No action for years on Ohio board for African immigrants

Mahdi Taakilo, editor of Somalilink newspaper, discusses how important it is for the state to finally activate a commission representing the interests of new African immigrants to Ohio almost a decade after the commission was created, on Tuesday, May 9, 2017, in Columbus, Ohio. Taakilo, from Somalia, said the commission will ensure that immigrants are connected with all branches of state government. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Members of Ohio’s growing African immigrant community say they’re hopeful a decade-long wait for their own state advocacy board is almost over.

Immigrant groups backing the board say they’ve submitted names of potential commission members several times over the years to the House and Senate, which then make recommendations to the governor for appointment.

The New African Immigrants Commission would advocate for people from countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Somalia, among others.

State lawmakers created the 11-person board in 2008, with the law enacting it taking effect the following year. Among the commission’s duties: to “gather and disseminate information and conduct hearings, conferences, investigations, and special studies on problems and programs concerning sub-Saharan African people.”

The commission was “a common-sense way to take the refugees that are coming to our country and help them assimilate and become productive members of our society,” said Republican state Sen. Kevin Bacon, who supported the idea a decade ago as a state rep as a way to help better integrate central Ohio’s growing population of Somali refugees. He says he doesn’t know why the commission was never activated.

There has been little interest in filling the commission since Republican Rep. Cliff Rosenberger became speaker of the Ohio House in 2015, said House GOP spokesman Brad Miller.

“Therefore, in the spirit of finding individuals who are both interested and qualified to serve these positions, the Speaker will continue to welcome members and the general public to recommend and review applicants,” Miller said.

Both the House and Senate have examined new appointees as recently as March and April.

Gov. John Kasich agrees the process has taken too long, said spokeswoman Emmalee Kalmbach, who added that appointments should be coming soon.

Ohio has about 110,000 immigrants from sub-Saharan African, up from about 75,000 in 2005, according to Census data.

Central Ohio has the country’s second-largest population of Somalis after the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

Had the board been in existence, it would have provided useful coordination among immigrants during the Ebola crisis, said Kay Wilson, a Columbus youth advocate and board proponent who spent seven years in Nigeria.

In 2014, Ohio health officials temporarily monitored several hundred travelers coming from West African countries that had Ebola outbreaks. No quarantines were necessary.

Many Somali doctors who are unable to practice in this country would benefit from someone advocating for them here, said Jibril Mohamed, executive director of the Columbus-based advocacy group SomaliCAN.

Mahdi Taakilo, a Somali native, says the commission will ensure that immigrants are connected with all branches of state government.

Somehow the commission has never been empaneled, despite the fact that, “We always have enough people apply, we always have enough people getting approved,” Taakilo said.

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