Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=214855
Story Retrieval Date: 9/22/2014 3:11:44 AM CST

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Jennifer Kirby/MEDILL

Fatima Traore discusses the efforts of Chicago's Malian community and others to contribute to the cause of the Malian people.


'We need people to know our story' – Malians in Chicago

by Jennifer Kirby
Jan 30, 2013


The storage room of the Masjid al-Farooq mosque looks like an abandoned garage sale. There are curved-back love seats and two tangled-up bikes. A pair of televisions sit screen-to-screen underneath a portable basketball hoop. Any air ball shot would land on pile upon pile of plastic bags.

Those bags are stuffed with clothes and shoes, which Ousmane Drame, the imam at this far South Side mosque, said will be sent to Malian refugees, displaced persons and others affected by the African country’s current conflict.

Drame is leading efforts to raise money, collect goods and increase awareness about the conflict in his native country and its growing humanitarian crisis. In addition to clothes and other supplies, his group, Mali Relief, has pulled in nearly $50,000 for food, health, shelter and educational aid.

Islamist extremists are waging war in the Malian north. French troops have intervened after the Malian government called for international support.

“We want to take this first step as a relief organization created by Malians working on the soul of Mali,” Drame said.

A small mountain of black garbage bags—also filled with clothes—is pushed back against Drame’s white office walls in the mosque at 8950 S. Stony Island Ave. A neat stack of Mali Relief brochures and address labels sit on a nearby table, ready to be sent out. The efforts seem organized and fast-moving, but Drame said they have been the result of nearly four months of outreach.

“Number one, Malians are very few in the U.S.,” Drame said. “Number two, the few that we have are not organized. Number three, as a result we have no voice.”

African-born immigrants make up about 2.7 percent of Cook County’s population, with more than 50,000 people, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. The 2000 U.S. Census count a total 2,735 Malian-born people living throughout United States. Chicago’s Malian community is small, and as a result, Drame said, why he is working hard to reach out to family, friends and anyone in Chicago willing to open their doors to the Malian cause.

“We have no outreach at all to the population,” Drame said. “People know that we have a problem in Mali, but who to contact, where to send help?”

Fatima Traore, who works with Mali Relief, said outreach has been a challenge. “Awareness is what we really need,” she said. “The country is still troubled, there is a war, and it’s going to be on for a while, and the country will be struggling for years to come.”

“We need more exposure, we need people to know about our story,” she added.

But Traore did say Chicago’s Malians, on the whole, have responded to the call for help. “Everybody who is from Mali came when it was time,” she said. “They are all ready to help, even now.”

Drame estimates about $3,000 of the funds raised came from the Malian community. The rest came from a network of Chicago’s African and Muslim communities, including Masjid al-Farooq’s congregation of about 600 people, about half of whom are West African.

Traore added that many Malians were immigrants and faced their own financial challenges. Many already support family in Mali, and all worry about the people overseas. Yet even small contributions helped. A U.S. dime goes long way in Mali, she said. “This is a collective effort. Individuals are showing their generosity every day.”

“We came together as a group to speak for the people,” she said. “We meant to represent with every Malian living in Chicago.”

Research and policy associate for the United African Organization Olubukola Adekoje said rallying people has always been difficult for African countries. She said it’s a consequence of lack of information and lack of focus on Africa, especially at the community level.

Abraham Thera, a Malian who owns a beauty supply store  on the South Side, said he gave money to the Malian relief efforts. From behind his store’s counter, he spoke of his family in Mali, including his mother and sister. Like him, he said, everybody worried about people overseas. But since the French army arrived, he said, the situation seems safer.

E.J. Hogendoorn, the Africa deputy director for the International Crisis Group, said the French intervention, which pushed back the Islamist insurgents to the north, appears to have been a military success. But, he said, “it will be a long-term process of trying to reintegrate the north into Mali proper and to create a peaceful and stable environment.”

The conflict escalated a grave humanitarian crisis for a lot of innocent people, said Hogendoorn. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates more than 300,000 Malian refugees are displaced within Mali or have fled to neighboring countries.

Thera shook his head and said simply that he heard bad stuff was going on in Mali. But, “here, in the US, in Chicago, we’re trying to do our best to help [our] people over there,” he added.

Drame pointed to the stacks of clothes bags, fabric slipping out of tears in their sides. They will stay in storage until the group has enough to fill a shipping container.

But Drame and Traore want to send even more aid, to rebuild Mali and its people.

“Anybody who wanted to come and help is Malian,” said Traore. “We are all human beings before Malians.”