“Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.”
-James Truslow Adams’s definition of the American Dream
For the past month and a half, I have been working at an internship with an NGO that helps African immigrants in Chicago. Refugees and asylum seekers are given help with attaining legal status, improving their level of English, understanding the American social service system, and with the task of restarting their lives, safe from whatever may have threatened them in their countries of origin. Many are given the chance to live what is considered the American Dream; to start with nothing but a green card, and then to work their way toward financial stability and a comfortable home for themselves, their families, and their children. As I mentioned in my last post, the process of feeling at home in a new place takes a long time, and it certainly must take longer for those who had no choice but to leave home. After dreaming for years of a better life in America, the life here for immigrants is not all spacious green lawns, smiling kids, and sleek cars. Usually, it involves living in small apartments, making frequent trips on public transportation to wait in lines for social services, and to struggle to find city schools that offer quality education.
One of my projects at work has been to research where in Chicago the majority of African immigrants live. The North side is often thought of as the immigrant neighborhood, and has many African, Arab, and South Asian restaurants that are well-known throughout the city. However, I found that only a fraction of Africans live in this area. The majority actually live much further south, in the African-American neighborhoods that are rarely (if ever) seen by tourists and even by most Chicago residents. These neighborhoods are known for their empty lots, lack of fresh food, gangs, and high crime rates. Africans are supposedly the most educated immigrant group in the U.S., yet in Chicago, they often live in neighborhoods where they fit in based on skin color, but not at all by education level or by culture.
Living on the South side of Chicago is probably better than living somewhere where one could be killed just for his or her religious or political beliefs. But is really the American Dream? Can life really be richer and fuller for immigrants who become implicated in the worst of America’s social problems?