Pandemic or not, immigrants’ work has always been essential.
By Yasin Kakande May 18, 2020
Mr. Kakande is a journalist and author from Uganda currently working as a home health aide. His most recent book is “Why We Are Coming.”
BOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Recently, as I drove home from a long day of work as a home health aide, a police cruiser appeared behind me with lights flashing. It was 10 p.m. and the roads were nearly empty. As I pulled to the side of the road, my heart was pounding.
As a black man from Uganda, I was nervous. Charlie Baker, the governor of Massachusetts, had just issued a 9 p.m. curfew across the state. In the three excruciatingly long minutes it took for the officer to approach my car, I tried to sort out why I was being stopped and what would happen next.
When the officer appeared at my window, he asked just one question: “Essential worker?” I quickly replied that I was. He waved me off without asking for my driver’s license — my skin color told him everything he needed to know.
When I arrived at the home of Rosemary Larking in March, a 71-year-old quadriplegic, I noticed she was struggling to breathe. As her regular personal care aide, I saw that the adaptor connecting her ventilator to the oxygen tank was broken. I immediately called her doctor for support.
But this was not business-as-usual, as the coronavirus pandemic had already disrupted normal workflow patterns, especially in health care facilities, and I wanted to avoid her being sent to one.
I activated her lifeline alarm for emergency assistance, but as soon as a paramedic arrived, her doctor called. He told us not to go the hospital’s emergency care department, noting that she is in a high-risk category for contracting COVID-19. He told me to contact the suppliers of her oxygen tank or her ventilator and get them to her home as soon as possible.
A mad dash of phone calls erupted as I tried to reach her suppliers and others in Massachusetts who could fix the problem. In the meantime, I carried Rosemary from her bed to her wheelchair, which seemed to ease her distress.
Four hours later, the ventilator supplier arrived with the replacement parts. As we settled in after the crisis, some of Rosemary’s neighbors stopped by to see how she was doing. They had seen the fire department paramedics wheeling a gurney into her apartment and then leaving with it empty, which confused them. I assured them that everything was fine, taking the precaution not to let them into the apartment, given her risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
It was an exhausting day, and when I went home that evening, it was not easy to decompress after the worry and panic. Whenever a chronically ill patient experiences a life-threatening crisis, every moment is critical.
This scenario is a familiar one, not just for me but for tens of thousands of immigrants who are working on the front lines as personal-care attendants and nursing assistants for patients just like Rosemary Larking. And it’s not only the elderly, but also for patients of all ages who live with disabilities and physical limitations of all types.
My colleagues and I are taking precautions to ensure we are not exposed to the virus so we can continue to provide critical services to our patients and clients. And demand for caregivers is skyrocketing. Elderly patients and those with limiting disabilities who have no family members nearby rely primarily on aides like me. We do everything from bathing them and helping them maintain good hygiene to preparing their meals and feeding them. They are vulnerable and rely on us to keep them safe and secure.
It’s a rigorous job, and the caregiving field has struggled to recruit young people. Many aides in nursing homes, assisted living centers, group homes, and hospital-affiliated centers are immigrants like me. I started working with RosemaryLarking three years ago, shortly after arriving in the United States from Uganda.
For many migrants, the field of caregiving offers immediate opportunities with minimal skill requirements. My background is as a journalist who has covered beats in numerous countries around the world. I never imagined myself in this position, but here I am. My patients, especially Rosemary Larking, have become my de facto family, and I’m grateful for the job.
The pandemic amplifies a point that policy makers should heed. Essential home care-based and nursing home services for patients, who are among the most vulnerable to the virus, are made possible largely through the cumulative efforts of immigrants and refugees who have come to the United States.
This crisis has brought much to light. One point that has received little recognition is the critical role immigrants play in the US health care system. Political leaders should acknowledge this and allow them to come here and work without fears of punitive actions or deportation.
Caregivers still have to fight to stay in the United States. As an occupational category, they are not among those professions or skills that are eligible for employment-related green cards. These visas go primarily to researchers, professors, engineers, or multinational managers, but not to caregivers. And this continues, despite the fact that there are more job openings for caregivers than there are for professors and researchers, especially during this time of crisis.
