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Togolese immigrants work hard to give back to their communities
From left, George Tounou, Akou Amouzouvi and her husband, Kossi Ayikey, talk after Black Hawk College's English as a second language graduation ceremony on May 14. (Elisa Petersen/Quad-City Times)

They come with little or nothing, yet they have most of what they need.

They come with family, but no fortunes. They come with college educations, but no formal degrees. They are nearly unstoppable in their ambition to work, but come from a place where there are no jobs.

The 2000 U.S. Census estimated there were 207 African-born people living in the Quad-Cities. Today’s estimate of the population is more than 2,500.

They are here legally, having fled poverty, unemployment or worse.

Some are refugees who bring horror-filled memories of human slaughter. Others come for the educations they covet.

Whether from the western coastal nation of Togo or the much larger Sudan to the east, Africans are coming to the Quad-Cities to make a new start. They wish Quad-Citians knew more about them.

Here are two of their stories.

‘Family is No. 1 — period’

At 35, George Tounou already is an elder statesman.

That’s because he was one of the first people from the West African nation of Togo to dig his roots into Quad-City soil. An estimated 1,000 Togolese have come after him.

“The ones who came first are to help the ones that come after,” Tounou said — a slight British-sounding accent to his English. “Our community grew very quickly.”

The Togolese are in the United States legally. Most are visa lottery winners who were required to land a job before they could come. Hog and beef plants in the Midwest were attractive places to many Togolese, who found they could make a living wage while going to college.

Tounou was one of them. Although he worked as a legal counselor in Togo, the best he could do in the U.S. was a job at Tyson Foods in Joslin, Ill., where he worked for six years while going to college.

He and his wife, Georgette, became U.S. citizens five years after coming to the country in 2000. Their three daughters were born here. He recently completed a master’s degree in political science and plans to go on to law school.

He also works as a financial planner, helps his wife in her African grocery store in Moline, has campaigned for Sen. Barack Obama and helps organize soccer games for other African-born Quad-Citians.

“In the summer, we like to get together to play soccer,” he said. “We’re trying to keep that part of our culture.”

There are other parts of the Togolese culture that seem to impress many of the Americans they meet. What most impresses their teachers, employers, classmates and acquaintances are not just their priorities — family, education, work and community — but also their attitudes.

Kevin Schoonmaker, a vice president at Blackhawk State Bank, took a chance on a Togolese immigrant several years ago and never regretted it. He gave a fairly high-risk loan to a newcomer who clearly had hard work in mind. Then things got personal.

“We had a lot of family out of town one year (2003) for Thanksgiving, and we invited George and Georgette (Tounou) for dinner,” Schoonmaker said. “They asked if they could bring some friends and, before we knew it, we had a couple hundred people coming and moved the whole thing to our church.

“That day at Christ the King Church (in Moline) was the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had. God’s hand was on the whole thing.”

For several years, Schoonmaker hosted a Thanksgiving dinner that brought Americans and newcomers from Africa together. As volunteers served donated food, the cultures co-mingled. Ever since, many of the Togolese in the Quad-Cities refer to Schoonmaker as their brother.

“These are people who are not here to suck off our WIC programs or public aid,” he said. “These are workers. These are people who work harder and do more for other people than many of us are willing to do.”

The high praise is not a comfortable fit for many Togolese who say they are doing only what comes naturally to them. Their convictions are too strong to leave room for doubt or to wonder about their role in any community.

For instance, Tounou was asked why he stayed on at the meat-packing plant for so many years while going to school full-time. His reply came without pause: “I had a family here to support, and I am the eldest in my Togo family and had to help them.

“Family is number one — period. Always.”

To many Togolese, education also is revered.

“We are more global than ever,” Tounou said. “As a proud U.S. citizen, I believe we must educate our children in a way that is competitive. You must also educate your children at home. When they leave your home, they will have learned to respect others.”

'We know a lot about America’

 When their parents left for America, the brothers and sisters got sick.

“We never separated before — since I was born,” Akou Amouzouvi said. “When they left for the United States, we all got sick in the house. I was hospitalized.”

