Photos

Photo Essay: Two Congolese Women Rebuild Their Lives In Detroit

Photographer Lauren Santucci documents the ongoing impact of changes to the asylum-seeking process under the Trump Administration.

*All photos by Lauren Santucci. Faces in images have been concealed to protect subjects.

Kate and Pamela are cousins from the Republic of Congo, who after being targeted by their government, fled to Detroit where they applied for asylum in 2016. Back home in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville, the cousins feared a regime that imprisons and tortures anyone they view as threatening their power.


Photo by Lauren Santucci

They are rebuilding lives in limbo—caught between their past in Congo and their potential future in Detroit. Neither here nor there, they exist between familiarity and the unknown, their pain and their healing, home and exile.

On January 29, 2018, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) adopted a "last-in, first-out" (LIFO) policy that prioritizes applications that have been pending for 21 days or less. The same day, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also announced additional security measures and vetting procedures for the United States Refugee Admissions Program.

The goal of processing the most recent filed applications is to reduce the number of unsuccessful applicants living and working in the United States for years before presenting their case an asylum officer. According to USCIS, "Giving priority to recent filings allows USCIS to promptly place such individuals into removal proceedings, which reduces the incentive to file for asylum solely to obtain employment authorization." While this means some individuals are actually being granted asylum quicker, there are immense delays for asylum-seekers who applied before 2018.

"We are absolutely seeing long delays. We have a client with an affirmative asylum application filed in summer 2016 who is still waiting to be called for an interview", says Sabrina Balgamwalla, the Director of the Asylum and Immigration Clinic and Assistant Clinical Professor at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit. Balgamwalla says the policy change "has had a substantial effect on waiting times for applicants who were already waiting for interviews."

While Kate and Pamela wait years for their case to be processed, they rent an apartment together, work in the city, and have formed strong relationships. In September 2017, Kate and Pamela moved out of Freedom House Detroit, a temporary shelter providing pro bono housing, legal, and social services to over 40 asylum-seekers. The organization helped to transition them out of the shelter by finding and furnishing an apartment in Detroit.

Kate and Pamela often cook dinner together at home on Sundays after stocking up on ripe plantains, dried saka-saka leaves and meat at the Senegalese-owned Family African Market on Seven Mile Road. "I'm here to buy stuff that I can't find in the big stores, like Walmart or Meijer. I'm used to buying my food [at Family African Market] because it reminds me of where I come from," Kate tells me before shopping. "I love the fresh chicken they have here, you can get chicken anywhere but the chicken they have is so different. We call it hard chicken, it's really tasty and it's like what we used to eat at home."

They learned English in months, in addition to speaking their native French and local languages Lingala and Kituba. Kate also speaks Russian from attending university in Moscow, and Pamela went to university in Kiev where she also learned Russian, as well as Ukrainian.

When they were issued work permits 150 days after submitting their claim for asylum, Kate started working at a luxury watch and leather goods company founded in Detroit. Pamela first worked in digital marketing in the suburbs, and later moved on to work for the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

In early 2018, Pamela met Jordan on a blind date to the movies. They fell in love right away, and Jordan proposed to Pamela in front of their friends and family at Belle Isle just a few months later in June. They were married in Jordan's parent's backyard in New Baltimore, Michigan on August 18, 2018.


As the wedding organizer ushered Pamela to walk down the aisle, she made a quick phone call to a family member back home. Her Congolese friends she met when living at Freedom House and others who live in Chicago and New York flew in to be at the ceremony. They live streamed it for friends and family watching from back home in Brazzaville.

The couple recently moved in to their first apartment together in Macomb County, a Detroit suburb that swung Michigan for President Donald J. Trump in 2016.

"We are still waiting on immigration to call us," Kate says. But until then, life continues.

Lauren Santucci is a documentary photographer and filmmaker based in Detroit, Michigan. She is interested in forced migration and refugee issues, with the goal of humanizing these global issues through personal stories. She has a M.A. in International Relations and Art History from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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Photo courtesy of CNOA

These Colombian Civil Rights Activists Are Fighting to Make Sure Afro-Colombians are Counted in the Census

When 30 percent of Colombia's Black citizens disappeared from the data overnight, a group of Afro-Colombian activists demanded an explanation.

It was the end of 2019 when various Black organizations protested in front of the census bureau—The National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (DANE)—in Bogotá, Colombia to show their dissatisfaction about what they called a "statistical genocide" of the black population. The census data, published that year, showed 2.9 million people, only 6 percent of the total population of the country, was counted as "Afro-Colombian," "Raizal," and "Palenquero"—the various terms identifying black Colombians.

For many years, Afro-Colombians have been considered the second largest ethno-racial group in the country. Regionally, Colombia has long been considered the country with the second highest number of Afro-descendants after Brazil, according to a civil society report.

