New Life In US For Somali Bantus

Leslie Goffe, BBC News, Aug. 13

It has been a year since Muya Malande and hundreds of other Somali Bantu left refugee camps in Africa to begin new lives in America.

Identified by the US government as suffering a persistent pattern of physical abuse and racial discrimination at the hands of lighter skinned Somalis, Somali Bantus, whose ancestors were kidnapped and brought to northern Africa as slaves from southern Africa 200 years ago, have been given a fresh start abroad.

In all more than 12,000 will leave refugee camps in Kenya where they found safe haven after fleeing tribal war and persecution in Somalia for American cities over the next year and a half.

It is the largest number of refugees from Africa allowed to settle in the United States.

“The life here is good, good,” exclaims Muya Malande, 31, who along with his wife, his daughter and three sons, now calls a three-bedroom apartment in the city of Buffalo, in western New York state, home.

“The Somalis used to assault us,” explains Mr Malande who learned his English working for the relief agencies in the refugee camps.

“They treat us badly, kill my brothers, rape, take our things, treat us like slaves.”

Adjusting

That is all behind them now. On arrival in the United States each of the Somali Bantu families are assigned to a charitable organisation that helps them with housing, schooling, jobs, and other needs.

All the same, adjustment has not been easy.

Poor farmers from isolated areas of Somalia, few of them had ever watched a television, talked on a telephone, driven in a car or used a flush toilet.

Though many are keen to work, they can not do so until they learn some English and to read and write.

In the meantime, charities provide food, clothing, furniture and the first few month’s rent. The government expects them to become self-supporting soon.

“I don’t worry about this group,” says Mitch Cummings, the re-settlement worker who met the first group of Somali Bantus that arrived in Buffalo last July.

“What they went through in Somalia, where they were the lowest of the low, was so terrible that life in America, even with difficulties, is so much easier. They are the kind of immigrants, no matter what their colour, to whom there are no obstacles.”

Discrimination

That is not entirely true. Though not nearly as bad as the everyday humiliation and ill treatment they say they suffered at the hands of other Somalis back home—because of their dark skin and slave ancestry, the Somali Bantu in the US have not managed to avoid discrimination, altogether.

Plans to settle some Bantu in the small town of Holyoke, Massachusetts in north-eastern United States was so fiercely opposed by whites there that re-settlement agencies changed their minds about sending the Bantus there.

Cayce, a town in South Carolina in the American South also put up a fight.

“We don’t feel,” said a city official, “we should be the dumping ground.”

They were sent instead—50 people in 10 families—to Columbia, South Carolina’s capital city.

The reception there was much warmer.

Locals who had heard of the refugee’s story of ill treatment in Somalia and ill treatment in America, embraced them, stopping them in the streets to give them gifts.

“Columbia is the only community that really welcomed them,” explains Garane Garane, a Somali-born professor at a local university, who was employed by a re-settlement agency to help them adjust and translate for the 50 Bantus who arrived there in February 2004.

Another 120 are set to arrive before the end of the year.

“People expected a racial backlash because of the history of this state with slavery and racism, but that didn’t happen,” says Mr Garene.

Challenges

It happened in Buffalo, though, where Muya Malande and his family settled.

“We can’t afford to have a concentration of people who don’t speak English, who don’t know our culture and who need handouts,” said white community leader, John Lombardo. “Buffalo is having tough times of its own.”

Apart from confronting racism, the Somali Bantu face many other challenges, big and small, among them learning English and getting jobs.

The signs are they will be alright. Many of their children are already mastering English and doing well in school.

Already knowing English Mr Malande had hoped to go to college immediately, but his educational qualifications were not recognised in the US and he has not been able to get work.

“I am sorry for my job,” says Mr Malande, “but I like it here and things will be good.”

He has now begun studying to become a nurse’s aide.

Most of those who’ve encountered the Somali Bantu refugees in America have been amazed at how little damaged they are by their past and how determined they appear to adjust to their new home in America.

“I was surprised that they were not, after 10 years in the camp, a broken people,” says Mr Garane.

“It didn’t damage them. They are ready to work, ready to learn. I believe in 10 years their children will be at a high level in this country.”

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