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.
Bantus taste American life: Somali refugees settle into new land with help from Suwanee family
By MARK BIXLER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/31/04
One night three weeks ago, nine members of a Somali family stepped off an escalator at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and stopped and stared as men and women flitted by in suits and skirts. The two adults and seven children wore white canvas shoes with thin red stripes, navy sweat pants and gray sweat shirts that said “USRP,” gifts in Africa from the United States Refugee Program. About 15 yards away stood Craig and Angie Jones, a Suwanee couple who bore nervous smiles and a crinkly blue plastic bag holding apples, crackers and bananas. They walked toward the escalator moments after Continental Airlines Flight 1151 delivered the Mwechiwa family (pronounced ma-WEE-cha-wa) to Gate D-6. “You’re here,”
Angie said. “Welcome to America!”
Craig and Angie had volunteered through Perimeter Church in Duluth to open their home for a week to one family among 12,000 Somali Bantu refugees the United States is resettling. They knew violence forced thousands of Bantu from Somalia and that many were coming to America with little knowledge of the English language or the modern world. Craig and Angie walked with the family to the baggage claim carousel, led by a caseworker and interpreter from World Relief, a nonprofit agency the federal government pays to resettle people who have fled persecution. Farah, the father, smiled. A white sticker on his sweat shirt gave his name, flight number and destination, along with a phone number in Washington in case he got lost. He picked up two suitcases, which held everything his family owned. Farah’s family had been on the run since 1992, when gunmen killed his brother and seized his house for no other reason than that they were Somali Bantu, part of a group clinging to the lowest rung of that country’s social ladder. “That’s the luggage for a family of nine,” Craig said. “We’d probably take more than that camping.”
Welcome to the suburbs
An hour later, Farah and his family followed Craig and Angie into the couple’s six-bedroom brick house in a subdivision in southern Forsyth County, where homes start at $400,000. Angie suggested they wash their hands before eating. The family followed Angie into a bathroom and saw themselves in the mirror for the first time. Angie showed them how to pump liquid from a clear plastic container of Softsoap Foam Works Berry Cherry soap. “Like this?” Farah said, rubbing his hands
together. “Yes,” Angie said. “Like that.” She walked Farah to one of several inflatable mattresses she and Craig had set up in the basement. She lifted the blanket, crawled underneath and looked up at Farah as if to ask whether he understood.
Angie strode toward the bathroom and curled her finger at one of Farah’s sons, a beaming teenager named Said. She knelt by the tub, turned on the water and showed him how to turn a lever toward red for hot and blue for cold. Angie pulled a lever up, water streamed out of a nozzle high on the tub. Said took two steps back and chuckled in amazement. “I am very excited,” he said. “I am seeing something which I have never seen before.” To shower, Angie said, the first thing you do
is take off your clothes. Said pulled his sweat shirt over his head. “Not now! Not now!” Angie said. They looked at each other and laughed.
The next day, Said and his parents got a crash course in America 101. Linda Doud, a bubbly caseworker assigned to the family, took them to World Relief’s Lawrenceville office. “I’m going to tell you where you are in America. You’re in
Georgia,” she said, pausing for an interpreter. “You are in this county ” it’s like a province ” called Gwinnett. The name of your town is Lawrenceville.” Linda explained that police protect and serve, that electric stoves stay hot after you
turn off the burner, that it’s against the law to drive without a license or insurance. “If you don’t know where you are, you can ask a police officer,” she said. “You can pick up the phone and dial 9 . . .” “911,” Farah said. “Yes,” Linda said. “You call 911 and that will bring the police.” Farah ventured a few more thoughts in English. It turned out he, Said and a 17-year-old son had a decent grasp of the language. Farah had paid for the boys to go to school during his 10 years working in a refugee camp in Kenya for an international aid organization. Farah nodded when Linda said the U.S. government would pay his family’s rent and power bill for three months, as it does for most refugees. Then they would be on their own. He asked when he could start working.
Later, Linda told him Lawrenceville had a fireworks display on July 4 and a fair in the fall and a tree lighting at Christmas. In spring, she said, the Easter Bunny watches children hunt for eggs. What’s an Easter Bunny, Farah wanted to know. “It’s a man dressed up as a rabbit,” the interpreter said. Farah stared out the window. “A man dressed up as a rabbit,” he repeated. “Yes,” Linda said. “Why?” “Just for fun.”
Off to the store
Later, Craig and Angie took the family to Harry’s Farmers Market. A door slid open automatically to usher them in and the family beamed in wonder at a sea of organic raspberries, peeled baby carrots and poblano peppers. “Isn’t this amazing?” Farah marveled, craning his neck right and left. “This isn’t even half the store,” Angie said. She told them each red mango cost 99 cents but that the store sold boxes of nine for $7.43, a better value. “Wonderful! Wonderful!” Farah said. “Where do they come from?” He saw a root that resembled a cassava. “How much?” he said. “Don’t worry how much,” Angie said. “The whole week you’re at our house, don’t worry how much.” “I am very happy today,” Farah said. “What about
His family had eaten donated grain in two desolate refugee camps for the last 12 years, splurging occasionally on camel or goat meat. Angie told him they’d come to the corn in a minute. “I don’t see it,” he said. “They have corn,” she said. “Trust me.” She strode off to pick some vegetables. Farah stood there grinning until Angie came back. “How about an avocado?” she said.
