Fatou-Seydi Sarr, or, Seydi, has had many communities, from Senegal to France to the United States. As the founder and CEO of the African Bureau for Immigration and Social Affairs (ABISA) in Detroit, Michigan, she provides resources to a large black migrant community; a passion and calling, an arduous effort at any moment but especially so today — sifting through systemic and blatant racism and oppression to give her community basic needs like food and shelter. “The level of intentional oppression that I see in the system here, I have not seen it anywhere else […] I’m a Black immigrant woman in America. It’s the reality that you live at the crossroads of all social justice inequity and every day that you wake up, you have to think of which one of my identities, my traits, is going to put my life in danger? That’s not a way to live. That’s not what a democratic society is about.”
Before COVID-19 forced unemployment around the world, Detroit was teeming with African hair shops. But like millions of small businesses around the world, a “new normal” isn’t just a change in routine but a fight to live. “This pandemic has made so many more dig deeper into all the social inequities, but it also told us there are no barriers, there are no frontiers. Because this virus doesn’t need a visa to enter the U.S. This virus can be stopped by no wars, by no borders. We are all equitably vulnerable to this virus on the same level.” With workers across the country receiving more through unemployment than working, it forces the issue of fair wage, housing, and health care to the forefront more than ever. “In French we have a word, ‘fourmilier’ — ant people. Those who are small ants and who do the small jobs. Folks in America might think, ‘oh this is a menial job, it’s below me.’ ‘Below me’ jobs have sustained us, they have kept us safe, kept the mail going, picked up the trash in Brooklyn, New York, makes sure that our schools are sanitized and clean, our hospitals are sanitized and clean, and they’re also on the frontlines getting COVID.”
While we are all at risk for exposure and transmission, the virus and quarantine disproportionately affect low-income, underserved communities, like the Black migrant community in Detroit. “[These are] independent employed women from Africa. Most of them don’t have social security or they don’t have a status that allowed them to work. They take home [the money], they pay their taxes.” Seydi expected the governor’s office to support these businesses and provide relief, but it never came. Worse, on a federal level, when stimulus checks were cut, millions — including mixed-status families and undocumented immigrants — were denied relief.
By the end of March, Seydi and ABISA created a fundraiser to provide relief for those not getting it from the government and has to date raised $50,000 for the community. “What we discovered was that pre-COVID, all these members of the community were actually holding on by a thread. By the nature of their status, they were already not able to feed their families […] I could not believe that my community was in such dire need and were living in such a level of economic disability.” Since March 26, they have helped 110 families and aim to help many more through community donations.
Seydi was inspired to start ABISA after a friend was faced with immigration issues and deportation. After translating his documents and finding a lack of existing resources or services for non-English speaking Black immigrants, she created what did not yet exist. “There was clearly a gap of information to have access to information and have access to resources.” It is also what inspired her to create the Springboard to Excellence program for young Black girls, mentoring and focusing them to achieve personal and career success. “How do we give them ‘le courage’ to continue and tell them they have a possibility? How do we put them in face of other black women who succeed and see themselves as successful because they might not think of their families as successful when they look at the parents — who are undocumented, struggling with speaking English.” Thanks to Seydi’s involvement in the Detroit community, she has a pulse everywhere, making herself an indispensable resource for these teenagers looking for leadership.
“I look around in Detroit and I am inspired by Black woman organizers, people who organize for water, for example. Anytime I’ve turned around in Detroit, Michigan, I see a Black woman in the forefront of some noble cause, some equitable cause, a suffragist cause. And I’m like, wow, if they don’t give up because they are overwhelmed, if they find solutions around the barriers they meet, if they find the strength to do so, I should be able to find the strength to do so. I have not seen them wavering yet in their commitment for social justice.”
It is Seydi’s connections that made her move to a new country feel like her new home. After walking over to her local gym one day, she saw an African dance class advertised. Despite never dancing before, she went to the class, and an hour and a half later the Guinean-American teacher invited her to another community dance class. “I was the only African girl on the floor taking class. Everybody else was African American. […] From that woman, I got connected to a whole lot of African centered activities.” After teaching at an African centered school for five years, she was exposed to the reality of Black life in the United States, learning about our history of slavery, racism, and disenfranchisement through social and criminal injustices. It has allowed a deeper connection to Black migrants, understanding both experiences and how to get involved. “Don’t look at the plight of your parents, your uncle, your auntie as being different from your plight. It’s not different. For Black immigrants, get closer to the general conversation about Black issues and be involved in that fight because their livelihood depends on that. Understanding that when a bullet is put in your body, it’s because you’re Black. The color of their skin is going to be a problem, their inclusion is going to be a problem. So they have to be ready to fight for their life and it’s not going to come easy.”
What has grounded Seydi through adversities since childhood has been her faith. A devout Muslim, she has been able to find her community in Detroit as well. “[I] turn around and [see] a Black mosque, where your faith is shared by people who have never set foot in Africa. And where you see them wearing the clothes, the clothes that you have grown up with, and they don’t find it strange.” Whenever faced with a challenge she didn’t understand, she turned to prayer. And she turned to her parents for how to live a life of love and acceptance. “My father always said that if you have knowledge, skillset, pile of money, and it doesn’t serve your community, it is a waste.” With her father as an officer in the army on numerous peacekeeping missions, he and her mother opened their house to those in need — a “typical Senegalese household.” With her mom at home, she learned the kindness and passion for community, “She has that kind of everlasting possibility of pouring into people. [She] always loved more, gave more, nurtured more than I had ever seen.”
As a single mother, Seydi lets those facing instability from their immigration status stay with her. Criticized by friends, she “errs on the side of positivity. What if it was me? If my daughter ever ventured around the world and finds herself in a place where she needs help, I hope that somebody would help. Sometimes I want to believe that the work that we do is an investment for a blessing that will go onto her. Community is community. That is what I learned. You don’t eat while your neighbors are hungry.”
Following recent incidents of police brutality, Seydi, like millions of other Black Americans and allies, is hurting. “My decision is that this week, I will not fight for access to resources, funding, information and other necessary needs that could advance my work and yield some type of impact. I will focus some of my energy to cry, to sleep, to hash some trauma due to triggers. As I view images of anger, killings, and more brutalities happening, [we need to] rally and organize African Black immigrants around how we show up in these times and why we must coalesce in unity with African Americans.”
Living in the United States is a different experience for every immigrant and native. It has systemic issues so deep that surface level solutions have rarely helped. It isn’t fair for everyone and it favors others. Despite those issues, Seydi addresses them daily in her work and finds Detroit to be her home. “I don’t think I’m going to leave Detroit. There’s a lot to do [here]. I love the people of Detroit. I would say the people typically make up the feel of the city and I have not found it anywhere, not Washington, not New York, everywhere I go I’m like ‘nahh.’”
Seydi has expressions and sayings in many languages, but her first one, Wolof, offers a saying that humbles, grounds, and refocuses our plight: “Man holding onto man. A woman holding on to a woman. A human being holding on to a human being. A warrior holding onto another warrior. We need to hold on to each other if we really want to build a humanity that we believe in. It’s not about ‘me, me, me,’ it’s about me locking hands with you, you locking hands with another one, and them locking hands with another one for the wellbeing of our society and our survival as human beings.”