Grand Rapids police shooting leaves African immigrant community shaken

“It’s the same thing over and over, to show I’m nothing against them, whether you’re Black or African,” he said.Siku recalled the story as members of Grand Rapids’ African community mourn the death of Patrick Lyoya and come to terms with the realization that despite having come to this country for the American dream, they have, in fact, inherited the Black American reality, which is riddled with a complex racial history that many Africans are still struggling to understand. 

Lyoya, 26, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was shot in the back of the head by a Grand Rapids police officer on April 4 after he was pulled over because his license plate didn’t match his car. After a struggle, the officer shot him as he was facedown on the ground. Lyoya’s funeral is set to take place Friday, with the Rev. Al Sharpton, the host of MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation,” delivering the eulogy.

“Patrick’s death has for sure shaken the community. Many of us continue to struggle with it,” said the Rev. Kizombo Kalumbula, a pastor at Tabernacle Community Church in Grand Rapids who has also been a voice for the African community.

“They did say this is supposed to be a safe land, and that was the reason why resettlement took place here, but after this I don’t think much of the community are feeling safe,” said Kalumbula, who immigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo more than 25 years ago. 

Grand Rapids is home to a vibrant African immigrant community, although its exact size isn’t known because the city doesn’t break out immigrant populations by country —  a point of frustration for community members who feel they should be counted separately. According to 2020 census data, the African-born population in Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids, is estimated to be 6,106. 

Many arrive here as immigrants to pursue further studies or work, while others are resettled in the U.S. after having spent sometimes years in refugee camps after they fled war-torn countries, like the Congo. Lyoya’s family fled the Congo in 2014 in search of a safer life. Patrick was the eldest of six children.

African immigrants are often grateful to be in the U.S. and have reverence for the country that has given them another chance, Kalumbula said. But after they arrive, they are up against a new set of obstacles, he said.

About a week after Lyoya’s death, Mirabel Umenei stood before the Grand Rapids City Council and said it hadn’t done enough to support the African immigrants who are thrown into a complicated racial environment they know nothing about. 

“We have to learn very fast what it means to be Black in America,” Umenei, the director of the African Collaboration Network in Grand Rapids, told the council. Umenei’s organization advocates to improve the lives of African immigrant communities in West Michigan.

Umenei immigrated from Cameroon in 2012. 

“We come here without that knowledge, that historical knowledge, without a deep understanding of just how many racial barriers we have in front of us and how deeply rooted they are,” Umenei said. 

Kizombo Kalumbula and Dr. Esai UmeneiKizombo Kalumbula and Esai Umenei in Grand Rapids, Mich. on Apr. 18.Cydni Elledge for NBC News

“We get this perfect American dream sold to us, but they don’t tell you the truth, which is that you just got yourself in a dark, dark black hole,” she said, referring to systemic racism and aggressive policing in Black communities.

Lyoya’s killing has left the community scared and scrambling to figure out how to keep its kids safe, Umenei said. In many cases, it has found itself ill-equipped.

“We deal with the same racial aggressions that Black Americans have dealt with for generations without fully understanding the background of that experience,” she said.

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