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Last Updated:  Thursday, 13 March, 2003, 15:58 GMT
US accepts Somali Bantus
Somali Bantu refugees who have been treated as slaves for generations are about to begin an exodus to a new life in the United States.
Somali refugee camp
Somalia's wars created a huge refugee problem

The 12,000 refugees - housed in camps in north-eastern Kenya - are the descendants of slaves who arrived from other parts of East Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Four years ago the United States recognised them as a persecuted group eligible for resettlement, and the first batch is about to go there.

Ethnically distinct from Somalis, the Somali Bantu have always been social outcasts.

The lighter-skinned local people rejected the Bantu because of their slave origins, their dark skin and wide features.

Even after they were freed from slavery the Bantu were denied political representation and rights to land ownership.

During the civil war of the 1990s they were disproportionately victims of rapes and killings.

"They have great expectations of their new life," said Melissa Mutuli of the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR.

'Positive attitude'

"Many of them are unfamiliar with Western facilities, even things like refrigerators," she told the BBC.

12,000 refugees
Descended from slaves shipped north by Arabs
Mostly illiterate

"But they have such a positive attitude and great expectations. They will not allow themselves to think of obstacles."

Most of the refugees are illiterate, and special courses have been organised to try to integrate them into the Western way of life.

They made a living as peasant farmers in Somalia, but now divide their days between working the land and sitting in a classroom diligently trying to learn English.

For the last few years they have been living in the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps in neighbouring Kenya, where they went to escape the Somali civil war.

But UN officials say that even in the camps they were treated as second-class citizens by the other Somalis.

Big group

Along with cultural orientation, the refugees are undergoing intensive security and medical screening.

The 11 September attacks in the United States led to long delays in all refugee resettlement programmes, but this now appears to be easing.

The State Department says that the Somali Bantus are one of the biggest refugee groups to receive blanket permission to settle over the last 10 years.

Now that the refugees have been given the go-ahead, up to 50 towns and cities across the United States are preparing to receive them, including Boston, Charlotte (North Carolina), San Diego and Erie (Pennsylvania).

US State Department officials say that by the end of September, 1,500 are expected to be resettled.

Each of the Somali Bantu families will be assigned to a charitable organisation which will help them to build a new life.


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