Nigerian immigrants make a home in Md.


At 10 o'clock on a Sunday night, the Nigerian music was thumping and the party, on the outskirts of Baltimore, was still churning.

The remnants of a feast - goat meat, plantains, fried fish, moin-moin and jollof rice - littered rows of tables. Some of the hundreds of Nigerians, who had gathered to honor a friend, still swirled in circles on the dance floor in colorful, embroidered African outfits with head ties that regally swept up toward the ceiling. A cloud of paper money, which Nigerians traditionally throw to express appreciation while dancing, fluttered and twisted to the floor.

Large Nigerian parties, like the one held recently in the basement of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Northeast Baltimore, have become so common that "when people find me at home on a Saturday, they ask why," said Gloria Onejem, who had donned a glittering silver-and-blue dress and head tie for the occasion.

It wasn't always so. Twenty years ago, Nigerian immigrants in Maryland held gatherings in their homes and cooked native specialties using American brands such as Bisquick. These days, Nigerians from Silver Spring to Woodlawn must rent great halls to accommodate hundreds of guests, and they shop at markets lavishly stocked with African foods.

They are one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in Maryland, the most recent census data show, up 194 percent from 1990 to 2000. And at 15,000 strong, Maryland's Nigerian population represents 11 percent of all foreign-born Nigerians in the United States.

As their ranks have expanded, prominence and visibility have followed.

"We've been here, but we haven't had the opportunity to show what we can do," Alphonse Nnadozie, a Baltimore teacher, said at the party. "We're no longer just visitors or sojourners. This is our home, too."

The largest number of Maryland's Nigerians live in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, but increasingly, such immigrants are settling in other parts of the state, notably Baltimore and Baltimore County. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Nigerians in Baltimore County quadrupled to 2,108, said Michael Fix, vice president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. That doesn't include American-born spouses or children.

In moving to suburbs such as Parkville, Owings Mills and Woodlawn, the Nigerian community is following a well-established pattern for immigrant groups seeking quality-of-life improvements such as good schools and safe neighborhoods, said Jill Wilson, a research analyst at the Brookings Institution, who specializes in African immigration.

But it's harder to say precisely why Maryland is such a popular destination for Nigerians and for Africans in general. Some moved to Maryland and the greater Washington area for their education and never left, said Audrey Singer, an immigration fellow at the Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. Chain migration accounts for some of it - immigrant families tend to move to places where a network already exists.

Over time, such clusters turn into established communities. "The longer any group is here, the more their identity and presence is felt," Singer said.

The math is obvious to Janelia McNair-Sanya, 30, a buoyantly proud Nigerian who was born in the U.S. but lived in Nigeria for most of her childhood. When McNair-Sanya married four years ago, her musician husband tried to persuade her to move to Nashville, Tenn., but she wouldn't go.

"I didn't want to leave Maryland because of the Nigerian population," said McNair-Sanya, a Parkville resident who raises money for Nigerian orphanages by producing and selling a "Nigerian Beauty Calendar" featuring Nigerians living in this country.

She and others see the signs of transformation everywhere. They see it in new Nigerian restaurants and clothing stores and in the booming business in phone cards for calls to Africa. They see it at the churches and mosques Nigerians attend and run, such as Al-Medina in Woodlawn, a mosque that offers services in Yoruba. They see it, also, in the explosion of African food markets - on Harford Road in Baltimore and elsewhere - that sell Nigerian videos, ground crayfish, imported red beans used in moin-moin, and dried stockfish, a potent specialty that, as one shopkeeper put it, "you don't play with."

When Alore Damilola founded CinemAFRICA and teamed up with AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring to create a showcase of Nigerian films in February, most screenings sold out. She now shows one Nigerian film and one film from another African country one weekend a month at AFI.

With "Nollywood," the multimillion-dollar Nigerian film industry, flourishing, "there are a lot more of us who watch these films," said Damilola. "The large number of Africans [here], especially Nigerians, helps with the program."

Then there are the parties, which have bloomed from homespun affairs to galas for up to 1,200 people. The parties usually start late and go late, and no one needs an invitation. Guests often bring food and help defray the costs by exuberantly tossing dollar bills at hosts.

Party attire is key. At the recent gathering, the room pulsed with colors, and the ubiquitous head ties - viewed as an art form by some - were twisted in all directions. The 72-year-old honoree changed her outfit three times.

"When you go to other cities, people are shy to even wear the [Nigerian] clothing to parties," said Simon Nwaigwe, a Baltimore real estate agent, who was dressed in an orange-and-cream outfit. "Baltimore City is the torchbearer."

Nnadozie, the Baltimore teacher, complained that for too long, the news media have focused unfairly on Nigerians involved in Internet scams, the drug trade in Baltimore and other crimes.

"In the '80s, there were a lot of drug problems that rubbed off on some," he said. "The bad news overshadowed all the good being done."

Now, however, the community is more united, and its members' pursuit of education and professional contributions are coming into focus more, he said. Nigerians have had a head start because many come to this country as English speakers and they tend to have more schooling and skills than other immigrants, said Wilson of the Brookings Institution. Census data show a higher proportion of African immigrants have college or graduate degrees than native-born Americans.

"We stress education. That's one thing people should understand," said Nwaigwe, who immigrated here for his undergraduate and graduate studies. "You study, study, study."

Glancing around the recent party, Nnadozie said, "almost everyone you see here are professionals." They are medical doctors, nurses, teachers, computer scientists and engineers, said Nnadozie, who has a doctorate.

Fifteen years ago, many people were in school and fending for themselves. "Now I'm working, making my own money. Our level of thinking has changed," said Desmond Des-Ogugua, 38, of Towson. "There's community togetherness. When someone is crying, we'll run to that person's aid."

One thing hasn't changed for some Nigerians. Many still think of America as a promised land of higher education, but they educate their young children in their homeland to avoid what some call "downward assimilation."

Elijah Thomson, 30, is among that group. He sends three of his children to a boarding school in Nigeria.

"It's very difficult to raise a child in America - when they finish high school, they can come here," Thomson said as he left an African market on a recent afternoon with plantains, a phone card and a package of malt and ginger drinks. "By then, they know left from right; they know right from wrong."

Khafilat Adesokan, 29, said attending school in Nigeria "gave me a standard."

"I don't want to sound like I'm putting Americans down. But it just gave me a different lifestyle," said Adesokan, who has one Nigerian and one American parent but identifies herself as Nigerian.

All the same, her three children attend a Muslim school in Baltimore County - and she's not sending them anywhere.

Moving with them to Nigeria is no longer imperative, she said, "because the community here is so visible."

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