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When Sainabou Jaye Marong moved to Minnesota in 2011, her family was quickly able to plug into the local Gambian community.
Jaye Marong’s husband grew up in Farafenni, a town in the north of The Gambia—a small West African nation enveloped by Senegal that runs along the Gambia River to the Atlantic Ocean. The town may only have around 25,000 residents, but several of them now live in Minnesota. So when her family arrived, they had plenty of people to connect with.
In the past decade, she’s seen the community grow, with people from all regions of the nation making their way here. The Gambian Association of Minnesota recently conducted a census, and found there are just over 2,000 Gambians in the North Star state.
“People would hear about Minnesota and just come here,” Jaye Marong said.
Now, the Gambian Association of Minnesota is searching for a building it can buy and transform into a central hub for cultural events, education, small business assistance, and immigration support. Today, the group convenes at the Islamic Educational and Cultural Center, a rented space in north Minneapolis. Although the vast majority of Gambians are Muslim, the group wants to own a separate multi-purpose community center that can serve as a central gathering point.
Their goal is to raise around $200,000 for a down payment. They believe they can afford to make monthly mortgage payments in the same way they’ve been paying rent in Minneapolis. Ideally, the center would be around Brooklyn Park in the northwest metro, where there is a high concentration of Gambians and other West African groups. The association is seeking a large space such as an old library with multiple rooms and a central gathering area.
Buying a community center has been a goal for two decades, according to Nfamara Dampha, president of the Gambian Association of Minnesota. But the sizable downpayment needed to purchase the center has been a constant barrier, he said. Recently, the group started collecting monthly cash donations from members to finally make their dream a reality.
“Our priority is to, as a community, have a place to convey meetings—a place to bring the kids together, a place to interact and share resources,” Dampha said.
Most Gambians in Minnesota today are U.S. citizens, Dampha said. A big reason they want their own community center is to help the younger generations connect with their cultural roots as they become more integrated in American society.
“We want to see a broader future for our kids, and we also want them to identify with our community,” Jaye Marong said.
‘A cohesive community’
Dampha became involved in the local Gambian community when he came to earn his masters and doctorate at the University of Minnesota in 2015. Today, he is a researcher at the university’s Institute on the Environment and consults on climate adaptation projects for the World Bank.
He recently lent his scientific background to conducting a census of sorts on Gambians in Minnesota. The oldest immigrants have been here for 40 years, he said. Like other West African diasporas, Gambians are most concentrated in the northwest Metro.
The Gambian Association of Minnesota worked with Brooklyn Park to establish a sister-city connection with The Gambia’s capital, Banjul, in 2022. But Gambians are increasingly spreading across the state. The diaspora includes academics, medical care providers, and small business owners.
With early immigrants starting to age, the association is now starting to help families plan and pay for burials, Dampha said. The group provides obituaries for the dead, and celebrates accomplishments like school graduations for the living. The group plays a key role in helping people who are new to the country with their immigration process, connecting them to education and health care, and assisting people as they work to buy homes or start businesses.
The association hosts several social events every year, and frequently partners with other West African immigrant communities for celebrations. On February 18, they threw a party celebrating The Gambia’s independence day from the United Kingdom. This year, they hosted a small business resource conference, and plan to hold their 14th Annual women’s banquet on May 28.
The group constantly fundraises for development projects in The Gambia, and this month is sending money home to fund Ramadan meals. New York City is home to a large Gambian community, and when 17 Gambians died in an apartment building fire there in January 2022, the group contributed relief funding.
“It’s a very cohesive community,” Jaye Marong said.
With second- and third-generation Gambian Americans growing up, the group is trying to walk the balance between participating in American life and grounding young people in traditions from home. They believe establishing roots with their own building will help them realize that goal.
“It’s about heritage, but it’s about integration and understanding a multicultural society and how it functions,” Dampha said.