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Last Updated: Friday, 13 August, 2004, 07:58 GMT 08:58 UK
New life in US for Somali Bantus
By Leslie Goffe
BBC correspondent in New York

It has been a year since Muya Malande and hundreds of other Somali Bantu left refugee camps in Africa to begin new lives in America.

Muya Malande's family
Muya Malande's family were among the first Bantus to arrive in the US
Identified by the US government as suffering a persistent pattern of physical abuse and racial discrimination at the hands of lighter skinned Somalis, Somali Bantus, whose ancestors were kidnapped and brought to northern Africa as slaves from southern Africa 200 years ago, have been given a fresh start abroad.

In all more than 12,000 will leave refugee camps in Kenya where they found safe haven after fleeing tribal war and persecution in Somalia for American cities over the next year and a half.

It is the largest number of refugees from Africa allowed to settle in the United States.

"The life here is good, good," exclaims Muya Malande, 31, who along with his wife, his daughter and three sons, now calls a three-bedroom apartment in the city of Buffalo, in western New York state, home.

"The Somalis used to assault us," explains Mr Malande who learned his English working for the relief agencies in the refugee camps.

"They treat us badly, kill my brothers, rape, take our things, treat us like slaves."


That is all behind them now. On arrival in the United States each of the Somali Bantu families are assigned to a charitable organisation that helps them with housing, schooling, jobs, and other needs.

All the same, adjustment has not been easy.

Muya Malande's family
The family also have to come to terms with American weather
Poor farmers from isolated areas of Somalia, few of them had ever watched a television, talked on a telephone, driven in a car or used a flush toilet.

Though many are keen to work, they can not do so until they learn some English and to read and write.

In the meantime, charities provide food, clothing, furniture and the first few month's rent. The government expects them to become self-supporting soon.

"I don't worry about this group," says Mitch Cummings, the re-settlement worker who met the first group of Somali Bantus that arrived in Buffalo last July.

"What they went through in Somalia, where they were the lowest of the low, was so terrible that life in America, even with difficulties, is so much easier. They are the kind of immigrants, no matter what their colour, to whom there are no obstacles."


That is not entirely true. Though not nearly as bad as the everyday humiliation and ill treatment they say they suffered at the hands of other Somalis back home - because of their dark skin and slave ancestry, the Somali Bantu in the US have not managed to avoid discrimination, altogether.

Plans to settle some Bantu in the small town of Holyoke, Massachusetts in north-eastern United States was so fiercely opposed by whites there that re-settlement agencies changed their minds about sending the Bantus there.

Cayce, a town in South Carolina in the American South also put up a fight.

"We don't feel," said a city official, "we should be the dumping ground."

Somali Bantus
12,000 refugees
Descended from slaves shipped north by Arabs
Mostly illiterate
Majority still in Kenya
They were sent instead - 50 people in 10 families - to Columbia, South Carolina's capital city.

The reception there was much warmer.

Locals who had heard of the refugee's story of ill treatment in Somalia and ill treatment in America, embraced them, stopping them in the streets to give them gifts.

"Columbia is the only community that really welcomed them," explains Garane Garane, a Somali-born professor at a local university, who was employed by a re-settlement agency to help them adjust and translate for the 50 Bantus who arrived there in February 2004.

Another 120 are set to arrive before the end of the year.

"People expected a racial backlash because of the history of this state with slavery and racism, but that didn't happen," says Mr Garene.


It happened in Buffalo, though, where Muya Malande and his family settled.

"We can't afford to have a concentration of people who don't speak English, who don't know our culture and who need handouts," said white community leader, John Lombardo. "Buffalo is having tough times of its own."

Apart from confronting racism, the Somali Bantu face many other challenges, big and small, among them learning English and getting jobs.

The signs are they will be alright. Many of their children are already mastering English and doing well in school.

Already knowing English Mr Malande had hoped to go to college immediately, but his educational qualifications were not recognised in the US and he has not been able to get work.

"I am sorry for my job," says Mr Malande, "but I like it here and things will be good."

He has now begun studying to become a nurse's aide.

Most of those who've encountered the Somali Bantu refugees in America have been amazed at how little damaged they are by their past and how determined they appear to adjust to their new home in America.

"I was surprised that they were not, after 10 years in the camp, a broken people," says Mr Garane.

"It didn't damage them. They are ready to work, ready to learn. I believe in 10 years their children will be at a high level in this country."

Have you any first hand experiences of how the Bantus are settling in?

This debate is now closed. Thank you for your comments.

