symbolizes that generation. In addition, if young refugees and migrants are convinced about the usefulness of education as a means of upward social mobility and occupational success, their educational aspirations and performances would improve and become relevant. In contrast, if they become sceptical about the usefulness of their educational success as a means for socially upward mobility and employment opportunities, their educational performance suffers and might become irrelevant. This is because they do not expect their educational success will lead to good employment and economic success in the long term.
Thus, understanding the educational performance of young refugees and migrants, and employment opportunities for their communities, enables us to predict the role these young people may play in the future in both their country of origin and the new country. Some of them may become successful as Obama and some may become a burden to tax payers, but in my view what makes a difference is the educational and employment opportunities given to them, particularly to the first and second generations since each generation becomes role model for the subsequent generation.
I would like to turn now to a comparison of educational achievements and employment opportunities for African communities in the USA, the UK and Australia, the communities that Obama belongs to. Studies conducted on migrant Africans in UK found that they are the lowest group in terms of educational achievement. For example, Somali students’ educational performances in the UK schools have been described as the lowest and they significantly underperform compared to other migrants (Ali, and Jones, 2000, Kahin, 1997). In Australia, we have no similar studies related to African students’ educational performance in schools. However, some educationalists and teachers who teach at schools with a high population of African students indicate that African students’ performance in general is very poor compared to other migrants or Australian mainstream students. In contrast, recent studies conducted in the USA have shown that migrant African students achieved the highest level of education among other migrant groups in the USA (Waters, et al, 2007). In the same trend, Birman, et al (2001) argue that Somali students are for the most part doing well in school in the USA. Similarly, Darboe’s (2003) comparative study examined differences of educational achievements among six migrant groups including Somalis, Hmong, Hispanic, Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese. This study identifies that Somali students in Minneapolis, USA have performed better than all other ethnic groups in English reading proficiency and at the same time performed better in maths than all other ethnic groups apart from Laotians. This finding has been endorsed by another comparative study prepared by Fennelly, and Palasz (2003, p. 116) that focused on four main migrant groups (Somalis, Russians, Mexicans and Hmong) in Minneapolis, USA. Fennelly, and Palasz, (2003, p. 116) conclude although Somalis are the most recent arrival group, they have “the highest levels of proficiency on all measures of English ability” in Minneapolis.
Differences in educational performances of African youth in the abovementioned countries could be attributed to students’ scepticism or certainty of the worth of their education to find professional jobs after they graduate. A USA census in 2000 showed that African immigrants were doing well in almost all measures of economic success and upward social mobility. For instance, the unemployment rate for the Somali community which represented the worst African community was 8% versus 5% for American mainstream. The figure was 4.5% for Ethiopians. In contrast, according to the 2001 Australian census, the unemployment rate for the Somali community in Victoria was 47.1%, and 22.3% for Ethiopians versus 6.1% for all Victorians. Studies conducted in UK in 2005 showed that the unemployment rate for the Somali community was over 50%. Thus, there seems to be a strong reciprocity between educational performance and employment opportunities.
Despite evidence showing the importance of good educational and employment opportunities, the sense of hope and optimism are also crucial to uplifting, and inspiring people to positive direction. So, let’s examine African optimism which is needed very much in an era of pessimism, desperation, fear, and the sense of insecurity.
After he became a senator, Barrack Obama made a historical and emotional visit to the village where his father grew up, and looked after goats and sheep. At the same time, he visited to the graves of his father, grandfathers and grandmothers. According to Obama, that trip was an inspirational and spiritual journey that provided him with the wisdom, strength and vision to become an influential person and possibly the first black president of America in its history. I have been curiously following current American primary elections. What attracted my attention is that many of Obama’s voters underlined that he inspired them, touched their hearts, and restored their shattered hope in these gloomy days. That is not surprising since Africans are by nature positive and hopeful in their lives. Africans are well-known for their great talents in music, dance and our love for rhythm creativity which instils in our souls happiness and hopefulness. An Australian writer called James Rose who recently visited Africa witnessed the sense of hope that is very African in character. He wrote in The Age (21/1/08) an article titled “Glum Australia could do with a dose of African optimism”. In his article, Rose points out that studies conducted by World Economic Forum described westerners as the most worried people on earth while poor Africans are globally the most hopeful and optimistic. As Rose believes, Americans have already understood how to benefit from the African sense of hope, and optimism of which Obama is an example. However, there is a question mark if Australia is considering to take advantage from African optimism and “the quality of social buoyancy Africans can bring to Australia” said Rose.
According to the aforementioned analyses, facts and figures, I can argue that is not a miracle but it is a product of good educational and employment opportunities that have eventually led to good integration. These opportunities have been stated by a young Somali female saying:
I have many opportunities that many Somali girls may not have, you know… I don’t think they have as many opportunities in London that we have in America…I don’t think they have many scholarships and financial aid. I don’t think they have anything like our future in American… I want to take an advantage from that and I don’t want to waste these opportunities. My parents and family are here; I have good financial aid; and I have won a scholarship (A young Somali female from Minneapolis, USA).
We hope that Obama's winning in primary elections in most USA states is an indication of decrease of racism in American culture particularly amongst young people who most voted for him. I hope that his experience will reflect positively to the entire world and will heal and treat injuries and scars caused by unwise and warlike leaders. To answer the question I started with my article: is it possible to have Barrack Obama? My answer is ‘yes’ but with the condition that migrants are put in the right process and provided similar opportunities that their counterparts have in the USA. If that happens, then it will produce not only one Barrack Obama but many Barrack Obamas in Australia as well as the U.S.A.
Yusuf Sheikh Omar
PhD Candidate, Refugee Health Research Centre, La Trobe
African Think Tank Writer