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I Used To Feel American

Memories and Migration from Uganda to South Carolina
By Omme-Salma Rahemtullah |
JANUARY 22, 2021
Newspaper clipping from The Columbia Record, June 22nd, 1973
Three and a half years ago, I moved to Columbia, South Carolina, from Toronto, Canada, not really aware of the history of the American South, nor if there was a South Asian population here. As an Ismaili Muslim, one of my first visits was to the Jamatkhana (mosque), which is located an hour and a half north of Columbia, in the small upstate city of Spartanburg. I thought it was a bit strange that the Jamatkhana was in Spartanburg and not in Columbia. Columbia is the capital, with a population of over 130,000, and much larger than Spartanburg, at approximately 40,000. As with any new member of the Jamat (congregation), though, I slowly started to meet people and get to know their stories and lives.1

To my surprise, I learned that the Spartanburg Jamatkhana was the first Jamatkhana in the US: created in 1972 by a group of Ugandan South Asian refugees, who had been forced to flee Uganda after then-dictator Idi Amin, in an ill-conceived post-independence Africanization policy push, forcibly expelled all Asians from the country. Amin announced the expulsion in early August of 1972, giving the 80,000 Asians in the country – the majority of whom were second, third and even fourth generation Ugandans – 3 months to leave the country. Remarkably, some of these South Asian Ugandan Ismaili Muslim refugees ended up in a rural part of upstate South Carolina and founded the first Ismaili Jamatkhana of which I was now a part. I had to learn more.

Amin’s expulsion of South Asians from Uganda created mass confusion and was followed by a rush to resettle these Asians in other parts of the world. Many of them had never before left Uganda and had seen themselves as part of the Ugandan nation. Prior to Ugandan independence from Britain in 1962, the colonial government classified Indian migrants in Uganda as British citizens, and so, understandably, the majority of these now-refugees, about 27,000 people, found new homes in the UK.
Declaration of Business Form that documents a business one of my interviewees was forced to leave behind in Uganda.
At the same time, a different class of Ugandan Asians took a separate path; after independence, many Ugandan Asians chose to seek out Ugandan citizenship as a way to gain access to business opportunities in Uganda, as well as a way to cement their loyalties to the new African nation. These Ugandan Asian citizens were stripped of their Ugandan passports by Amin’s decrees, and were left effectively stateless. While the majority of this group were granted refuge in Canada (roughly 7,000), a very small number (only 1,500) were granted refuge in the USA, as parolees. At the time, the US only granted refugee status for people escaping communism, and those from the Middle East and North Africa. However, through a rarely used programme of the US Immigration and Nationality Act, 300 Ugandan Asians were settled in upstate South Carolina, in the first ever refugee resettlement program in the state. That, it turns out, was how the first American Ismaili Jamatkhana ended up in Spartanburg.

The story of the Spartanburg Jamatkhana asks us to think expansively about who South Asians in America are. Most of these Ugandan Asian refugees had never been to India, a country they had only heard about in tales told by their grandparents. In America, they found themselves received as Indian Americans. Moreover, they found themselves in South Carolina: a state with a relatively small South Asian population (by comparison, Asians account for only 1.6% of the population in South Carolina, whereas the country-wide Asian population is 5.6%), in which many people cannot distinguish between different groups with ancestral ties to South Asia – much less between Muslims and Hindus, and even less between those with more immediate histories in East Africa. This, as it happens, is an identity struggle that I have had my entire life. I am a first-generation Canadian, born in Tanzania and raised in Toronto. I have no family in India. I have some distant family from Pakistan now living in Toronto, but no tangible connections to the sub-continent. I, too, am a suddenly Southern ‘Indian’ Muslim, by way of East Africa and the larger British empire. Ending up in South Carolina and meeting a community of Ugandan Asians was almost prophetic and started me on a journey to tell their stories—or rather, our stories.

My fellowship project with SAADA is a unique opportunity to expand coming-to-America stories to include East African Asians, Muslims, and refugees, and to shine an important light on South Asians in the South. The story of South Asian migration to America has historically been a Hindu, Indian, and bicoastal one, and there are gaping holes in the archives of memory and arrival. My project aims to add narratives to the archive that have long been overlooked.

I have already had a chance to collect the oral histories of three people who arrived in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1972, and I have been struck by the trauma caused by the sudden forced migration. The confusion and anger at Idi Amin holds a traumatic place in the memories of Ugandan Asians, still bringing tears and confusion. Perhaps this should not have surprised me. My family voluntarily left Tanzania in 1979, at a time that Asians were leaving East Africa in large numbers, in part out of fear of Idi Amin’s policies being replicated in other parts of the region. The immensity of our departure didn’t seem as heavy as what I heard from Uganda Asian refugees.

I’m interested in further exploring the multilayered traumas specific to this population. I’m also interested in exploring the relationship between African Asian migrants and African Americans in the American South. So far, I’ve found little in my research2. Indeed, apart from director Mira Nair’s landmark 1991 film Mississippi Masala – which I first saw growing up and which remains the only mainstream form of cultural production that addresses Ugandan Asian refugees in the South – I have found little else in my research to date. The South Asian community has been struggling with confronting our anti-Blackness on this stolen land built by stolen people, but what does that mean when the settler is from Africa? The issue is a complicated one. So far, I have not been able to articulate what I am looking for in this question with my interviewees: how do we talk about identity, race, and racism in and with a community that has been the victim of race-based policies?

Finally, for me, this project is a chance to practice language preservation. My interviews so far have been conducted in Kutchi. Kutchi is a dying language, spoken by less than a million people today, concentrated in the region of Kutch in the state of Gujarat in India, in East Africa, and in parts of North America. The regions where this language is spoken is a migratory trail in itself; the language mirrors the rise and fall of empires, and of forced and voluntary migrations. The language has changed along its course, and the East African style of Kutchi that I speak, and in which I’m conducting my interviews, is a mash-up of Indian Kutchi and Swahili (the main language of East Africa), with sprinklings of English. Moreover, Kutchi is a dialect that does not have a written component; with subsequent migrations and generations, the language is being lost. The only way to preserve it is orally, and that is what I seek to capture on tape during this fellowship.

1. My deepest gratitude so far to the Merali family that I have spent countless hours talking and listening to, and my advisory committee, Ronikali Merali, Shazia Lalani, and Iqbal Akhtar.
2. This is the only academic article I have been able to find on Uganda Asian refugees in the South. I have come across a few profiles of Ugandan Asians in Southern cities, as human interest stories in newspapers, but nothing substantial. Strizhak, EstelleF (1993). “The Ugandan Asian Expulsion: Resettlement in the USA,” Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3

Omme-Salma Rahemtullah is a recent transplant to the American South - Columbia, South Carolina. Born in Tanzania and raised in Toronto, Omme's work as a community programmer and academic has explored questions of identity, race and belonging. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.