Somalian immigrant Malaika Sabtow raised five children in African refugee camps, surviving for 14 years without electricity, amid persistent drought and regular outbreaks of malaria and tuberculosis.
But none of those 14 years, she said, was as bad as the past five months in Buffalo.
That’s how long it has been since the Erie County Department of Social Services took all of her children–she now has six, including a nursing 2-month-old daughter–and placed them in a foster home for reasons Sabtow doesn’t understand.
Sabtow, 28, wishes she were back in Africa.
“At least I had the kids there,” she said through a translator, Imam Yahye Omar. “Here everything is good, but if they are taking the kids from you, Africa is better.”
Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert said she could not comment on why the children were removed or whether they would be returned.
Khamis [Malaika Sabtow’s husband, Madhey A. Khamis] received a letter in September from a county caseworker explaining that a report of suspected child abuse or maltreatment had been “indicated”–meaning credible evidence had been found to support “the determination that you maltreated or abused the child(ren) named in the report.”
Corporal punishment is acceptable in Somalia, according to friends, who said Khamis didn’t intend to hurt his son.
“They already understand that what the man did is a no-no here,” said Osman Dualeh Abdullah, a longtime Buffalo resident who is from Somalia.
“Child Protective Services, they don’t know the culture. They need to be educated,” said Omar [imam of the Islamic Cultural Association of Western New York]. “There is a lot of abuse going on in America, but not with these people. Kids are the most valuable thing they have in the world.”
At the very least, the kids should be placed in homes more sensitive to their cultural needs, friends of the family said.
The parents have told friends and others that the children appeared ill in their few supervised visits with them.
The baby girl, Shamia, who is now 6 months old, has rashes on her body and constantly cries during the visits, according to Sabtow. Shamia was being breast-fed at the time she was taken from Sabtow.
The children have been split among three foster homes–none of which is a Muslim family, said Omar, the imam.
One of the boys, Mustaffa, 12, was pulled out of an Islamic boarding school and placed in School 19, even though his parents paid $3,600 in advance for the boy to attend the private school.
According to Omar, Mustaffa told his mother that the people he was living with would not allow him to practice Islam.
A daughter, Fatuma, 11, also has not been allowed to wear the traditional Muslim head scarf, Omar said.
And none of the children was able to participate in Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, he said.