The largest single group of refugees to be resettled in the United States in recent years is the Somali Bantus. These Bantu refugees began arriving a year ago, and by the end of 2005 more than 12,000 will have begun a new life in communities throughout the United States. Today on New American Voices you’ll meet Abdullahi Abdullahi, himself a Somali Bantu, who helps newcomers from his native land deal with the initial strains of resettlement in America.
The Somali Bantus, brought to Somalia from Tanzania and Mozambique as slaves two hundred years ago, remained a persecuted minority there long after slavery was officially outlawed. They were barred from schools, relegated to farming or menial jobs, and subjected to all kinds of mistreatment. Abdullahi Abdullahi, a gentle, dark-skinned man in his late thirties, is atypical of the Somali Bantus in that he managed to get both an education and a prized white-collar job.
“My father was a policeman, and he felt that the only way we could get out of that miserable situation was to get educated. I used to feel discouraged, because other folks, students, my classmates, they did not like seeing someone from this group getting educated, they call you bad names, but my father used to say, don’t worry about this -- learn, and it will benefit not only you but also your children and grandchildren.”
Mr. Abdullahi went on to study conflict management at the university level, learned English, and found work with the United Nations mission in Somalia. When conditions in the country forced the mission to close in 1996, its workers, including Mr. Abdullahi, were offered asylum in the United States.
“I was lucky, because I could speak English and I had some background of knowledge when I came to this country. But I used to be an assistant lecturer back home, and when I came to this country I changed my career and became an electronic technician, because that was the only way I could get survival [survive]. So instead of getting a master’s degree I preferred first to take a short course, and then I set up my own shop, where I used to repair and build computers and sell them.”
Now, after seven years in the United States, Abdullahi Abdullahi is halfway to completing a masters’ degree in his original field of conflict resolution. He is also the executive director of the Somali Bantu Community, an organization set up to help Somali Bantu newcomers adjust to life in America.
“I felt that there was a need that these refugees, when they come to this country, have an organization or group or association which will help them in getting resettled and provide them with courses in the English language, which is the basic key to life in this country. We also provide them with cultural orientation, because I know a lot of refugees when they end up in this country some of them even commit suicide, because the way they expected life to be is absolutely different. So some sort of counseling, that’s what we do, because leaving them alone might lead to stress and depression.”
In Somalia, the vast majority of Bantus were farmers, or held jobs as servants, porters, or mechanics. Most were illiterate. Before coming to the United States, they spent years in drab, dusty, overcrowded refugee camps in Kenya, where they faced further privation and mistreatment.
Mr. Abdullahi, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and eight children, often meets arriving Somali Bantu refugees at the airport, or visits them at their new homes. He says they are both surprised and thrilled to hear a well-dressed black man speaking their language.
“They were shocked when they see me speaking their language, because they thought I’m an African-American (laughs). When they see me speaking Maay-Maay they are quite shocked, because they never expected someone who belongs to their community living here, educated, and giving them, you know, an opportunity, trying to help. They could not believe this.”
Mr. Abdullahi says, the first question many Somali Bantus ask him is “When can I start working?” In fact, he says, it is their capacity for hard work, and the eagerness with which they take advantage of any educational opportunities, that smooths their transition to life in a society that is for them totally new and strange. Most have never come in contact with electric lights, automobiles, ovens or flushing toilets. But, Mr. Abdullahi says, it is not the gadgets of modernity that impress his countrymen most.
“When they come to this country, they are shocked to see that other Americans, black and white, and they, have the same rights and the same opportunity to benefit from this country. Because they were expecting that when they go to a place, the first priority is for American citizens, black and white. But they realize that when they stand in line, and other Americans will come in line, and they will be asked ‘who’s next’. Because back home it’s who you are, and what tribe you belong to, but here it’s first come, first served, and what knowledge do you have, and what experience. That’s what matters here.”
This American egalitarianism is something that Mr. Abdullahi himself appreciates most about America.
“I have the same equal right as any other person living in this country, no matter what background, color, religion, ethnicity and all that. And I appreciate that whatever I want to do I can do. For instance if I want to further my education, I can do that, if I want to get a better life for my children and my wife, it depends on which life I choose. If I choose a bad life, I will end up in a bad situation. If I choose a good life… So, in other words, in this country what I like is that what ever life you choose, that’s what you will end up with in the future.”