Rosemary Larking is not alone in her home. Her husband, Donald, 73, is frail after five strokes that have paralyzed his body’s right side. The Larkings are in the highest risk category for complications that could arise should either of them contract the virus. My colleagues and I are even more cautious now to keep them safe. It is a challenge, since they rely on several aides for their care. And many aides care for other patients just like the Larkings. It is a precarious situation. One broken link in the chain of front-line health care could cause a cascading health crisis for the most vulnerable groups during this pandemic. That is why even the smallest precautions matter every day.
On August 13, Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni was attacked by an angry mob of Ugandan citizens who back the political opposition. Protesters surrounded President Museveni’s motorcade, pelting the vehicles with stones. One of the vehicles had its rear window broken.
Numerous political rallies by Museveni’s party and the opposition had been scheduled that day ahead of a parliamentary election in which the independent candidate Kassiano Wadri, while in detention, would win in Arua, Uganda — the third consecutive parliamentary election loss for Museveni’s party.
Museveni has responded brutally, as he has repeatedly during his 32-year tenure as president. That day, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu — the popular singer known as “Bobi Wine,” who also serves in the parliament — was arrested. After a music career of more than 15 years, Ssentamu has emerged as the most formidable political opposition against Museveni. Numerous disturbances have broken out around the country. Yasin Kawuma, Ssentamu’s driver, was killed.
On August 23, after not being seen or heard from for 10 days, Ssentamu was arraigned on charges of treason in a military court for allegedly possessing fire arms in his hotel room despite the fact that he is a civilian. Many were alarmed at his appearance, bearing physical signs of torture while he has been detained.
However, Ssentamu’s treatment is not an anomaly. Museveni has repressed his opposition on many occasions, all with the financial assistance of the US.
The US Ignores Human Rights Abuses of Its Allies
President Museveni has benefited extensively from US military support, most notably $444 million last year. Museveni’s record on human rights is clear in its abusive extent, including documented cases of torture and arbitrary detention of opposition leaders and their supporters. The Museveni government has repeatedly denied due process, imposed severe restrictions on press freedom and has been connected to numerous corruption scandals. But none of these circumstances has affected its relationship with the US.
Museveni is among the US’s most reliable allies in Africa, never hesitating to send Ugandan troops on behalf of US interests to influence the outcomes of regional conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Kenya, where election-related violence broke out in 2007. In Sub-Saharan Africa, Museveni plays a role akin to the head of a brokerage firm for rebels, rebellions and peace missions.
His role has extended to the Middle East, where he sent Ugandans to work as security guards for US forces in Iraq. He also recently announced he will be sending 8,000 troops to fight alongside troops of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen.
As part of this relationship, many troops in Uganda have been trained by the US military, including using sophisticated communications equipment, night-vision goggles and small surveillance drones — all from US defense contractors. Ugandan troops deployed to Somalia travel in mine-resistant vehicles that once ferried US soldiers around Afghanistan. Ugandan choppers engaged in operations against warlord Joseph Kony are powered by fuel paid for by the US.
As disturbances have multiplied and become more volatile in the aftermath of Ssentamu’s arrest, the US embassy in Uganda recently issued travel warnings to any US citizens planning trips to Uganda, cautioning them to not get caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile, sanctions or cuts in military aid would seem unlikely, given the record of Museveni’s abuses and violations of human rights and how long they have not been acknowledged by the US.
The US consistently ignores the human rights violations and excesses of dictators whose militaries are backed with US funds. In 2014, a Human Rights Watch report documented incidents of sexual abuse by Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia, and this information did not bring any disciplinary action from Washington.
Regrettably, Museveni is not the exception in Africa. Many African despots appear to prefer heeding their Washington providers over their citizens, and whenever Washington has taken any action against their misdeeds, they have responded positively. For example, in 2014, when the US cut a small portion of its annual aid package and canceled military exercises with Uganda after it enacted a homophobic law, Museveni responded swiftly and revoked the legislation.
While the US seldom imposes consequences on the Museveni government for its human rights abuses, Ugandan citizens could campaign for more accountability.
Ugandans Pressuring Governments at Home and Abroad
The recent plight of Ssentamu has received commendable support not only from Ugandans at home who continue to protest in the streets and demand his release, but also from Ugandan migrants in the US and Europe. Demonstrations have been organized in Boston, Washington, Toronto, London and other cities where Ugandan immigrants are centered. Recently, scores of music celebrities — including Chris Martin, Brian Eno, Chrissie Hynde, Damon Albarn, Peter Gabriel, Adam Clayton, and Femi Kuti — signed an open letter demanding Ssentamu’s immediate release.
