In North St. Louis County, Immigrants Find Hope in Zoo Partnership

Pastor Paul Macharia examines a shipment of corn seeds for a community garden.
Pastor Paul Macharia examines a shipment of corn seeds for a community garden. TRENTON ALMGREN-DAVIS

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Geoffrey Soyiantet says COVID-19 closures have been a blow, but they've been through hard times before. - TRENTON ALMGREN-DAVIS
Geoffrey Soyiantet says COVID-19 closures have been a blow, but they've been through hard times before.

Flash forward six months.

It is late April when I meet Soyiantet and other Vitendo4Africa members at their garden. On the car drive there, I hear on the radio news story after news story about the brutal turn the economy is taking, plus the deadly toll of the pandemic.

On the same day that I meet these community members, Trump announces a 60-day ban on immigrants seeking green cards for permanent residency.

Trump justifies it as part of an effort to protect Americans seeking to regain jobs lost because of the coronavirus pandemic. Critics, however, slam Trump's new policy, flaying it as part of a partisan campaign to distract from his administration's slow and chaotic response to the pandemic.

One thing is clear: Native-born Americans are heading toward a new normal of economic hardship and fear. And they might learn a thing or two about getting through this crisis from someone like Jesil "Jesse" Kimani, who immigrated from Kenya in 2006.

Kimani is already feeling the heat from the economic downturn. He owns a trucking company that has lost 90 percent of its business in recent weeks because of the fast-developing recession, he says.

But Kimani still hangs on to hope. He already knows he will get through any setbacks in the United States. After all, he's survived much worse back home in Kenya.

"The good part is that, based on how we were brought up, and the challenges that we had gone through before, let me say, it's and opportunity," he says. "It's like, if you were used to lifting 150 pounds every day, up and down, and then somebody comes and gives you 80 pounds, as a punishment. It's really a kick to you. ... Just prepare for hardship. And when the hardship is over, use whatever is at your disposal and move forward."

Vitendo4Africa member David Githinji says his community has learned to survive by living "in our little cocoons. We became our brother's keeper. You pass the difficult times."

He adds, "The past President Obama has given us a lot of hope, and that little hope is keeping us going."

Vitendo4Africa is the Swahili word for "actions."

When Soyiantet launched Vitendo4Africa 4 Africa in 2010, he wanted to communicate that the group would be constantly on the move.

"We focused on the need for the African community so that we can connect them with different resources," he says.

Soyiantet, 45, grew up on a farm in rural Kenya and graduated with a degree in economics from Kenyatta University in Nairobi in 2004. Now married with three kids, Soyiantent arrived in the United States the same year he graduated after obtaining a visa through the Diversity Immigrant Visa, or "lottery," program.

He spent the next four years supporting himself as a dishwasher while working on a business degree from Lindenwood University. During this time frame — from 2012 to 2017 — the number of African immigrants in the St. Louis area surged, reaching more than 20,000, with the great majority settling in north St. Louis County.

One of the biggest challenges the African immigrants face centers on how they raise their children, Soyiantet explains.

"The parents come from a different environment. We want to bring them up the way we were brought up," Soyiantet says. "That brings up a lot of conflicts between the parents and the kids, especially the teenagers."

Because they are so eager to assimilate, the children of immigrants "are quick to forget the African culture," he says. "They feel the African culture is a primitive way of life, and they want to adapt to the American way of life, which the parents aren't ready to adapt to."

Another feature of American life that is hard to adapt to is its culture of gun violence, Soyiantet notes.

"It's really traumatizing to most," he says. "You run away from violence thinking you were going to a safer environment. Now when you hear about all the gun violence, the school shootings, that is really traumatizing. ... Everybody owning a gun, it's something we're not used to. And it's also very scary just to see somebody carrying a gun."

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