Why did the population of Afro-Colombians drop so drastically?

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists protesting erasure of Afro-descendants in front of the census bureau.

Last year, a crowd of activists gathered in Bogota to protest what they saw as erasure of Black communities in the Colombian census.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

In the latest national census report from 2018/2019, there appeared to be a 30.8 percent reduction of the overall group of people that identified as Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal, and Palenquero, as compared to the 2005. After this controversial report, an Afro-Colombian civil rights organization known as the National Conference of Afro Colombian Organizations (CNOA), officially urged DANE to explain the big undercounting of the black population.

This wasn't a small fight. Representatives who hold the special seats of Afro-Colombians in Colombia's congress asked the census bureau to attend a political control debate at the House of Representatives in November 2019 to deliver an accountability report. "The main goal of doing a political debate was to demand DANE to give us a strong reason about the mistaken data in the last census in regard to the Afro population," said Ariel Palacios, an activist and a member of CNOA.

At the debate, the state released an updated census data report saying that, almost 10 percent of the Colombian population—4.6 million people out of 50.3 million—considers themselves Afro-Colombians or other ethnicities (like Raizal, and Palenquero). But despite DANE trying to confirm the accuracy and reliability on the latest census report it was clear that, for a variety of reasons, Black people were missed by the census. The state argued that their main obstacles with data collection were related to the difficulties of the self-recognition question, as well as security reasons that didn't allow them to access certain regions. They also admitted to a lack of training, logistics and an overall lack of success in the way the data collectors conducted the census.

How could they have counted Black populations better?

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists playing drums in front of the census bureau.

Drummers performing during a protest against the Colombian census bureau's erasure of Afro-Colombians from the 2018 census.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

These arguments were not reasonable for the civil rights activists, partially because the state failed to properly partner with Afro-organizations like CNOA to conduct or facilitate extensive informational campaigns about the self-identification questions.

"CNOA has worked on self-recognition and visibility campaigns among the Afro community and this census ignored our work," says priest Emigdio Cuesta-Pino, the executive secretary of CNOA. Palacios also thinks that the majority of Afro-Colombians are aware of their identity "we self-identify because we know there is a public political debate and we know that there is a lack of investment on public policies."

That's why it is not enough to leave the statistical data to the official census bureau to ensure that Afro-Colombian communities are fully counted in the country. And the civil rights activists knows that. They made a big splash in the national media and achieved visibility in the international community.

Thanks to The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights organization, Palacios traveled to D.C to meet with Race and Equality institution and a Democratic Congressman. "We called for a meeting with representative Hank Johnson to talk about the implementation of Colombia's peace accords from an Afro-Colombian perspective but also to address the gross undercounts of its black population," says Palacios.

For the activists at CNOA, the statistical visibility of the Black population is one of their battles. They have fought for Afro population recognition for almost two decades. "Since the very beginning CNOA has worked on the census issue as one of our main commitments within the statistical visibility of the Afro-Colombian people," says priest Cuesta-Pina. Behind this civil organization are 270 local associations, who work for their rights and collective interests.

The activists want to raise awareness on identity. Because according to Palacios, "In Colombia, there is missing an identity debate—we don't know what we are. They [the census bureau] ask if we are black, or if we are Afro-Colombians. But what are the others being asked? If they are white, mestizo or indigenous?" Palacios believes that for "CNOA this debate is pending, and also it is relevant to know which is the character of this nation."

Afro-Colombian Populations and the Coronavirus

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists use mock coffins and statistics to protest erasure of Afro-descendants

Colombian civil-rights activist insist that undercounting Afro-descendants can have a real impact on the health of Afro-Colombian communities, especially during the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

Even though the state recently "agreed with to give us a detailed census report" and make a different projection with the micro data, says Palacios, now with the Covid-19 emergency, CNOA and the government has suspended all meetings with them, including cancelling a second congressional debate and the expert round table meeting to analyze the data.

Unfortunately, it is exactly in situations like the Covid-19 emergency where data analysis and an accurate census report would have been useful. According to the professor and PhD in Sociology Edgar Benítez from Center for Afro Diasporic Studies—CEAF, "Now it is required to provide a reliable and timely information on how the contagion pattern will spread in those predominantly Afro regions in the country and what is the institutional capacity in those places to face it," says Benítez.

He adds that this information is "critical at the moment because the institutional capacity is not up to provide it at the current situation". That's why the Center for Afro Diasporic Studies plans to work with DANE information from the last census. According to Benítez, "We are thinking of making comparisons at the municipal level with the information reported in the 2018 Quality of Life Survey, in order to have a robust and extensive database as possible on the demographic, economic and social conditions of the black, afro, Raizal and Palenquera population in Colombia."









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