From Palestine to Peru, D.C. Embassies Reach Out to Respective Diasporas

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To say Bryan Lukano is excited about Biogen Kenya would be an understatement.

His company collects used cooking oil from hotels and restaurants, converts it into biodiesel and sells it at a steep discount for use in trucks, electric generators or anything with a diesel engine — with the goal of producing a sustainable alternative to traditional fuel.

“There’s an amazing market for this,” the Nairobi businessman told us one recent morning. “I come in, I collect waste vegetable oil from your kitchen, I clean it up and sell it back to you at a price you’ll never find at the pump.”

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Photos: Larry Luxner
Bridget Mbeng, president of Mbeng Adio Mushroom Farm of Cameroon, displays her company's mushroom-based products Sept. 16 at the African Diaspora Marketplace Business Expo in Silver Spring, Md.

Biogen Kenya’s B100 refined biodiesel sells for the equivalent of 56 cents a liter, compared to 81 cents a liter on the streets of Nairobi. Lukano says his potential market exceeds 330 hotels; at the moment, he’s working with InterContinental, Hilton and PrideInn — and trying to bring more clients aboard.

Lukano was one of 35 entrepreneurs exhibiting their products and services at the African Diaspora Marketplace Business Expo. The two-day conference, held in Silver Spring, Md., was co-sponsored by USAID, Western Union, Deloitte and various other business entities.

Not far from Lukano’s booth at the Sept. 15-16 event were Delaware resident Bridget Mbeng, president of Mbeng Adio Mushroom Farm of Cameroon, and Fetlework Tefferi, owner of Brundo Ethiopian Spices in Oakland, Calif.

Both women won technical assistance packages and round-trip tickets to Africa courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines, along with companies from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda. In addition, seven African entities — ranging from NextGen Solar of Cape Verde to Nigeria’s First Atlantic Semiconductors and Microelectronics — took home the full award package of $50,000 in venture capital, technical assistance and airfare.

Liesl Riddle, an associate professor of international business at the George Washington University, has spent much of her career studying diaspora communities around the world. She helped create the African Diaspora Marketplace (ADM), which first took place in 2010 and again in 2012; last month’s event was billed as ADM III.

“This is basically a business plan competition for African Americans and African migrants in the United States to have business partnerships with local companies in sub-Sahara Africa,” said Riddle, noting that this year’s 35 finalists were chosen from among more than 400 applicants. “These businesses provide a variety of development benefits including employment, technology transfer and empowerment.”

Twelve African ambassadors attended this year’s event, a prelude to Global Diaspora Week 2015 in October.

At the Oct. 9 opening of that event, Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out that “we live in a world where the number of people living outside their country of origin has nearly tripled to more than 230 million. The United States has the largest number of diaspora members of any country; more than 60 million Americans are first or second-generation immigrants.”

Kerry said that these diaspora communities are often the first to respond to major crises, whether a natural disaster or terrorist attack. He noted that Filipinos in the U.S. mobilized after the destruction of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, while West African communities rallied in the wake of the Ebola outbreak last year.

“When you look down the list of challenges that we face … from natural disasters to promoting economic growth to the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, one thing is absolutely clear: Diaspora communities are helping to meet each and every one of those challenges,” he said. “Immigrants built America. And immigrants continue to make America what it is today.”

Recognizing that immigrants who still have strong sentimental and family ties with their countries of origin can be agents of development and investment, about a dozen countries have created entire ministries of diaspora affairs since 1995.

“The possible size of diasporas varies, from under 50,000 from the Caribbean nation of Dominica to over 30 million from China,” according to an article on the website of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute (MPI). “The number of countries with diaspora institutions has increased especially in the last 10 years, and they span multiple continents.”

In 2004, India established the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs to deal with the nearly 10 million Indians who live outside the motherland. Likewise, Bangladesh has set up a Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment to assist the 4.9 million Bengalis residing abroad.

In a similar vein, Peru’s Undersecretary for Peruvians Abroad — a unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — assists with consular paperwork and documentation, and offers legal and humanitarian assistance, according to MPI. It has also published a “Guide for the Peruvian Migrant” that discusses key issues encountered in host countries.

El Salvador, which has some 2.5 million of its people living in the United States (out of a population of about 6.3 million), established a Vice Ministry for Salvadorans Abroad in 2004. Some of the nation’s biggest communities of salvadoreños are concentrated in the D.C. metro area. More than 25 percent of the 16,200 residents of suburban Langley Park, Md., are from El Salvador, followed by Seven Corners, Va., and Adelphi, Md. As with Peru, the ministry’s mission is to defend the rights of migrant workers, improve their opportunities and safeguard their interests.

