NEW YORK – Seated between two Hispanic women on the Number 4 train heading to the Bronx, a middle-aged looking African woman talked on her cellphone in a language that was a world away from her immediate surroundings.
The woman was speaking Twi, a language that is common in the West African countries of Ghana and Ivory Coast. “As for today, Obama needs to pull up,” she said. After a pause, she continued, “If the other man wins, he’s going to put a tag reading ‘For Sale’ on all of us.” Her reference to the second 2012 presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney was clear. The debate would be live in less than 15 minutes.
An estimated 14,769 Ghanaians live in the Bronx, the single largest group from an African country in the borough. A recent report from the American Community survey shows that Africans are the second largest immigrant group in the Bronx out of six continents. And even though they are more than 5,000 miles away from their homeland and many can’t vote here, they are deeply engaged in the current election.
Inside a large barbershop on Walton Avenue in the Bronx Tuesday night, over a dozen men watched the live Presidential debate amidst cheers and catcalls. Aged 29 to 48 years old, they all identify themselves as Ghanaian immigrants. They said they were united in the view that health care, immigration and foreign policy are the issues they are most concerned about and they prefer Obama to Romney.
Awudu Issu, 36, was one of the men. Looking calm in his green sweatshirt, he seemed removed from the discussion until the debate ended. When he finally spoke, it was with careful deliberation. His views of the two candidates are influenced by his own experiences. “I don’t support Obama because he is black,” he said. “He is the U.S. President and I’m supporting him objectively.”
Issu arrived in this country in June, 2011, on a Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which gives permanent residence visas to persons who meet eligibility requirements set by the State Department. He now holds a green card and can access free medical care. A graduate of a technical university in Ghana, Issu works as a shop attendant in a Goodwill store in the Bronx. “I came to America because there are opportunities here for immigrants,” he said. “Obama is consistent with his message for people like us, but Romney is not.” He cited Mitt Romney’s response to Arizona gun control laws raised in the debate as an example.
Issu worried that a Republican victory might disturb his plans of enrolling in an American university after making enough money from his current job because he said, “Republicans have more foreign policies which do not favor immigrants.”
The owner of the barbershop, Kwame Agbo, 38, agreed. “We need somebody who can do the job and Romney does not favor immigrants in his statements,” Agbo said. Though a Ghanaian, he currently holds American citizenship after living here for the past 16 years. A registered Democrat, he said he is familiar with what many new immigrants go through. “It is not good to see people getting deported while trying to work on their immigration documents,” he said. He thinks Romney might do that.
“I currently get a single check, and I have five kids,” says Gibrin Mohammed, 42. “Obamacare is something that would also help me, but Romney does not like it. I will go for Obama.” Like Agbo, Mohammed is also a Ghanaian immigrant who has been living in the United States for 16 years. He currently works as an undercover security officer in a Polo Ralph Lauren store.
The barbershop punditry is a world away from what is happening in Ghana, where elections will be held in early December. The Ghanaians see a stark contrast with the electoral process in their homeland. In Ghana, a plan by a think tank to engage the presidential candidates in a debate has been postponed many times. The current series of debates is a chance to see American democracy in action. Kofi Addison, 29-year old assistant to Agbo said, “We are here, so this is home. When we go back to Ghana, we would be interested in that too.” Addison has been living in the Bronx for nine years and is now a registered Democrat.
As the second debate ends, the mood in the barbershop was one of excitement. Addison turned to the other viewers and communicated in Hausa, a major West African dialect. He later translated: “I like Obama, because he cares for the middle class. In America, that’s how people survive.”