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New Program Attempts to Resettle Somali Bantus in US - 2002-08-08


For years the people of Somalia have suffered from a seemingly unending cycle of war and famine. Many Somalis have fled the country seeking a safe haven in refugee camps nearby. Most hope one day to return home but for Somalia's minority Bantu people, going back to a place where they have suffered decades of persecution would not be safe.

Now a new program to resettle some Somali Bantus in the United States is offering them a new hope for the future. Some 12,000 Bantus are preparing to leave refugee camps in Kenya where they have stayed for the past 10 years.

Hawiya Abdi Aden and a small group of Somali Bantus gather outside their tiny huts at the Kakuma camp chatting about what the future may hold.

The lively 37-year-old mother of seven is the image of the Bantu woman - her short frame wrapped in a long, flowing black robe. She said although she has never seen a picture of America, she does have some ideas about what to expect from life there. For one thing, she says jokingly, her time will not be spent searching for firewood in order to be able cook for her family. And for another, she said she intends to learn English because she does not want anyone translating her words. Ms. Aden said she is yearning for life, peace and the chance to finally educate her children.

Settling in the United States will mark the beginning of a new chapter for Ms. Aden and the other Somali Bantus who make the journey.

Brought to Somalia as slaves from their native Tanzania and Mozambique some 100 years ago, the Bantus are regarded as second-class citizens by other Somalis. They have distinct physical, cultural and linguistic differences that also set them apart.

Before Somalia's civil war broke out a decade ago, the Bantus worked as farmers, mainly in the southern Juba River Valley region. But with the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre's regime in 1991, armed groups stole their land, raped their women and chased them into exile in Kenya.

The Bantus had no clan system to protect them. In Somalia, the society is governed by tribes and a person's status is attached to their clan affiliation. But the Bantus are not part of the Somali social system, making them vulnerable for others to seize their property and endanger their lives.

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, said this lack of a protection system even caused problems for the Bantus housed with other Somali refugees in Kenya.

UNHCR spokesman Emmanuel Nyabera said the agency realized that it could not return the Bantus to Somalia when conditions there improved. Instead, they needed to resettle in another country in order for them to be safe.

"Even at the camp level, for example, in schools, I remember one of them telling me their children would not even be allowed to sit on the benches if the other Somalis are standing. So this kind of discrimination made a number of them express a lack of willingness to go back to Somalia even if peace is restored in Somalia," he said.

Mr. Nyabera said the government of Mozambique initially welcomed the Bantus, but they could not be resettled there because it too was recovering from years of conflict. The U.N. refugee agency said the United States then offered to take in the Somali Bantus.

The UNHCR is working together with the International Organization for Migration and the U.S. Immigration Service to process the refugees. The first step, now under way, has involved moving some 12,000 Bantus from Daadab camp, where mainly Somali refugees are housed in Kenya, to Kakuma camp 1,300 kilometers away. There, refugee files will be verified, medical checks made and cultural orientation classes given to the Somali Bantus.

Mohamed Abdiker of the International Organization for Migration said IOM is helping prepare the Somali Bantus for a very different life in America. "We teach them the basic survival skills, for example, housing. They will always be asking which house will I go to, but these are people who have never seen a flush toilet. So you have to have a flush toilet in the classroom to show how it looks like. These are people who have never seen an airplane and how the airplane will be when you check into an airport. These are people who do not have the basic idea of how Western world people live at all. It will be a big challenge," he said.

Abdi Mohamed Direy, in his mid-20s, admits that leaving the refugee camp in Kenya and going to the United States, a third country, will be a challenge for his people. But, he says, it is one that the Somali Bantus are willing to take on because they are a lost people in search of a home.

"We need resettlement in a third country for the lives of our children, also our lives, to learn something. We will help those people in that country. They also will help us. That is what we need," Mr. Direy said.

He said the Somali Bantus want to become good, law-abiding citizens and in the process get the peace they have been searching for years. The mother of seven, Ms. Aden said most Bantus have known nothing but conflict and hatred. She said the wait at Kakuma camp is worth it knowing they will be able to start live afresh somewhere in the United States.

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