Riddle said that in Africa’s case, some immigrants go back and live there, while others run their businesses from the United States, making only periodic trips to Africa.

“The U.S. has seen a real upsurge in African migrants of late, particularly in main gateway cities, so it’s easier to reach them as diaspora communities in order to mobilize them,” said the George Washington professor. “The diaspora businesses can be some of our best information brokers in helping American businesses enter these markets. When it comes to distribution channels and forging relationships, it’s very important to utilize this insider diaspora knowledge.”

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Fetlework Tefferi, owner of Brundo Ethiopian Spices in Oakland, Calif. attends the African Diaspora Marketplace Expo in Silver Spring, Md.

That knowledge, in turn, can be used to break down business barriers — the impetus behind the African Diaspora Marketplace Expo.

“I’ve done surveys of all the participants who have applied since 2009, and the number-one perceived obstacle to diaspora investment [in Africa] is government bureaucracy and red tape,” Riddle said. “It’s a concern of doing business in any country, but this is by far more of an obstacle than corruption or access to energy. In fact, corruption does not even hit the top five, because the truth of the matter is, corruption is a known quantity. But it’s uncertainty that adds to the cost of doing business in a volatile way — not knowing how long something is going to take.”

Barbara Span is vice president of global public affairs at Western Union, which operates in 200 countries and last year completed 255 million consumer-to-consumer transactions worth $85 billion. The financial services company is a leading money transfer provider for millions of people sending remittances to Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

“One of the most important roles of an embassy is to develop investment in, and business for, their country,” said Span. However, embassies aren’t always as responsive as they should be, she said. “We hear from our diaspora that they’d like more contact with their embassies. They need more information and guidance to invest in the country, but it’s often hard to access embassies on that level.”

Among the more interesting diaspora communities in the United States is that of the Palestinians, who began streaming to this country in the 1880s as merchants, adventurers and economic immigrants. Predominantly Christian rather than Muslim, this Palestinian exodus picked up steam in the late 1930s and spiked once again after the establishment of Israel in 1948.

Subsequent waves of Palestinian immigration followed the Six-Day War of 1967, which resulted in Israel occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as East Jerusalem. That triggered the departure of some 350,000 new refugees, many of which fled to neighboring Jordan.

The Palestinian American National Research Project, undertaken at the request of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Delegation in Washington, is aimed at providing a better understanding and analysis of the demography of Palestinian-Americans living in the United States.

The project’s author is Randa Serhan, an assistant sociology professor at American University and the director of its Arab World Studies program. Serhan, who studied at the American School of Kuwait, American University of Beirut, Canada’s University of Windsor and New York’s Columbia University, has researched a variety of Middle Eastern topics ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder after Lebanon’s civil war to Palestinian weddings in New Jersey and police surveillance of Arab-Americans.

Citing statistics from the Arab American Institute, Serhan said that the U.S. Census Bureau has undercounted Americans of Arab origin by as much as 60 percent.

Palestinian-Americans have largely remained invisible, she said, partly because — like all Arabs — they are listed as “white” on census forms and therefore have been numerically impossible to identify.

“Secondly, Palestinian-Americans have not formed any enclaves and are widely dispersed across the 50 states, further making their presence less evident,” Serhan said. “Finally, some Palestinian-Americans have consciously decided to maintain a low profile given the designation of the PLO as a terrorist organization until quite recently and the overwhelming support for Israel in public opinion polls.”

Interestingly, only 12 percent of all Palestinian-Americans are not U.S. citizens.

“Reasons for this include a desire to have a passport and citizenship other than the one they entered the U.S. with, and to benefit from the access an American passport secures to the West Bank and other Palestinian areas,” Serhan wrote.

The percentage of Palestinian-Americans with college and post-graduate degrees (48 percent) is higher than for the general U.S. population (34 percent); likewise, 6 percent have doctoral degrees, compared to 2 percent for everyone else. In 2010, average household median income for American families of Palestinian origin was $55,950.

Maen Rashid Areikat is the PLO’s chief representative in the United States and as such, the closest Palestine has to an ambassador in Washington.

“It’s obviously important, for our work here as a de facto embassy, to know how many Palestinians are there, how are they distributed and what their demographic composition is,” he told The Diplomat. “For quite some time, we’ve felt there’s something missing here. We are growing in number, we’re becoming more and more scattered across the United States, and I’ve always wanted to get an idea about the nature of this Palestinian-American community. We’ve managed to turn this idea into a demographic analysis.”

