Meet Papa Dia, a community leader, mentor and founder of the African Leadership Group, an advocacy organization that has helped thousands in the African immigrant community. Papa grew up in Senegal, West Africa, and currently lives with his family near Denver, Colorado.
Papa reflects on his decision to immigrate to the United States. “I came here in 1998, and like most immigrants, I came here seeking an opportunity for a better life. I came from a very poor family, and growing up, it was very difficult. Eating was a luxury. But as poor as we were, we were very happy. What we had, we shared with one another. When I came here, it was a relief for my family. I was able to work and send money home to them. I couldn’t speak English and my first job was at the Tattered Cover bookstore. I was hired there, my job was stocking books, and I was making $5.25 per hour. It was a great place to start, because I was surrounded by books, so I had access to them. I used them to help me learn to speak and write English.”
He started working at a bank, and his success there inspired other immigrants to seek out his help and guidance. “The bank became my school. I spent 18 years in the banking industry. Every year there, I was getting a promotion. When I was at the bank, the branch where I was working had a hotel nearby where African immigrants were working. They saw me there at the bank, and started coming to see me, so I could help them cash a check, establish credit, start getting car loans. Then they would go and tell the rest of the community, and I started to have 20 or 30 people waiting for me in the bank lobby. People started to bring me their immigration papers. I was still doing the bank job, and helping these people. This became an issue with the bank, they wanted me to stop. But I understood the need, I understood how difficult it was.”
He understands the stress that the immigrant community in Colorado, and throughout the U.S., is currently experiencing. “Even though I’m a U.S. citizen, in my function as a leader, and the work that I do for the community, I still deal with it on a daily basis. We are all family. We might not be blood-related, but we are all related. I have families being separated, I have people being deported, I have members of my community being picked up by ICE. Yesterday, I met with someone whose husband was [picked up on] the way to work. His wife is a U.S. citizen. We have more families locked up in jail. Even people being asked to be deported back to Africa, they are being transferred from the ICE jail to the criminal jail. We care for these families, we help these families. We’ve been focusing on making sure our community knows their rights.”
Papa found himself spending more and more of his time helping others. “I couldn’t turn people away. I decided to look around and see if there was an organization to help these people. There was one, the African Community Center, but it was focused on refugee settlement. So I decided to start the African Leadership Group, with a mission to help with the professional integration of African immigrants through social impact, economic impact and educational impact. I started it in 2003 when I was still at the bank. I was working with members of the community outside of the bank, organizing weekly and monthly gatherings. And now, the organization is so big that we have more than 10,000 members in the Denver metro area. I ended up leaving the bank and I work there full-time. I have a staff, and we are daily transforming immigrant life in Colorado.”