At a recent Boston demonstration, Ugandan migrants expressed criticism not just for President Museveni, but also the US in the context of conscience and concerns about hypocrisy. Many demonstrators are quick to point out that they are not “anti-American,” however. But they are still deeply unsettled about why governments in the US and Europe are consistently willing to support dictators in their home countries, especially when human rights abuses and crimes are plainly evident.
In Boston, one demonstrator voiced his support for fellow Ugandans at home to resist and reject Museveni not just on the streets, but also in their homes and places of work. He suggested creative forms of protest, such as hampering and preventing the military aides from emptying the mobile commode the president uses when he travels. He said that they should ship his waste along with the country’s oil to the US and Europe in exchange for more military hardware. US readers might see this as an absurd gesture, but many Ugandans, at home and abroad, are past the point of even the smallest bit of patience after more than 30 years of a heartless dictatorship.
Ugandan migrants are caught in a dilemma they find increasingly difficult to resolve with ease or peace of mind. Many, including those with extensive education and professional training, reluctantly left their homeland to find economic opportunity in a nation they respect and admire. Now, they worry about being rejected by their host country, as US President Donald Trump has said he prefers to end migrants coming from “shithole countries” like Uganda.
In 2018, the US asylum process has become even more difficult for refugees coming from Uganda and other countries deemed “friendly” to US interests. Well before Trump assumed office, most Ugandan migrants have had to wait on average of four to five months just for interviews, and many cases can take two years or longer. It doesn’t take a leap of comprehension to see why Ugandan migrants are frustrated to the point of anger, trying to understand why the US continues military funding for countries that subvert the basic foundations of human rights and dignity.
But Ugandan demonstrations, even in Washington, capture barely any attention from policymakers or the media. The audience for these protests is primarily African. It seems the only way to attract meaningful attention is to secure paid lobbyists. That option is off the table because migrants are working the “3-D” jobs (dirty, demanding and dangerous) at wages that might pay $12 an hour, if they are lucky. Further, many US taxpayers are unaware of just how much money goes to sustain dictators who barely care one whit about justice for their own people, politically or economically.
What could the frustrated people of Africa do to convince taxpayers and voters in the US to halt military funding that has become the lifeline for African dictators?
As they define strategies and tactics, African opposition parties must understand that independent sovereignty, especially in the economy, is extremely difficult to attain. Even if all of their country’s citizens supported their cause, it could never go anywhere without the blessings and goodwill of the US or Europe.
Political opposition movements must understand they must not only confront their country’s dictators, but also the full might of a long-running tradition of US military support and funding. Opposition political leaders would do well to counter the dictator’s representatives in Washington and London with their lobbyists, who can demonstrate that besides standing for human rights and democracy, they, too, are capable of representing US and European interests reasonably and responsibly. This should remove uncertainties about replacing long-serving dictators such as Museveni without upsetting the political and diplomatic balance.
To some, these suggestions may sound outlandish, but in the absence of evidence of improvements, the current realities demand more creative responses for overcoming the policy effects that have done little more than enable self-aggrandized dictators who have done nothing to stabilize the economic or political climates in their countries.
This article on the hypocrisy of countries blocking migrants was first published in the global magazine Truthout, 28-August 2018
Amidst waves of anti-immigrant populism that have crashed into European politics, the focus of what drives migration demands more attention. In Africa, specifically, the unchecked exploitation of the continent’s natural resources by corporations from outside countries has forced desperate choices upon its citizens. Migrants looking for their own modicum of economic justice have come to the West. But, once they arrive, they discover the extraordinary extents to which they must prove their “worthiness” and acceptance in the same European nations that benefited from taking their homelands’ natural resources for profit.
Recently, the French Parliament adopted legislation that places new restrictions on migrants seeking asylum. It seems that even being seen as twice as “good” as the rest barely qualifies migrants for acceptance into predominantly white societies. At what superhuman level should migrants be expected to operate in order to eliminate the concerns or skepticisms aggravated by nationalistic, nativist sentiments?
