New Iowans: African Immigrants

Many Americans think of Africa as one big country. In fact, Africa is the world’s second largest continent and has 49 countries. These countries range in size from the largest, Sudan, which is four times the size of Texas, to the smallest, The Gambia, which is one-fourth the size of Iowa. Far from being a uniform population, Africans speak more than 1,000 different languages and identify with an even larger number of distinct ethnic groups. The largest number of African refugees in Iowa came from Sudan. Other smaller populations have arrived from Rwanda, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Congo, Chad, Togo, Ivory Coast and Liberia.

Most of Iowa’s African newcomers are refugees. Refugees differ from immigrants because they are no longer able to live in their home countries.  Although many of Iowa’s African newcomers hope to return home someday, most come to Iowa to start over again to create new lives for themselves and their children.

Coming to a new and strange place like Iowa presents a number of challenges for African refugees. The first cold winters are a shock, as are many cultural differences. There are challenges of being black in predominately white communities and workplaces. Although many Sudanese refugees speak English, most do not, and learning English takes a great deal of time and effort.


  • Grey Ph.D, Mark A., Woodrick, Ph.D., Anne C., Yehieli, D.P.H., Michele, Hoelscher, James. The New Iowans, A Companion Book to the PBS Miniseries “The New Americans”, Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration, University of Northern Iowa (2003).