The story would not surprise many people from the West African nation of Togo. The Togolese are, above all else, about family.

“My parents, they could not sleep until we came,” Amouzouvi added.

The 25-year-old Moline woman followed her parents to America about five years ago. Her father had won the visa lottery, which allowed him to bring his wife and children to the United States. Her parents work at Tyson Foods in Joslin, Ill., which attracts many immigrants and refugees for its working wage.

While both of her parents work, Amouzouvi’s father also goes to school at Scott Community College, learning to apply the skills he practiced in Togo as a refrigeration repairman to the U.S. work force.

To the Togolese who have come to the Quad-Cities, education is second only to family.

Amouzouvi has finished two years of schooling at Black Hawk College and plans to enter the nursing program at St. Ambrose University as soon as she can afford it. Her husband, Kossi Ayikey, is a full-time student, her younger brother is graduating from United Township High School this year, and her older brother also is a student at Black Hawk.

“Work at Tyson is very dangerous, very tough, but my mother, she knows she has to work to survive,” Amouzouvi said. “In my country, there are no jobs. The only thing we can do to survive is come here, so we come here.”

Anne Bollati, English as a Second Language coordinator at Black Hawk College, has met many of the Quad-Cities’ Togolese. They are especially devoted to education and work, she said, largely because both affect family.

“These are professional people who end up doing backbreaking work for the first time in their lives,” she said. “They were doctors and lawyers in their country, and now they’re stripping the spines out of pigs.”

One of the first lottery winners to come to America from Togo, George Tounou, estimates there were fewer than 20 Togolese in the Quad-Cities in 2000. Today he estimates there are 1,000.

Amouzouvi is president of the Togolese Club of the Quad-Cities, which is a social network that helps the Togolese keep their family and community bonds strong.

“We get together and talk about any problem, anything that comes along,” she said. “We also talk about personal problems.”

Some of those problems come from Quad-Citians who know little about Africa and less about its people.

“They might ask, ‘Do you sleep with the lions?’ Do you sleep in the trees?’” she said. “They think about Hollywood, about jungles. They should know. We know a lot about America. We studied about it in school.”

The differences

Besides language, food, climate and an almost religious devotion to education, there is another difference between the Togolese and Americans: child-rearing.

“I do not understand when kids raise their voices to parents,” Amouzouvi said, her 3-year-old son, Jadon, sitting nearby. “They say, ‘Leave me alone!’ What is that? I cannot leave you alone. You are in my house.”

American divorce rates also puzzle her. Her voice rose, and she used her hands to help punctuate how strongly she believes in the bonds of marriage.

“Everything can be fixed in a marriage,” she insisted. “You just both have to work. I can’t unite anybody, and neither can Dr. Phil. Only God does it.

“You can’t just end a marriage. You have to fix it. The same thing will happen in the next marriage if you don’t fix it. Life will not get easier. Fix it!”

To many in western Africa, life never has been particularly easy. The drive to survive serves Amouzouvi and others well when they find themselves in a place so different from their homes. Yet, the cultural differences are not regarded as barriers. To many Togolese, including Amouzouvi, an open mind lets education in while expanding her culture.

“I didn’t know I had a culture until I came here,” she said. “Now we plan for the Fourth of July — everything.”

In her family’s modest apartment at Springbrook Courts, the native clothing of Amouzouvi and her son gave the small living room an exclamation point of color. She grew animated, laughing as she explained that her people do not merely admire American things from a distance.  

“I don’t know why it is with the Togolese, but, when we like something, it is no longer yours. We take it as ours. I love your Thanksgiving, for instance. I call it Food Day.”

Barb Ickes can be contacted at (563) 383-2316 or bickes@qctimes.com.

Facts about Togo

Location: West Africa, bordering the Atlantic Ocean to the south.

Official language: French

Population: 4.9 million, according to a 2003 United Nations estimate.

Capital: Lome

Factoid: It is widely believed that voodoo originated in the region now called Togo.

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