This is not so different from my experience in Dubai, when I applied for a reporting job at The National newspaper. I had to prove to my European editors – coincidentally, migrants themselves – that I could cover the four northern emirates of Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah and Ras al-Khaimah, where Arabic was the only spoken language.
The editor who recruited me once asked how I managed to cover events that were happening at about the same time in Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah, separated by about 56 miles. My response was simple: “Because that is the reason you hired me.” There was a tacitly agreed upon willingness (or desperation) to take on a load larger than what colleagues carried. And it was at a salary much less than that of other comparably qualified staff members.
My fluency in English and Arabic kept me at the job for more than five years. I worked on stories and shared bylines with other reporters, who happened to be white migrant professionals from Europe. Once the emirate government grew uncomfortable with my stories about the difficulties abused and disenfranchised migrants faced working abroad, I was deported with no support from my editors. I now have been in the US for nearly two years, and I am still perplexed about how to prove my own “superhuman” capabilities to legitimize my presence and role in US society.
Intolerance of migrants, especially of African descent, might strike some as a new phenomenon. But historical memories matter. For centuries, Europe sent out millions of its own migrants to settle elsewhere. In the instances of Africa and Asia, guns – not visas – set the movement’s pace.
To understand why the numbers of Africans continue to leave their homelands to work as migrants in the West, one must look to the history of how Africa has been hyperexploited in the global economy.
A History of Exploiting a Continent
The continent’s natural and mineral resources are targets of predatory wealth where no costs are incurred for unfettered exploitation. In many African nations, dictatorial puppets, often handpicked and supported by their Western exploiters, continue this relationship. This occurs at the expense of their own citizens who need and would benefit the most from the resources of their homelands.
Meanwhile, the continent’s deprived migrants are seen as “nuisances” by white citizens in Western nations occasionally, but more often are portrayed as “burdens” that “threaten” the nation’s economic livelihood.
Last June, Pope Francis spoke about the topic in advance of a European Union summit on migration. He said:
When a country grants independence to an African country it is from the ground up – but the subsoil is not independent. And then people [outside Africa] complain about hungry Africans coming here. There are injustices there.
Migrants use all means, some perilous, to leave their exploited homelands seeking economic opportunity elsewhere. As gold mines, oil fields and large farms in Africa continue to be owned by Western investors and these vital resources are shipped or airlifted to the West, the stream of African immigrants will flow continuously. African migrants see no hopes in gaining their rightful share of this wealth. Simply, they leave because the risk of staying is the same as abandoning their countries.
Some gasped at Donald Trump’s unfiltered, unedited pronouncements, which historically echo sentiments that previously were uttered in private, never-to-be shared moments. Addressing a gathering of African leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in 2017, Trump said:
Africa has tremendous business potential. I have so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich. I congratulate you; they’re spending a lot of money. It has tremendous business potential, representing huge amounts of different markets. … It’s really become a place they have to go, that they want to go.
The same president, however, was disturbed by Africans whose “rich friends” have deprived their fellow citizens of economic opportunities and has triggered broad migration. Hence, he wondered aloud why the US should continue accepting immigrants from what he describes as “s**thole countries.”
Meanwhile, France is investigating two of its former presidents for alleged acts of corruption. Nicolas Sarkozy is accused of collecting 50 million euros from former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi for his 2007 presidential campaign. Jacques Chirac is accused of asking Robert Bourgi, lawyer and politician, of collecting and carrying for him cash from various African dictators. The value is estimated to total $20 million.
These two instances constitute just a small fraction of the examples of corruption, compared to what African dictators have doled out in mining concessions to European and US corporations. Businesses from banking to entertainment and sports in Africa are largely European or US-based. African governments have cowed to US pressure to continue taking in their used clothes at the expense of local African garment industries.
According to an analysisby Global Justice Now and the Jubilee Debt Campaign, as reported by the Guardian, more streams of wealth-building revenue leave Africa every year going to former colonialist countries than revenue streams coming into the continent. African countries received $162 billion in 2015, mainly in loans, aid and personal remittances. But, in the same year, $203 billion in revenue that could have sustained local African economies was taken from the continent.
If European countries and the US insist upon blocking African migrants from entering their borders, then perhaps they also should block African resources from entering their countries as well. Then, maybe African migrants will finally be able to reap their own economic benefits from the resources of their homelands — that is, if corrupt African leaders respect such embargoes and allow their citizens to take part in the wealth.