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Black History Month: Little Senegal Brings West Africa To Manhattan

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As "Black History Month" continues on NY1, we turn our focus to a community in Manhattan dominated by immigrants from West Africa. And as our Rebecca Spitz tells us, Little Senegal is making a big impact on the newly arrived and those who've come to call New York home.

Papa Tall smiles as he walks on 116th Street because he is home. Not only does he know everyone, he is everyone, having lived much the same immigrant experience as countless numbers before him, selling products made in his native Senegal.

"I was a street peddler for a long time, then I used to set up shop - tables - on 125th Street selling African art/crafts and so on,” says Papa Tall. “And then after a while I stopped and went into cab driving. From that I went on to be a security guard, and back to cab driving, and back to school at the same time."

Now he's a teacher and a doctoral student at CUNY, but that's a long way from where he started.

Papa Tall was born in Senegal, and in the early 1990s moved to Harlem, like many West African immigrants before him. He says Harlem was full of possibilities, but there were problems too, like language barriers, and cultural and religious differences.

“In order for us to overcome these obstacles we just get together, create our own ethnic niche where we live our own culture, and we don't feel that far away from home," he says.

Little Senegal, as it's known outside of Harlem, stretches along 116th Street from Eighth Avenue all the way to Lexington Avenue. The businesses are almost exclusively African-owned, but have a distinct New York City feel.

“We have Americans, we have French, we have Italians, we have a variety of people,” says Houleye Sy, the owner of Sokhna Restaurant. “We even have Chinese and Japanese people who come in here, so we have to adapt it to the New York way."

Sokhna Restaurant is a business Sy says is crowded every day because people crave her Senegalese food, wanting to feel as if they're still home.

Business is also good around the corner at a barber shop where the owner is serious about succeeding in New York.

"Everywhere you go - to Africa, the United States - you've got to work hard to make it. Have a vision in life," says Muhammed Fall.

It’s that vision, according to Papa Tall, that's driving the Senegalese immigration.

"More than the money, it's the possibility, the opportunities that are opened to every single one of us that lands here and is willing to sacrifice themselves to reach that goal," he says.

But once that goal is reached, do these immigrants stay? Yes, but there are always some reservations.

"The Senegalese community is large here, and my family goes back and forth, so I'm good," says Fall.

“I wish I could split my time between here and there, but since I'm here I'm doing the best of it,” says Hy. “New York is wonderful - it's the place to be."

Not only for Papa Tall, but for his wife, and their children - born here as American citizens. All are paving the way for larger Senegalese presence that continues to grow.

“Just based on what we see on the streets and the dynamic on the street, you can tell that this is really, really getting big,” says Papa Tall.

It’s a trend that makes him beam with pride.

- Rebecca Spitz
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