Africans are traditionally family-oriented. The extended family - not the individual or the nuclear family - is the basic societal unit. Respect for elders, cohesion, unity, and solidarity are values held dear by Africans. Emigration, however, transforms the family. The extended unit is left behind, and only the immediate relatives can expect to migrate. In many cases, nuclear families are created in the United States as émigrés marry locally and have children.
The percentage of African women participating in the migration is rising, and there is a significant new trend of women coming to this country on their own. Some are single, but others have a husband and children back home. These women arrive as the pioneer, a role traditionally reserved for men in most cultures; or they settle for a few months, to work and save money to enable them to start a business when they return to their homeland. African women have the second highest levels of education of any female group in the United States.
For youngsters born in Africa, life in America comes with both restrictions and advantages. The freedom of movement they enjoyed in their hometown neighborhoods - where everyone knows everyone else, and the crime rate is lower than in many American cities - is often restricted by parents who think that the world outside their door is dangerous and violent. "I don't feel we're safe here," says an Ivorian mother of three. "I don't allow my children to go anywhere by themselves. I drive them wherever they need to go. At home, they had much more freedom."
Apart from their local families, Africans continue to feel very much a part of their extended families back home. Whatever their circumstances in America, they send as much money as they can to their kinfolk. "The main reason I came here was to support my family," stresses a Ghanaian nurse. "I send $250 every month, which is more than I used to make. I am nothing without my family and I would never think of not providing for them, even when it gets difficult here."
Collectively, Africans send hundreds of millions of dollars home every year. In 1999, Nigerians abroad sent $1.3 billion home, equivalent to 3.7 percent of their country's Gross Domestic Product, while the total development aid to Nigeria was only $152 million. Senegalese emigrants all over the world contributed close to 2 percent of their country's GDP. Some immigrants have established businesses in their hometowns that are run by relatives; many pay the tuition of siblings, as well as nephews and nieces, who study in Africa or overseas.
Some immigrants, however, face restrictions in their efforts to maintain close relationships with loved ones back home. Many undocumented men and women migrated specifically in order to support their kin, yet visiting them is impossible because their illegal status would prevent them from reentering the United States, which would then deprive the family of much-needed financial help.
They often feel they have no choice but to work at several low-paying, exploitative jobs, to accumulate as much money as possible and return home permanently with enough capital to give their family a comfortable life. In the meantime, the very people they are attached to and came here to support may pass away. Refugees and asylees are also cut off from their families. As long as the situation they fled prevails, they have no possibility of returning home.