More than 60 percent of the world’s estimated 12 million Palestinians live outside the historic borders of pre-1948 Palestine. That includes between 400,000 and 500,000 Palestinians in the United States alone, even though official U.S. Census Bureau figures suggest a number closer to 215,000. The largest communities are in Chicago (home to nearly 70,000), Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Houston and Jacksonville, Fla.

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Photo: PLO Mission
PLO Representative Maen Rashid Areikat, above, speaks to a Palestinian-American diaspora community at a town hall meeting.

“We seek a different type of investment than other diaspora communities, which are fortunate that their countries are sovereign and independent, and that they can invest in the economy without having to worry that political instability might undermine their investments,” Areikat explained. “Palestinians in the diaspora send a lot of money back to their families. They also invest in real estate, building family homes even though they live here.”

Some do far more than that. Zahi Khouri, a Palestinian Christian businessman who was born in Jaffa, left his Florida home more than 10 years ago and moved to the West Bank, where his company, the Palestinian National Beverage Co., operates Coca-Cola bottling plants in Ramallah, Jericho and Tulkarm. In November 2014, Khouri announced he’d spend $20 million to build the first Coke factory in Gaza with permission from Israeli authorities. That facility will become operational later this year, with the investment ultimately creating 200 direct jobs.

“Many investors chose to return after the 1993 Oslo Accords,” said Areikat. “One way or another, they continue to strengthen the Palestinian community.”

Like the Palestinian territories, the former Soviet republic of Georgia has a surprisingly large diaspora community.

Nina Matiashvili, a top government adviser on diaspora issues, said about 1.5 million Georgians live outside their country, a remarkably high number considering the country’s total population is 4 million. Just under half of all Georgians abroad reside in Russia — with which Georgia fought a brief war in 2008 — while large numbers also live in Greece, Italy and Spain.

The United States is home to about 150,000 Georgians, with big communities flourishing in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Miami and Atlanta (capital of the other Georgia). Many of these transplants are academics, doctors, engineers and other professionals who, like their brethren in Europe, send money back to the homeland. Some 26 Georgian diaspora organizations are now active throughout the United States.

“The Georgian diaspora is one of our country’s key assets, and it has been playing an important role in the social and economic development of Georgia for many years,” said Matiashvili, noting that last year, Georgians abroad contributed $1.424 billion in remittances — or 12 percent of the country’s total GDP.

That’s a lot, but not nearly as much as the figure for other former Soviet republics such as Armenia (26 percent) or Uzbekistan (58 percent). Matiashvili said remittances will likely drop by as much as 20 percent this year due to falling world prices for oil, a mainstay of the Russian economy, and the impact of European Union sanctions on Russia.

Albania, which 25 years ago emerged from Marxist isolation and still ranks as one of Europe’s poorest countries, has come to depend heavily on its U.S. diaspora — with key Albanian-American communities in New York and Boston.

“That diaspora has different characteristics, with some very old Albanian families having come here 100 years ago, and a newer generation which managed to escape between 1945 and 1990,” said Floreta Luli-Faber, Albania’s new ambassador to the United States. “I’m so happy to see Albanians here in Washington with many great positions and high-level jobs.”

Luli-Faber, who spent 15 years as executive director of the Albanian-American Chamber of Commerce in Tirana before coming to Washington, said the embassy is collaborating with Harvard University on a project that specifically looks at how overseas Albanians can help the land they left behind.

“We are exploring how far we can take this economic potential,” she said.

For years, European countries, large and small, have been doing just that — looking to their diaspora communities in the United States as a source of both pride and potential investment. The Netherlands, for example, has a relationship with the United States that is more than 400 years old.

“Dutch history and American history are intertwined and visible in the vast number of Dutch family names and geographical references in America. Names such as Roosevelt, Harlem and Brooklyn harken to the Dutch roots firmly planted here,” said Henne Schuwer, the country’s new ambassador to the United States. He noted that the 4.5 million Americans of Dutch descent represent the largest such diaspora outside of Holland.

“We maintain ties with this vibrant community in several ways: through our network of embassy and consulate general offices, and by working with Dutch-American business and education groups like the Netherland-America Foundation and the Netherlands-American Business Council,” Schuwer told us. “On a personal level, we engage with many Dutch cultural groups like DC Dutch. And of course, our social media platforms, website and toll-free information line provide the Dutch living here with immediate information and access to the Dutch government.”

In June, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima toured the United States, spending a total of five days in Washington, D.C., Grand Rapids, Mich., and Chicago to get a firsthand look at their distant countrymen.

“That visit presented the perfect opportunity to see the Dutch diaspora in full force,” said Schuwer. “In Grand Rapids and Chicago, the royal couple was met by people dressed in a sea of orange, all proud to show their Dutch heritage.”


About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on October 29, 2015