In view of the European elections of May 2019, Afro-European youths are getting organised. In 2014, only 28% of young people aged between 18 and 30 went to vote. «Among these, Afro-Europeans were an even slimmer minority and many of those who did vote, cast spoiled ballots» said Karen Kaneza, one of the organisers of Diaspora Vote, an initiative aimed at mobilising the young Afro-European electorate. The initiative, launched by the African Diaspora Youth Forum in Europe, was supported by various bodies including the European Parliament’s office in Belgium, the Africa-Europe Diaspora Development Platform, the European Parliament’s Intergroup against racism and in support of diversity (ARDI), “la Senegauloise” and the African Caribbean Pacific Diaspora Youth Support Services.
«Taking urgent action to reverse the growing political disengagement among young Afro-Europeans is essential. Not voting is a missed opportunity to make our voice heard», continued Karen Kaneza, who herself stood as a candidate in the recent local elections in Brussels.
Young people from the African Diaspora, between life in Europe and their African roots
There was much excitement among the Diaspora Vote youths visiting the European Parliament in Brussels. Some of them had never been to Brussels and hardly anyone had ever visited the Parliament. The programme included a series of meetings with politicians, officials from the EU institutions, from the UN and a training course on the EU and the European elections. They were visibly proud of being there and to be able to share their stories, some more confidently and others more timidly, almost wanting to justify why they had been chosen. They grew up in different cities, in the suburbs and in rural areas of Belgium and France. Some, like Harouna Ba, a French national originally from Mauritania, arrived with their parents as children or alone. Others, are second or third generation migrants like for example Tiffany Fevery, whose mother is Algerian and father is European. Many no longer speak their parents’ language but their roots are still part of their identities. «As I am originally from the Maghreb, I didn’t really feel part of the African diaspora», said Tiffany. «After the 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels, we felt blamed, discriminated, even hunted. So many of us tried to forget, or simply to hide, our roots. We wanted to integrate once and for all. My sister was like that, but I reacted in the opposite way, re-appropriating myself of my identity as an African woman».
Some, like Dalale Belhout, a thirty-year-old dynamic Franco-Algerian female entrepreneur from Trappe, have humble origins but have managed to do well for themselves. She helps young people, both African and European, to find work and she has also established an association to help youths get ahead in their studies and to find their way after leaving school. Others, like Balkissou Abdoul-Karim, a twenty-year old student from Antwerp whose parents are diamond traders, or Bienvenu Lwangi, who dreams of one day becoming the Ambassador of Congo, instead come from more well-off families and have been lucky enough to travel to different European and African countries.
However, despite their differences, they all agree that integration, especially in employment, is the key to social mobility. According to Dalale Behout «A French study showed that if your name is Mohammed you have to send at least ten more CVs in order to get a job interview». The problem is not at school, where both in Belgium and in France diversity is a reality, but after graduating from school. Sarah Zongo, a French girl originally from the Ivory Coast, grew up not far from Italy in a town between Grenoble and Lyon and is now studying in Paris. She believes that diversity after secondary school is an illusion. Discrimination starts at university, at the Parisian Grandes Écoles for instance, where the French elites are trained but where Afro-Europeans still find it hard to get in.
Mobilising voters from the African diaspora in order to have a voice in Europe
Andrea Kalubi is a young Belgian activist from the Congolese diaspora. As a candidate in the local elections of her town of La Louviére in 2012, she learned first hand that young people, especially those of African origin, don’t vote because they don’t think that things will change. «There is deep distrust in politicians, who seem to be too distant from us and from our realities. None of my friends know much about the European institutions or understand the impact that European laws have on their daily lives», said Andrea Kalubi.
During their visit to the European Parliament, the youths discovered that 85% of national laws in France and Belgium are passed following European Directives. Dalale Belhout so believes that «voting to have an impact on Europe is fundamental. Enough complaining. We must start to get better informed and organise ourselves to take action». And this is exactly the aim of the Diaspora Vote initiative: sensitising Afro-Europeans in order to re-ignite their social and political engagement. But in order to achieve this, there needs to be a dialogue between generations. Between those who arrived in Europe as children, struggled to fit in and perhaps still retain a “foreign” accent, and the others who instead were born here and are now questioning whether they are still part of, and can speak for, the African diaspora.
The objective of Diaspora Vote is very ambitious (and for the time being still unthinkable in Italy): force politicians to understand what it means to be Afro-European today. The Belgian MEP Maria Arena, former Minister for integration, employment and gender equality in Belgium, was the Diaspora Vote youths’ mentor in Brussels. Her message to them was clear: «Diversity must be embraced in all its forms, it is our wealth and it must be defended. Communitarianism instead pits one against the other. Immigration in Europe deserves more attention, not as a ‘problem’ but to better manage migration flows, to improve our reception and to enhance integration. We cannot ask African countries to close their borders when they are increasingly integrating, establishing zones for the free movement of goods and people based on the EU model. It is anachronistic and counter-productive». Maria Arena however encouraged the youths to vote for those candidates who they believe will truly represent them, those who will take action to change something, not those who will sit comfortably and do nothing for five years.
«It was a big success», concluded Karen Kaneza at the end of the two-day event in Brussels. «We have laid the building bocks and now we trust that these young people will go back home and spread the message through their social and professional networks. We even hope that some of them may decide to stand in elections some day as they are (or they could be) tomorrow’s leaders».