r. Yele Aluko was seeking a new home.
The young cardiologist from west Africa wanted to settle in the United States, in a place that offered a warm climate and a job.
"I actually had a spreadsheet," Aluko chuckled, recalling the diligence of his search 16 years ago.
He narrowed his focus to 10 cities in the South. Charlotte was the one where no one offered him a job, but it didn't matter. "Driving from the airport through uptown, I just felt vibration that told me this city had what I was looking for," he said.
So he moved here, started a practice and raved about the place to friends and classmates. And in so doing, he helped lay the foundation for what has become one of the nation's fastest-growing Nigerian physician communities.
"The influx of Nigerian doctors to the Charlotte area has just been phenomenal over the past 14 years," said Dr. Emmanuel Okafor of Cleveland, Ohio, president of the Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas, or ANPA.
"I came within a whisker of moving there myself."
This is a story about how Aluko and others built a close-knit village of Nigerian physicians in the metropolis of Charlotte.
Dr. Olo came first
Roughly 3,500 Nigerian-born physicians live in the United States, including some more than 50 now in the Charlotte area.
Greater numbers have clustered in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, but the group in Charlotte is unique, Okafor said.
Doctors often establish practices near the sites of their medical training. Others set up in towns or cities near their family. But those patterns don't fit the Nigerian doctors in Charlotte, he explained.
The first Nigerian physician in Charlotte was Dr. Victor Olowofoyeku, 60. His father was an Attorney General in Western Nigeria who was jailed after a military coup of the civilian government. He urged his son to leave the country for safety.
Olowofoyeku went to Washington, DC, for his college and medical training. He came to Charlotte in 1981 with encouragement from a friend, Dr. Rosamanuel Dawkins.
Olowofoyeku saw Charlotte as a developing city and a good place to raise kids. Plus, his wife - the late Marilyn Wright Olowofoyeku, who later became an important voice in promoting cultural diversity in Charlotte - was born in South Carolina.
Other factors influenced the decision, too. In Washington, he went to the bank where he had kept his savings for 15 years and asked about a loan to start his practice. "I was told it was totally impossible," Olowofoyeku said.
In Charlotte, Dawkins took him to a First Union bank office, and by the end of his visit he had a loan agreement. "It was much easier to set up a practice here than in D.C.," he said.
Olowofoyeku - many people just call him "Dr. Olo" - recruited another Nigerian surgeon, Francis Ozim. Ozim worked in Charlotte from 1982 to 1986, but didn't find the place as sustaining.
Referral patterns at the time ran along racial lines, and there weren't enough patients to go around for Charlotte's minority surgeons, Ozim said in a recent interview. "I don't recall a referral from a white doctor," he said.
He took to moonlighting at urgent care centers but finally left for a job in Norfolk, Va., said Ozim, 59, who now works in Michigan. That left Olowofoyeku as Charlotte's lone Nigerian doctor, until Aluko came.
Aluko and friends
Olowofoyeku started the Nigerian physician migration to Charlotte, but Aluko and three of his friends opened the floodgates.
Aluko, 49, came to the United States in 1980 for a residency in internal medicine. It was in New York City - a place he found cold and unfriendly - but he decided to stay because of the quality of medicine and because of Dr. Shirley Houston, an S.C. woman who became his wife.
After traditional training in cardiology, he did his spreadsheet analysis for a place to practice. He also called Olowofoyeku, a family friend. "He said, 'You should come,'" Aluko said.
Aluko did. He set up a practice, leasing office space from Olowofoyeku and receiving an early stream of referrals from Dawkins.
Almost immediately, Aluko said, he could tell Charlotte's African American community was medically under served, particularly in certain types of specialized care. He lobbied friends and classmates about opportunities in Charlotte.
"I remember him (Aluko) telling me 'Mike, I'm going to practice in Charlotte.' I said, 'Where the hell is Charlotte?;" said Dr. Michael Etomi, 50, a Yale University-trained physician who came to Charlotte in 1993 as the city's first black kidney specialist.
Aluko also persuaded two other childhood friends - Dr. Yemi Johnson, a cardiologist who joined Aluko's practice, and Dr. Obinna Eruchalu, a surgeon who had been working in Mississippi.
Aluko, Eruchalu, Etomi and Johnson became the nucleus of the growing Nigerian physician community. Each spoke well of Charlotte to friends and acquaintances, who spread the word.
Increasingly, the Queen City was attractive to talented young Nigerian physicians looking for a place to practice, said Okafor of the ANPA.
Pride and basketball
Of course, Aluko and the other physicians aren't the only Nigerians who settled in Charlotte. Nearly 2,000 now call this area home, said Chris Ogunrinde, an architect and past president of a civic organization called the Nigerian Community of Charlotte.
But the doctors are the largest Nigerian professional group here and clearly have played an important role in building the community, Ogunrinde and others said.
The doctors' efforts have taken several forms. Many local Nigerian physicians have become active in the ANPA, an organization founded to improve health in Nigeria. Charlotte doctors went on their medical missions to rural Nigeria, and they've gently lobbied the Nigerian government to upgrade the nation's hospitals and medical services.
Eruchalu and Aluko routinely speak at medical schools during their annual visits to Nigeria, and Aluko is president -elect of the ANPA. But while they are promoting Charlotte to Nigerians, they also are trying to promote Nigerians to Charlotte.
"A number of people have heard about Nigerians in negative terms" like past government corruption and civil war, Aluko said. Or perhaps they got scam e-mail messages in which someone identified as a Nigerian lawyer solicits help in a transfer-of-money scheme.
Aluko and other doctors work at showing Nigerians as a community asset. They are leading a local initiative to address treatment disparities between white and black patients, including a recent community meeting on the issue. They have provided free medical care to laid-off Pillowtex workers, made scholarship donations for low-income high school students, and become leaders of the black medical community.
And, on another front, Aluko, Etomi and Dr. Patrick Evivie last year became minority owners of the city's new NBA franchise, the Bobcats.
During a Christmas visit to Nigeria last year, Aluko and Etomi spoke to sports reporters there about their hope that the Bobcats recruit talented players from Nigeria.
Coincidentally, the teams first-ever draft choice last year was Emeka Okafor, whose parents are from Nigeria. (Emeka Okafor isn't related to the ANPA's Emmanuel Okafor.)
Aluko and friends played no role in making the pick. But they had hope for Okafor, and were exhilarated when he was chosen.
Okafor said he has met Aluko, the Bobcats' team cardiologist, and others in the local Nigerian community.
"It's nice to know you have people in town who share some of your background and know where your parents are from," said Okafor, who grew up in Texas and has visited Nigeria twice.
It's been a positive experience all around, Aluko said. The way the Nigerian community has grown. The warmth that exists between the physicians, who socialize and whose wives and children are friends. Even the Bobcats, who drafted Okafor, a role model for the Nigerian community.
"I am proud ... very proud to call Charlotte my home," Aluko said.
Nigerian physicians in the Charlotte Area
© 2004 Charlotte Observer