When Will Mbah attended community meetings, he often glanced around the room and noticed missing voices. He was frequently one of the only immigrants in the audience at the meetings, he says—which seemed problematic for a city whose population is almost 25 percent foreign-born.
Now an at-large city councilor, Mbah aims to ensure that conversations include the perspectives of residents like him. His victory in the 2017 elections came after almost seven years of U.S. residency and two years of U.S. citizenship, most of which he spent moving throughout Somerville in a dogged effort to stay in the city amid rising rents.
This unlikely trajectory from his native Cameroon to elected office in Somerville has made him passionate about housing affordability and eager to represent struggling residents.
“We need people in government that have personal experience with what it means to be an immigrant living in a city like Somerville, and how hard it is to stay there,” he says.
Mbah’s journey to Somerville began with luck. He and his Cameroonian friends decided on a whim to enter the diversity visa lottery, a program that randomly awards permanent visas to 50,000 people per year from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. The odds of getting a visa this way are severely low: Almost 14.7 million people from all over the world entered the lottery last year, including more than 300,000 Cameroonians.
Mbah won the lottery, which allowed him to move to a country that offered what he saw as boundless economic opportunity. He still marvels at this improbable luck, especially following the childhood he spent in foster care and with relatives after his parents’ early deaths. When discussing these narrow odds, Mbah laughs at first but quickly grows serious, calling his arrival in the United States a miracle that only divine predestination can explain.
“For somebody like me, with my background, making it to the U.S. was near impossible,” Mbah says. “Every time I think about it, I can only feel more humbled.”
Still shocked, Mbah arrived at his aunt’s home in Taunton, Mass. in 2011, but he immediately wanted to move closer to Boston. After discovering Somerville on the internet and deciding it looked welcoming, he announced to his family that he was moving there, even though he didn’t have a job or any connections there.
“They thought I was crazy,” Mbah says. “They thought I had no clue what I [was] getting into.”
His church dropped him off in Somerville on a Sunday night. Unfamiliar with his surroundings, Mbah decided his first task the next morning would be to buy a map of his new home city, a quest that confused more than one store clerk, he jokingly admits.
In another stroke of luck, one map-less shopkeeper introduced Mbah to a friend, and that friend brought Mbah to a community meeting. Within 24 hours, Mbah was already making connections in the city.
His next challenge was searching for a job, a tough process that began with Mbah—armed with a master’s degree from Sweden—interning for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. He now works as a technologist at MIT’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety.
Soon after arriving in Somerville, Mbah discovered how expensive the city had become, with soaring rents forcing him to move almost every year. After a few months of rent-imposed exile in Hyde Park, which separated Mbah from his newfound Somerville community, he decided to tackle the housing affordability problem head-on through political action.
“I realized that it’s such a wonderful place with wonderful people, that … I’m not going to give that up for anything,” Mbah says. “The last resort was to run for office.”
Some friends encouraged Mbah, who was an activist in Cameroon and Sweden before becoming involved in Somerville politics and community service, to run for office. He was skeptical at first, pointing out the lack of people like him in government.
Still, the affordability crisis and the mounting political energy in opposition to Donald Trump’s presidency pushed him to act.
“I told them, ‘Look at my last name, look at my accent, look at where I’m coming from,’” he says. “I was selling myself short.”
He focused his campaign on Somerville’s housing crunch, which he noted has made the city increasingly unaffordable for both lifelong residents and newcomers like him. In Mbah’s first year, he says, the council has expanded the tools it uses to fight cost increases, including options like tightening condo conversion rules and raising funds to expand the city’s affordable housing stock.
Mbah says his perspective as an immigrant has informed some of these conversations. When there was a suggestion to limit affordable housing to current city residents, he opposed this change, recalling his own experience as a cost-conscious newcomer to Somerville.
“Some of my analysis is based on perception,” he says. “I don’t see things through the same lens as someone who was born and raised here.”
Bringing in this differing perspective is vital, says Raaheela Ahmed of New American Leaders (NAL), an organization that supports first- and second-generation American politicians. Immigrant politicians can empathize with constituents who face similar challenges, she explains, and bring those residents’ experiences to the fore.
“It is more organic and less of a savior mentality when you actually have people who have the lived experience of being immigrants, of being refugees, of being part of marginalized communities,” Ahmed, NAL’s manager of leadership programs, says.
Ahmed, a school board member in Maryland, notes that the number of immigrant candidates has grown recently—more than 100 foreign-born residents ran in congressional races last year, NAL estimates. Immigrant candidates have also become more comfortable with embracing their identities, Ahmed adds, instead of de-emphasizing them.
Change can be maddeningly slow on the city council, according to Mbah, but he enjoys the work. Now a West Somerville resident, Mbah says he is grateful for the welcoming community the city has provided for him, his wife, and his two children. For him, political work is one way of giving back to his improbable, hard-won new home.
“I think the essence of life is to look after each other,” Mbah says. “It puzzles me to see that basic things that should be a given, people have to fight for.”
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