The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received so far:

I have had the good fortune to meet some of the families who have found a welcoming home in Buffalo. They are an extremely positive and hard working group, who I hope will thrive in the US. Although they have recieved a substantial amount of support from the community at large, I fear that the areas they have been designated to settle into will afford them very few opportunities. Some of the children are already stuggling and disheartend with their experiances at school as most had never seen a book in their lives.The Bantu have been scarred by their past and do need additional financial and academic support from the U.S. aid agencies to ensure a smooth transition into our society. I feel that this group is at a complete disadvantage from a social and racial perspective and yet the aid they have recieved has been a drop in the bucket compared to the more fortunate Russian Jews had recieved. If the U.S. has made this bold step of accepting them they should be placed in a! reas where their children can live in a safe environment with access to good schools. Placing the Bantus in the crime and drug infested Buffalo West side is not ensuring a bright future for these wounderful people.
Shaheen Hassanali, Buffalo, New York

I am working with Somali Bantus in Columbus OH and I am amazed by the resilience, courage and humanity of these immigrants. As a Somali I feel for them and am ashamed how these people were treated in their home country. It's mind baffling! I went to see three Somali Bantus this morning because we have job leads for them. I visited each of their houses. All of them were listening to Somali music and they were talking about home. We had a laugh...and for a moment I was sad we all had to leave our homeland. But these guys will do well here in America. They speak English and they work very hard. Columbus OH has been very hospitable and kind towards All Somali refugees. There are challenges ahead of them...but their determination to succeed is clear. It shows in their eyes and I am looking forward to see them on Monday afternoon.
Hussein, Columbus OH

Buffalo has a large refugee population and there are many people and organisations that are very generous in time and resources when it comes to helping the newest "Buffalonians." In no way have these newcomers hurt our city. Not everyone in Buffalo has an attitude as unwelcoming as Mr Lombardo. Everywhere, one will find people who aren't willing to share what they have and learn from others. Hopefully, some of those people have read this article and will open their eyes.
Tonya, Buffalo, NY USA

We have had a large Somali community in Ottawa for years. Canada has opened its doors to Somali refugees for roughly ten years. They are now part of our community and while they still face certain degrees of racism and the challenge of poverty and learning a new culture, I hope that they have found a home in Canada.
Sarah Hirst, Ottawa Canada

I live in the twin cities (Minneapolis and St Paul) where we have the largest population of Somalis in America. These people do face discrimination here, not just for being Somali or for being Muslim but for getting what people see as a free ride. Many people are ignorant about what these immigrants faced in their home countries and what they face here. Many locals think that everything for these new immigrants is paid for by the government and since they think this they feel that money should go towards people already living in America. Despite discrimination many Somali businesses have opened up in Minneapolis most of them catering to the 40,000 plus Somali population. Many of the Somalis now living in Minneapolis have moved from other states where they were originally settled by the government. It will be interesting to see if a number of Somalis from the new arrivals also move here to be a part of the largest Somali community outside of Africa.
Ben, St Paul, Minnesota, US

I work for one of the many organisations that support the Bantus in a long chain from Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya to their new home in the States. It's great to hear things are working out well! This tallies with what we hear at this end.
Colin Greenwood, Nairobi, Kenya

My experience with the Somali Bantus is not that much different at my experience with the other Somali immigrants in Minnesota, I have seen hard working people who facing the same problem that other Somalis are encountering, jobs, schools and housing problems, in addition of helping themselves here they have other tasks like helping their loved ones back home, so I have seen many of them wiring money to Jilib, Kamsuma, Jamame, and Kismayo in Somalia and Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
Mohamed Nuur, Minnesota, USA

I don't have any firsthand experience of the Bantus, but it boggles my mind that immigration officials would even think to put them in Buffalo. The whole great lakes area is in the midst of a very bad economic time - anyone with a bit of sense would see that any "outsider" group would meet with resentment there.
James, Washington, DC, USA

I am a teacher here in Charlotte and I will have two Bantu students in my class this year. I met one of them, a little girl named Famatu for the first time today. She and her mother spoke little English, but she held my hand and stood close to me while a group of other teachers, new Bantu students and Bantu parents spoke through an interpreter. Her mother seemed very happy and excited that she was so comfortable with me. The interpreter shared with us that the parents were very excited that the children were getting the opportunity to receive an education. We are excited to be working with them.
Heather O., Charlotte, NC, USA

My name is Peter Dut Angon. I lived with Somalis Bantus in Kakuma Refugee Camp for four years before I come to Arizona in 2001. I witnessed their sufferings when I was there with them. Some families resettled in Arizona were warmly welcomed and are doing very well with their new life. They are hard working people both men and women alike. Only the lack of language puts them behind. Language is the power to everything. Take me for example, I almost completed my Kenya Certificate for Secondary Education in 2001, but I left before the end of 2001. When I came to Arizona, people here understood me better for I had enough language to communicate with them. I told them what my needs were and that one of them was education. The Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church offered me a scholarship to Grand Canyon University. Now I am a junior this year.
Peter Dut Angon, Sudanese/ USA

US accepts Somali Bantus
13 Mar 03  |  Africa

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