Airlift to America

The story of the airlifts is a continuing one. On this page, we hope to share with you news we receive that touches on the airlifts, their participants, and the accomplishments. On a separate page we ask our readers to share memories and thoughts they have on these subjects.

A remarkable interview of one of the beneficiaries of the Airlift, Professor Frederick Okatcha, can be enjoyed at this link, along with pictures he shared from the time.  Professor Okatcha is the first African student to register in The University of Central Missouri and has a Ph.D. in psychology from The University of Michigan which he attained in the late 1960s.
old africa magazine

MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY AFTER THE AIRLIFT, THE MAGAZINE OLD AFRICA PUBLISHED AN EXTENSIVELY RESEARCHED AND RICHLY ILLUSTRATED STORY ABOUT IT BY KARI MUTU. The article, which is an important contribution to the history of the Airlift, is available for download here, courtesy of the magazine.
old africa magazine

MARGARET FAIRLIE, A FLIGHT ATTENDANT ABOARD THE 1959 PLANE WHO HELPED THE FIRST 81 AIRLIFT STUDENTS ON THEIR TRIP TO THE US FROM EAST AFRICA, passed away in April 2014. She never forgot her involvement in the airlift,and was telling the story still in her late eighties. She had an opportunity while she was still alive to read the account in Tom Shachtman’s 2009 book, “Airlift to America” and was moved to tears.

Margaret Fairlie, flight attendant on the 1959 Airlift
Her close friend Jill Chiappini wrote on her passing:

“Margaret was so passionate about education in general and particularly in Africa that she has left virtually a third of her estate to Christel House in Cape Town, a charity founded with the help of her cousin, that has schools all over the world devoted to transforming the lives of impoverished children. I have been with Margaret a number of times to Christel House here, which started as a primary school and grew, as did the children, into secondary education. The children, dressed in free uniforms, are transported to school, have breakfast and then settle down to lessons. They are given lunch, more lessons or sleep in the afternoon, depending on their age, and then given another meal before being transported back to the humble tin shacks in which many of the families live. The children are bright, confident and full of enthusiasm ... quite extraordinary ... and are so hungry for the education they receive. The school has now bought a fairly big house in its own suburb so that the older children can study in peace. You can imagine how hard it is for them to study in a tin shack housing the whole family, mostly in one room with candlelight oft times. Margaret loved the children and the school. You could with all honesty say that Education was one of Margaret's most abiding passions.”

passed away on July 23, 2010. His obituary is available in the July 26, 2010 edition of The New York Times.

The former principals of the nonprofit shared the following comments upon his death:

We are saddened to learn of the death on July 23, 2010 of Arthur Borden who incorporated the African American Students Foundation in 1958 and was a dedicated supporter of this unique initiative which brought so many students to the US from East Africa. The vast majority of the Airlift students returned to become the nation builders of their soon to be independent countries. The stories from that successful adventure can be found on the pages of this web site and in the book, Airlift to America: How Barack Obama, Sr., John F Kennedy, Tom Mboya and 800 East African Students changed their world and ours, by Tom Shachtman. St Martin's Press. Our thoughts go out to the family and friends of Arthur.

Cora Weiss, former Executive Director, AASF
Ted Kheel, former Chair of the Board of AASF

THE NEW YORK TIMES, IN ITS BLOG “PAPERCUTS”, INVITED COMMENT FROM TOM SHACHTMAN, author of “Airlift to America” on the events leading up the founding of the African American Students Foundation. The comments were published online on May 7, 2010.

IN A LETTER IN THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, CORA WEISS TALKS ABOUT THE ROLE OF AIRLIFT IN BARACK OBAMA SR.’S ACADEMIC CAREER. In the April 29, 2010 issue of the New York Times Book Review, Cora Weiss, executive director of the African American Students Foundation, added to the account of the airlift of African students mentioned by Barack Obama in his speech at Selma in 2007 and described in Garry Wills’s review of David Remnick’s biography of President Obama, “The Bridge”. She wrote “Barack Obama Sr., who greatly admired Mboya, did not come on the first flight, but he was a member of the airlift generation, arriving here in 1959 with the support of two American women teachers. While he was a student at the University of Hawaii, the A.A.S.F. gave him three grants.”

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS HOSTS TALK ON AIRLIFT: Tom Shachtman, author of Airlift to America, and Cora Weiss, former Executive Director of the African American Students Foundation, spoke on March 12, 2010 about the Airlift at a Library of Congress Event, on the occasion of the Africa Section's 50th anniversary celebrations. Click here for the press release and details. To see a video of the event, click here.

PAPER ON AIRLIFT PRESENTED AT AFRICA STUDIES ASSOCIATION ANNUAL MEETING: On November 19, Cora Weiss presented a paper on “Hidden Documents, the story of the African American Students Foundation and the Airlift,” at the annual meeting of the Africa Studies Association in New Orleans, sponsored by the African Librarians Council. Click here to see Cora Weiss' full presentation.

INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES, AFRICA ACTION, AND PHELPS STOKES CO-SPONSOR AIRLIFT BOOK EVENT IN WASHINGTON D.C.: On October 6, 2009, the author of Airlift to America spoke in Washington D.C. at an event hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies, Africa Action and the Phelps Stokes Fund. Cora Weiss, Former Executive Director of African American Students Foundation, the sponsor of the Airlift, introduced the author. The speakers also included Badi Foster, President and CEO of the Phelps Stokes Fund and Gerald LeMelle, Director of Africa Action, both of whom come from families that were active with the Airlift. Laverne Page of the Africa Section of the Library of Congress told of her husband's brother in law, Festus Molenje, an Airlift student who graduated from Adelphi University. Bob Levey, who has been a popular Washington Post columnist and whose family hosted a number of airlift students, told wonderful stories and spoke some Swahili that he remembered. The packed room of 65 people included others with ties to the Airlift as well, such as Steve Nkurlu, Director of recreation and respite services at the Easter Seals Camp in Maryland, who is nephew of Yona Nkurlu, an Airlift student who attended Gustavus College in Maine.

(September 17, 2009): Airlift organizers Cora Weiss, Theodore Kheel and Mathilde Krim hosted a moving reception for several hundred, including many with ties to the airlifts, on September 17, 2009, near the United Nations. Ambassador Zachary Muburi-Muita of Kenya, Ambassador Ruhakana Rugunda of Uganda, and Ambassador Augustine Mahiga, of Tanzania co-hosted the event and spoke at it, along with Diana Ofwona, the daughter of an airlift student, now with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Niger; Olara Otunnu, friend of Barack Obama, Sr., former foreign minister of Uganda, former Under Secretary General and Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict at the United Nations; and Haron Andima, airlift student, now a professor at Bronx Community College. To see a video of the event, click here.

(August 27, 2009): The book “Airlift to America” was launched with a reading and a signing at Midnight Farm on Martha’s Vineyard, attended by Harry Belafonte, who served on the Board of Directors of the African American Students Foundation, supported the Airlift in its fundraising efforts, and wrote the foreword to the book. In a story about the event, entitled “Unlikely Events Recall Story of This President,” the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette interviewed airlift organizer Cora Weiss about some of the history. The Boston Globe also reported on the pre-publication celebration, in “Scene Around the Vineyard”. Visit our photographs page to see some pictures taken at the event.

Support for this website was provided by the TASK Foundation, named for its founders, Ted and Ann S. Kheel, who helped organize the airlift and hosted airlift students at their house.