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Somali Bantus in Georgia - 2003-06-06

English Feature #7-37519 Broadcast June 2, 2003

The processing of refugees hoping to enter the United States slowed significantly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but it continues nevertheless. This summer the first of nearly 12,000 Somali Bantus to be resettled in this country over the next two years will arrive in the southern state of Georgia. Today on New American Voices one of the Somali Bantu refugees already living in Georgia shares her experiences.

Although Dowlay Ahmed Mohamed had a degree in accounting and had been a teacher for twenty years back in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, she found that this counted for very little when she arrived in Atlanta, Georgia in 1992. A kind lady from a resettlement agency took the 40-year-old Somali Bantu refugee under her wing.

“She said, ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to do, Miss Dowlay. First we’re going to put you into an English class, English as a second language.’ And I said, ‘Okay’, but I say, ‘I’m educated, I have a degree, I have my accounting, I have my this and this…’, and she said, ‘Here, you have to start at the beginning.’ And I said, ‘Okay, let me draw a big zero, and start from there!'”

While studying English, Dowlay Mohamed worked as a filing clerk to support herself and her daughter, and also enrolled in a 2-year computer program. Today she lives near Clarkston, a town not far from Atlanta where other Somali Bantus have settled. Thanks to her accounting and computer skills, she found a good job in the balancing and reporting unit of the Department of Motor Vehicles -- where she is also often called upon to serve as a translator for other Somalis. In her free time she is active in the Somali Bantu Community Organization, helping others of her ethnic group adjust to life in America.

“I was their expert, because they say, ‘You have been longer over here.’ So they were calling me, and they say, ‘Dowlay, we have, tomorrow, a family coming in Atlanta, so it’s better if you have time, could you come with us to the airport, so they can see you first, a Somali like them, so they’ll be comfortable.’”

Since the early 1990s, one hundred twenty Somali Bantus –- out of a total of about 300 living in the United States -- have settled in Clarkston, drawn by the existing community and by the employment opportunities. Many of the first refugees were educated, and, after learning the language, adjusted quickly, finding work in government offices or opening businesses. Ms Mohamed says that initially, women like her took the lead in helping new arrivals deal with life in the new American environment by providing support at critical times.

“This was what we were doing. For example, if somebody dies, we have been collecting money and going to the family, and saying ‘Hi’ to them, helping them with what they need, like twenty women going to the house, sometimes thirty. If a child is born then we go give a gift, when the woman needs to have a wedding shower, we will give it, when someone has a wedding – everything. It started like a family, then we changed it to a community organization.”

Clarkston, Georgia, is an ethnically diverse, mostly working-class, town. Eighty-five percent of the population of approximately 7000 is non-white. Ms Mohamed says that at first, this was a big surprise to her.

“First when I was coming to this country I had an idea, or let me say, a picture, saying, ‘Oh, America is only for white people,’ something like that, no black. Then when I came it was different. I found many ladies, many blacks, in the school, many in the classroom, then when I started working, there are white and blacks, but many they are blacks, and they welcomed me like a sister, calling me sister… yeah.”

Two years ago, when her daughter was getting married, Downey Mohamed found that her African-American women friends were very interested in the wedding, and in learning about the Somali Bantu culture, the food, the different customs. So she invited them to the wedding.

“And they respected me, and everybody came that night, enjoying the food, enjoying the dancing, and I had a mediator who explained in English, so that they’re not surprised and say ‘What’s going on over here, we don’t understand.’ But what I don’t forget is how we were like one person. We came together, singing, holding hands, dancing Somali Bantu dances. And to some of them, we offered Somali dress, like African dress, and I say, ‘Tonight, I would like you to look like us, like Somalis. You originally are from Africa, so tonight all of you are welcome to your second home.’ So they are very, very happy. I made a tape, and any time I look back at it I cry for happiness, yes.”

Somali Bantus are the descendents of slaves sold in Somalia two centuries ago. They remained a persecuted minority group. When civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, thousands of Bantus fled to Kenya, where they now live in grim poverty in refugee camps. This will soon change. In 1999 the U.S. government designated them a persecuted class of people who deserve to be resettled in the United States. Many refugee resettlement agencies -- as well as the Somali Bantu Community Organization in Clarkston, Georgia and Dowlay Ahmed Mohamed, are gearing up to help these Somali Bantu refugees deal with the strange new world in which they will find themselves.