Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Somali Bantu refugees adjust to their new lives in Pittsburgh

Somali Bantu refugees adjust to their new lives in Pittsburgh

Somali Bantu refugees adjust to their new lives in Pittsburgh
Another 160 due to resettle here over next 18 months
Tuesday, May 18, 2004

By Sally Kalson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A new wave of refugees from the African continent has begun landing in Pittsburgh, having crossed eight time zones and a century to get here.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Raqya Abdul Rahiman shows off her youngest son Jabril Muya, 8 months, at a welcome reception for the Somali Bantu families at The First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh in Shadyside.
Click photo for larger image.

Related article

Help for refugees comes from variety of sources

Three families of Somali Bantus -- 21 people in all -- arrived in February and March, direct from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Another 160 are expected to follow in the next 18 months.

A persecuted minority in Somalia, the Bantus were barred from school and so are largely illiterate. All of them are Muslim. Most speak a dialect of Somali called Maay Maay, although some have picked up Swahili or English in the camps.

The Pittsburgh contingent is part of a much larger resettlement project now under way by the U.S. government to place 14,000 Somali Bantus in 52 American cities by March. More than half of them will be children under 17.

The first time most of them laid eyes on electric lights, gas stoves, flush toilets or television was at an orientation session in Kakuma. They've never touched snow, used a washing machine, shopped in a grocery store or handled a bank account.

Yet here they are -- two families living next door to each other in Lawrenceville and a third family in Point Breeze, trying to learn English, find work and settle into daily life in 21st century America.

A few months into his adjustment, Mohamed Derbane smiled with optimism in the family's Lawrenceville living room. Mohamed is either 18 or 22, depending on whether you believe his mother or his transfer papers. His limited English has made him the de facto translator for his whole family.

"You feel free here," he said of his new country. "At the beginning, everything is hard, like it would be hard for you if you went to Africa. Then you get a little used to it.

"Here we have hope to improve. We need to learn something first, then to work."

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Ibrahim Muya pauses while thanking the members of The First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh for their support and friendship. At right during the reception stands Khadra Mohammed, of the Pittsburgh Refugee Center.
Click photo for larger image.

Acculturation has its bumps. Mohamed's family had lived only in huts before their arrival; multi-story buildings with steps were a whole new concept. The younger children at first were terrified to go down the stairs to the basement, where the only bathroom is located. And the trucks rumbling by close to the front door took some getting used to.

But these are highly motivated newcomers, said Peter Harvey, director of refugee services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which has the resettlement contract with the U.S. government.

"We were expecting people who were practically non-functioning, but our three families seem to be learning very quickly," Harvey said. "They value education, they want to work and they want their children in school. If this represents what's down the line for us, it will help a lot."

In addition to language, literacy, employment and housing, many of the new arrivals will have other issues: malnutrition and trauma from the camps; making the transition from a polygamous culture that practices female circumcision to a society where both practices are banned; moving from an agrarian way of life to a post-industrial economy.

"They are going to need help adjusting for some time," said Khadra Mohammed, who recently founded the Pittsburgh Refugee Center for that purpose. One of the region's few native Somalis, she also is one of the few who can speak with the Bantus in their native tongue.

"Self-sufficiency is more than a job and operating an ATM machine," she said. "They have to learn how their own bodies function, what's the difference between a virus and bacteria, how to administer over-the-counter medicines to their children. Of course they can learn these things, but it takes time and a lot of support."

History of hardship

The first group of Bantu refugees arrived a year ago. About 3,200 already have been placed in locations such as Louisville; Minneapolis; Charlotte, N.C.; Rochester, N.Y.; Phoenix; Tucson; Houston and Atlanta. According to the U.S. State Department, they are the largest cohesive refugee group presented for resettlement screening since the mid-1990s.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Dadiri Salim, 18, dances while his other Somali Bantu family and friends, left to right, Zainbou Musa, Sowdo Derbane, Raqya Abdul Rahiman and Ralia Derow, sing during a reception for the Somali Bantu families at The First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh in Shadyside.
Click photo for larger image.

All refugees have histories of hardship, but the affliction of the Somali Bantus stretches back more than most -- all the way to the reign of Zanzibar's Arab sultans in the 18th and 19th centuries.

During that period, their tribal ancestors were ripped from their native lands in what are now Tanzania and Mozambique by Arab traders who transported them to Somalia. Some were used as slaves, others were closer to indentured servants.

For 200 years their descendants remained there on the bottom rung, set apart by cultural and physical differences (other Somalis are taller and lighter-skinned), relegated to the most menial work, barred from school, land ownership, political participation and intermarriage.

Ibrahim Muya, 28, now resides with his wife, Raqya Abdul Rahiman, and their three small children in a one-bedroom apartment next door to Mohamed. He said life in Somalia was always harsh, with families working sunrise to sunset to raise corn, bananas, mangos and other crops.

"We were allowed one or two sheep for milk but were not allowed to own cattle," he said. "When we went to sell our harvest, we got a lower rate or it was just taken from us."

