The festive atmosphere of 116th Street between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and St. Nicholas Avenue—music blaring, neighbors greeting neighbors—belies the uncertain future for many businesses and residents in the area known as Little Senegal, a social and economic hub for Senegalese immigrants in Harlem and throughout the United States.
The economic downturn has affected many of the residents and, by extension, the small businesses in the area, which sell clothes, music, and videos from Senegal, catering primarily to the local Senegalese and West African immigrant community. And now, a new movement to establish a Senegalese Chamber of Commerce in America is sweeping through Little Senegal.
“The business is slow, the shops have closed,” said Mamadou Lmbaye, an employee at New Africa Music and Video, pointing to the empty store behind him and a vacant space up the block.
The SCCA will have its headquarters in Harlem, though it will be national and international in its scope, said Moussa Signate, a Senegalese American and New Jersey resident who is coordinating the project and has written its mission and by-laws.
Signate said that the main objective of the SCCA will be to form a coalition of Senegalese businesses in the area and to help Senegalese business owners adapt to and compete in the U.S. marketplace.
“I sense that they need help in order to grow their business, in order to have a better management. They cannot process, they cannot read the information in order to take action and optimize their business and optimize their decision-making process,” Signate said, referring to the language barrier with which many Senegalese immigrants struggle.
“Moreover, the chamber will not be just about helping them or helping the businesses, it is also to foster business and investment relationships between the United States and Senegal,” he added.
Because many Senegalese workers in the United States send much of their income to support their families back in Senegal, Signate said that he views the SCCA as a means to unite Senegal and the United States through their economies.
“I see this chamber as a tool to force the financial economy and commercial integration between the United States and Senegal,” he said. “This is to strengthen our community, and I cannot see any other way to build or strengthen our community. By this way, it helps existing companies to grow and create more growth.”
Signate hopes to begin reaching out to businesses and to have an assembly in December, when the board of directors will be elected, and begin operating in January.
Though the SCCA will look to partner with the Association of the Senegalese in America, which since 1988 has provided services for the Senegalese immigrant community in West Harlem—Signate says it will serve a far different purpose in the community.
“The association is an organization that takes care of the needs of the individual Senegalese in the community,” he said. “The chamber will take care of the needs of the Senegalese businesses. They are two different entities.”
To maintain the strength of the Senegalese immigrant community in light of the economic struggles it has faced, the ASA has continued to offer an array of services to the community and the surrounding area, including tutoring and daily English language classes for children and adults, immigration counseling, job placement, and health services through a partnership with Harlem Hospital.
“People—even if they don’t know where to go—their first destination is here,” said Bouba Ba, an accountant in Hudson County, New Jersey and an active ASA member. “We help while they get themselves together and finish their journey.”
“If anyone comes here looking for anything, we provide it to them,” Ba added.
The organization is in the process of fundraising to buy a new, bigger space in the area, according to ASA General Manager Kaaw Sow. It’s looking to move from its current location on 116th Street between St. Nicholas Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
“Right now, we are collecting some donations because we want to buy a building for the community center, to have a day-care center in it, a training center,” Sow said, sitting in the cramped office space at the current location.
Sow said that it has been difficult for the organization to grow because the ASA has not received any government funding in the past two years.
“Our funding mainly comes from the donations of our members,” Sow said. He added that the ASA General Assembly, which is slated to convene on November 26, hopes to draw up additional fundraising plans to supplement money raised from a weekly reggae program that it holds at a club downtown.
For many ASA members, the resources that the organization provides are second to the comfort of having a central location where they can speak with others in their native language, Wolof, and discuss Senegalese news.
“Association for the Senegalese is my family. Everybody coming. They’re going to teach you something for life,” Lmbaye said.
“Sometimes I come here to talk to my people,” said Layd Diop, a Senegalese immigrant who lives in the Bronx and travels over an hour each week on his only day off to socialize with ASA members and to visit the stores in Little Senegal.
Sow said that although the Senegalese American community is religiously diverse—with both Muslim and Christian members—the ASA serves as a space where differences are put aside.
“We don’t have a religious affiliation, we don’t talk about religion, because we want everyone to be on the same level,” Sow said, emphasizing the ASA’s support of the local mosques and churches that many Senegalese Americans in the community attend.
Despite the strong presence of Senegalese culture and community supported by the ASA and the surrounding stores, some Senegalese immigrants say it still does not fulfill their longing for home. Many have come to the United States in order to support their families in Senegal.
“I sacrifice things for myself to send money over there,” said Ba, who works to support his mother, wife, and two children in Dakar.
“I want to go back and help,” he added, mentioning that he would like to continue his work in health education and AIDS prevention in Senegal.
“There is no place better than home, doesn’t matter where you come from. We are all wishing today that if there was a position back home, I would take that position,” Ba said.