GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — In a broad hall of a newly renovated church along Martin Luther King Jr. Street in Grand Rapids, seven African immigrant leaders convened to discuss, among other things, their community’s shattered sense of security in America.
One of the leaders, Israel Siku, who immigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002, recalled being pulled over by a police officer.
Siku said he handed the officer his insurance card and received a condescending “huh, interesting,” in response, a comment he interpreted to mean the officer doubted the card’s legitimacy.
The officer eventually gave him a speeding ticket, even though Siku said, he wasn’t speeding. He has had similar interactions with police officers since then, he said, with officers flexing or abusing their power.
“It’s the same thing over and over, to show I’m nothing against them, whether you’re Black or African,” he said.
Siku recalled the story as members of Grand Rapids’ African community mourn the death of Patrick Lyoya and come to terms with the realization that despite having come to this country for the American dream, they have, in fact, inherited the Black American reality, which is riddled with a complex racial history that many Africans are still struggling to understand.
Lyoya, 26, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was shot in the back of the head by a Grand Rapids police officer on April 4 after he was pulled over because his license plate didn’t match his car. After a struggle, the officer shot him as he was facedown on the ground. Lyoya’s funeral was held Friday, with the Rev. Al Sharpton, the host of MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation,” delivering the eulogy.
“He came here for a better life and ran into an America we know all too well," Sharpton said to a packed church. "But we wont stop until we change this country. We wont stop until we change this thing around."
Before the funeral, the Rev. Kizombo Kalumbula, a pastor at Tabernacle Community Church in Grand Rapids, said Lyoya's death "has for sure shaken the community."
"Many of us continue to struggle with it,” said Kalumbula, who has also been a voice for the African community.
“They did say this is supposed to be a safe land, and that was the reason why resettlement took place here, but after this I don’t think much of the community are feeling safe,” said Kalumbula, who immigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo more than 25 years ago.
Grand Rapids is home to a vibrant African immigrant community, although its exact size isn’t known because the city doesn’t break out immigrant populations by country — a point of frustration for community members who feel they should be counted separately. According to 2020 census data, the African-born population in Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids, is estimated to be 6,106.
Many arrive here as immigrants to pursue further studies or work, while others are resettled in the U.S. after having spent sometimes years in refugee camps after they fled war-torn countries, like the Congo. Lyoya’s family fled the Congo in 2014 in search of a safer life. Patrick was the eldest of six children.
African immigrants are often grateful to be in the U.S. and have reverence for the country that has given them another chance, Kalumbula said. But after they arrive, they are up against a new set of obstacles, he said.
About a week after Lyoya’s death, Mirabel Umenei stood before the Grand Rapids City Council and said it hadn’t done enough to support the African immigrants who are thrown into a complicated racial environment they know nothing about.
“We have to learn very fast what it means to be Black in America,” Umenei, the director of the African Collaboration Network in Grand Rapids, told the council. Umenei’s organization advocates to improve the lives of African immigrant communities in West Michigan.
Umenei immigrated from Cameroon in 2012.
“We come here without that knowledge, that historical knowledge, without a deep understanding of just how many racial barriers we have in front of us and how deeply rooted they are,” Umenei said.
“We get this perfect American dream sold to us, but they don’t tell you the truth, which is that you just got yourself in a dark, dark black hole,” she said, referring to systemic racism and aggressive policing in Black communities.
Lyoya’s killing has left the community scared and scrambling to figure out how to keep its kids safe, Umenei said. In many cases, it has found itself ill-equipped.
“We deal with the same racial aggressions that Black Americans have dealt with for generations without fully understanding the background of that experience,” she said.
Esai Umenei, a board member for the African Collaborative Network who is married to Mirabel Umenei, said he has struggled to have “the talk” with his 9-year-old son, a conversation about why Blacks in America are treated differently from whites and how to respond when they are approached by police.
“It’s something that we’re only now trying to have, mostly because we lack both the background and the language for it,” he said. “I didn’t grow up here. I came here as an adult, and I lacked experiences that could explain that to my young kids, but I know for sure that now they are already getting affected, because they’re seeing this on a daily basis.”
But it has become a necessity after Lyoya’s death, he said.
Mirabel Umenei said local leaders must invest and help communities navigate those tricky waters.
Through her organization, she has been lobbying the city of Grand Rapids for years to provide funding for resources, including more education for African communities to better adjust in the U.S. That includes preparing them for how to deal with police and the legal system.
“It’s so painful that one of us has to die before any changes are brought on,” she said. “But we are here now. And we’re not dropping. We’re not letting anything go. All of these things we have been asking for are going to happen.”
In a statement, the city of Grand Rapids said that since Lyoya’s death, “several meetings have occurred with members of the African and Congolese Community to include Congolese faith and community leaders,” adding, “The City is currently working with A Glimpse of Africa and other community-based organizations to plan future engagements with the Congolese community to follow-up on concerns, better understand their culture and identify opportunities to improve their quality of life.”
Mirabel Umenei said that while that is a welcome step forward, she’s worried that the city’s commitment may not last after the dust settles around Lyoya’s death.
Meanwhile, much of the African community has been vocal in advocating for police reform and other measures that would make interactions with the police safer. Specifically, it is advocating for cultural sensitivity training so Grand Rapids police officers are better prepared to deal with immigrant communities.
“This is a huge wake-up call,” Kalumbula said.