Then, in 1991, civil war broke out, driving thousands of Somali Bantus from their huts, one step ahead of marauding clan militias who stole their harvests, destroyed their villages and slaughtered heads of families.

"First they killed the elders to scare us, then they killed the stronger men and raped the women," said Mohamed's mother, Ralia Derow, 44, a widow with four other children.

"They killed my husband, mother and father in front of my eyes," she said, running a finger across her neck to indicate throat-slashing. "They just left the dead bodies lying there."

Mohamed said the clansmen beat his sister, Sowdo, who was a small child at the time. Then they broke his leg with a rifle butt. "I was lying there bleeding and screaming," he recalls. "They sat down in our house and made themselves tea."

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Four-year-old Fatima Madey, left, shares a meal of cornmeal, beef and vegetables with her mother, Ralia Derow, at their home in Lawrenceville.
Click photo for larger image.

The family fled, joining a mass exodus. They kept on walking until they got to the Dadaab refugee camp, just over the border in Kenya, where they were abused further by other Somali clans displaced by the war. There they languished for a decade.

On occasion, the men would slip out and make their way to Nairobi or Dar es Salaam, where they'd earn low wages washing cars or carrying heavy loads on their backs. Women stayed in the camps, spending much of their time in search of firewood for cooking subsistence rations. Rape was an ever-present threat.

"Life in the camps was much harder without a husband," said Ralia. "There was no work. The monthly rations were very little, and the black market prices were very high."

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees first sought to repatriate the Somali Bantus to their ancestral homes, but the modern-day descendants had no connection with Mozambique or Tanzania and those countries reneged on promises to take them.

That's when the U.S. State Department stepped in. The Bantus were moved from Dadaab to Kakuma refugee camp for immigration screening in the summer of 2002. A year later, the resettlement began.

For the most part, it's gone smoothly. Two towns -- Holyoke, Mass., and Cayce, S.C. -- rejected the Bantus before they arrived, in part out of fear of overtaxing their resources. But in both cases, neighboring towns stepped in right away.

Living in the city

The new arrivals to Pittsburgh will be placed in the city, not the Prospect Park apartment complex in Baldwin-Whitehall, home to previous influxes of refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Liberia and the former Yugoslavia.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Teacher Art Powell, right, and fourth-grader Miguel Tucker watch as Hussain Derbane, 8, center, establishes a rhythm during drumming class at Miller Elementary School in the Hill District. Hussain, a Somali Bantu refugee, and his family arrived in Pittsburgh in late February.
Click photo for larger image.

That is by design, said Sister Pat Cairns, executive director of Catholic Charities.

"We want to diversify," she said. "In fact we have been encouraged to do so" by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"It's hard on a community to absorb all the linguistic and cultural particularities. This is a way to disperse the load, by having various communities absorb them and their needs."

Housing is always the most immediate need of refugees. The Somali Bantus are being sent to cities and towns in "clusters," or extended family groupings that replicate the way they have always lived. The State Department's refugee office is hoping that families can be housed in close proximity, but it's not always possible; that's why they're resettling the refugees in a lot of smaller cities like Pittsburgh where people can get from one neighborhood to another without too much trouble.

At least 50 Bantus will be placed near one another on the North Side, in an apartment building that Catholic Charities is renovating. The organization bought the building in 2002. Work on the 12 units is scheduled to be completed in the next few months. Cairns said rent will be $450 a month for a three-bedroom apartment.

The language barrier is another difficulty.

"We have some staff who speak Swahili, but not Maay Maay," said Harvey. "We are still checking at the universities, but it's highly unlikely we'll find anyone."

Fortunately, English lessons are plentiful. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit provides free daily English classes for students from all over the world. Mohamed Derbane and his sister, Sowdo, have been attending Uptown classes regularly. Mohamed already has moved to a higher level; Sowdo (age 18 on paper but 14 by her mother's count), did so well that she now goes to middle school at Frick International Studies Academy in Oakland.

Three of the younger children ride the school bus each day to Miller Elementary, the school district's African-centered academy in the Hill District.

Dunya Derbane, 6, her brother Hussain, 8, and their neighbor, Mohamed Muya, 6, all share a separate classroom with their own teacher, Leonora Kiuuva, a native of West Kenya hired by the district just for them. They join the other children for music, art and gym.

"Our students have really embraced them," said Miller principal Rosemary Moriarty. "What they're coming from is almost a mirror of what our ancestors lived."

On a recent morning, the three Bantu children sat together at a table, dressed in the school uniform -- navy blue or khaki pants, blue, yellow or white shirts. They looked like any other children working puzzles and coloring pictures. Only their pronunciation gave them away as they repeated English words and sang with enthusiasm, "Now I know my ABC!"

"They're following along well," said music teacher Art Powell, after each child had been chosen by a classmate to join a conga line.

"It's still a bit of a wonder to them."

The same can be said of the adults.

"I saw many killed in front of me, many blood," said Ibrahim Moya. "Now I think I'm in a new life."

(Sally Kalson can be reached at 412-263-1610 or


Post a Comment

<< Home