Somali Bantu Articles
Bantu refugees take in complexities of American life
By MARK BIXLER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/31/04
The wonders of the grocery store revealed themselves to the members of the Mwechiwa family on their fourth day in the United States, row after opulent row of kumquats and apricots and amberjack and halibut.
Bridging differences in background, Rachael Jones (left) of Suwanee and Hawa Mwechiwa, a Somali Bantu.
“I have never seen a store like this,” said Farah Mwechiwa (ma-WEE-cha-wa), the father. “Isn’t it amazing?”
His family is among 12,000 refugees known as the Somali Bantu that the federal government is resettling in metro Atlanta and around the country over a two-year period. Most have never ridden in a car, flushed a toilet or flicked on electric lights.
The Bantu make up the largest group of African refugees ever resettled in the United States and highlight a gradual shift in refugee admissions: Fewer refugees arrive from flash points of the Cold War, such as Cuba, the former Soviet Union and Vietnam, while a growing number receive shelter in this country from war and chronic disaster in Africa.
The United States is opening its doors to the Bantu on humanitarian grounds ” gunmen killed or displaced thousands of Bantu in rural Somalia after that country dissolved into civil war in 1991.
The State Department, which runs the nation’s refugee resettlement program, says Somali Bantu account for 10,000 of the 50,000 refugees it plans to admit this year. Refugees from all African countries account for half the total scheduled for resettlement this year, compared with 10 percent resettled two years ago.
Opposition derailed plans to place Bantu in towns in Massachusetts and South Carolina, and anxiety in metro Atlanta led to a town hall meeting in Clarkston last year. Some worried that their unfamiliarity with the English language and modern life would strain resources. But caseworkers in metro Atlanta and cities such as Boise, Idaho, and Utica, N.Y., said the Somali Bantu have tended to adapt well.
“They’re acclimating much quicker than what could have been,” said David Redd, a case manager at World Relief, a metro Atlanta agency that resettles refugees. He visited the Bantu in a Kenyan refugee camp last year and works with several families in Georgia. “They’re really showing a strong sense of helping each other.”
The first Bantu arrived in metro Atlanta last month. The federal government has talked about resettling about 800 in Georgia, in and near cities such as Decatur, Lawrenceville and Stone Mountain, but the exact number is uncertain.
Caseworkers have been surprised by the number of Bantu who speak at least some English, Redd said. Other caseworkers said the Bantu are not homogeneous, making generalizations tricky. Members of one family in metro Atlanta would not so much as open an envelope without their caseworker’s permission, while those in another family found their own way to the grocery store. Another Bantu refugee stepped off the plane asking about satellite dishes ” he did not know what they were but had been told to try to get one when he got to America.
One thing many Somali Bantu have in common is a story similar to Mwechiwa’s. He said five gunmen came to his home in 1992 and told him they were there to take his house.
“They told me, ‘This is not your land. You are Somali Bantu,’ ” he said. “I was born in that house.”
The gunmen stole bags of corn and ordered him and a 25-year-old brother to haul the sacks for them. Mwechiwa said they shot his brother in the chest after he refused.
“He fell to the ground and said, ‘Water. Water.’ Then he did not say anything.”
Mwechiwa ran to a nearby house, where his children were spending the day with grandparents. He and his family walked west for three days. They spent the next 10 years in a refugee camp in Kenya so desolate and dangerous that U.S. immigration officials declined to visit ” they said it was too close to the anarchy of Somalia, a possible breeding ground for terrorists. So thousands of Bantu were bused 600 miles, to a refugee camp on the other side of Kenya, before authorities screened them for admission as refugees to the United States.
Continental Airlines Flight 1151 brought the family ” the parents and seven children ” to Atlanta at 5:45 p.m. March 11.
They learned that an American couple, Craig and Angie Jones of Suwanee, had volunteered to let them stay in their house for one week. So a refugee family that had lived in a mud hut for a dozen years found itself an hour after landing in Atlanta in a six-bedroom brick house on the top of a hill in southern Forsyth County.
Over the next seven days, members of the Mwechiwa family rode a swing set for the first time and practiced with running water and electric stoves, important household lessons as the children got ready for school and dad started looking for a job.
Those seven days also included the family’s first trip to an American grocery store, Harry’s Farmers Market.
Farah Mwechiwa and his family strolled through in dizzy marvel, thrilled but overwhelmed by the choices.
“Today I am very, very happy,” he said.