That night, Said had a dream. In it, he was driving a Land Cruiser like the U.N. workers used to drive around the refugee camps. Said had ridden in a vehicle only twice in his 19 years in Africa, but he had ridden in a car six or seven times in less than a week in the United States. That’s what he talked about all the cars and trucks. “In the United States, you have a lot of cars, a lot of buildings, a lot of schools and a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot,” he said. Suddenly it did not seem ridiculous for Said to think about learning to drive or studying to become a doctor.
“The house of Craig and Angie is very beautiful. They have done a very good job finding money,” Farah said. “If you want to be one of the rich people, you have to work very hard. I want to work very hard.”
The lessons kept coming. One day, Craig told Farah they should help Angie and Farah’s wife, Binti Kurehi, prepare lunch. As the men walked into the kitchen to chop vegetables, Farah observed to Craig that men and women are equal in the United States.
His 17-year-old son, Farhan, scrawled “69” between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand to remind himself that Channel 69 on Craig and Angie’s TV was the one he liked Animal Planet. Said accidentally hung up twice the first time he talked on the phone but had no doubt he would master it soon. “I forget Africa,” he said. “I’m in the United States now.”
Both families learned something during those seven days. Craig and Angie knew very little about refugees until their church began urging members to serve others. Angie had been thinking how easy it was to write some charity a check, but she wanted to work directly with someone in need. So on “Compassion in Action” Sunday about a year ago, Angie studied an insert in the church bulletin listing dozens of ways to get involved. She told Craig one of the choices appealed to her: having a refugee family over for lunch. She and Craig worked with World Relief to share a meal with a family from Liberia. That led to a yearlong relationship. Craig just co-signed a car loan with the oldest son. When they heard World Relief was looking for host families for the Somali Bantu, Craig and Angie volunteered. “It was really a step of faith on our part,” Angie said. They worried the refugees might expose their daughters 2-year-old Morgan and 4-year-old Rachael to some unfamiliar parasite.
Angie sent neighbors an e-mail explaining in advance that they should not worry if they saw anyone who looked African using the lawn as a bathroom it happened while some Bantu lived with a family in Chicago. Craig and Angie laughed about
those worries at the end of the week. “It was a life-changing experience,” Angie said. Her daughters and the Somali children could not converse, but they figured out how to play tag and bounce on the inflatable mattresses as if they were trampolines. “People who are so different than me religiously, economically, educationally, culturally ” in many ways they are so much the same,” she said. Farah and his family learned about charity and modern appliances.
Caseworkers expected him to pass on what he has learned ” few Bantu stay with host families in Georgia ” after the Mwechiwas moved into two Lawrenceville apartments that accommodate all nine of them. Farah walked through the family’s new home on moving day, opening drawer after drawer of clothes donated by worshippers at Craig and Angie’s church. “More clothes than I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. His children started school in their second week in the United
Somalis settle into Georgia life
By MARK BIXLER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/17/04
Five months after landing in Atlanta, a Somali family profiled in this section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 31 is working, studying and deciphering everyday life in the modern West.
Members of the Mwechiwa (ma-WEE-cha-wa) family are among 12,000 Somali Bantu who make up the largest group of African refugees the federal government has resettled. Gunmen killed many Bantu and forced thousands from homes in Somalia in the early ’90s. Many Bantu have little familiarity with modern conveniences, such as telephones and gas ovens. Few speak English.<br>
Craig and Angie Jones of Suwanee volunteered through their church to host one Bantu family for one week. Now they visit the Mwechiwas in their Lawrenceville apartment once or twice a week to give lessons in English, driving and household
Farah Mwechiwa, the father, earns $8 an hour in a factory that makes plastic mats. A son and daughter-in-law work with him. “They’re thrilled to have jobs,” Angie Jones said. A teenage son worked there in the summer but quit to attend the
10th grade at Gwinnett Central High School. His brother is a freshman. Their younger siblings are in elementary school.
There are still hurdles in the family’s adjustment. The high-schoolers suffer from a poor education they received in desolate refugee camps. And one family member called Angie Jones recently to say he worried the police would arrest his little sister because she missed the school bus. The Joneses are among five or six families at Perimeter Church working
with Bantu families.
Bantus learn U.S. life: Refugees thankful to have escaped war, atrocities of Somalia, grateful for help adjusting.
Drew Jubera – Staff
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
Today’s life lesson: the microwave oven
Halima Mohamed, 38, has never seen one before. She learned how to use an electric stove only a couple of months ago. But the single mother of six children, all Somali Bantu refugees recently settled into a spare Stone Mountain apartment, learns through an interpreter how to push the donated microwave’s buttons, and that she should never, ever put anything in it that’s made of metal.<p>
Though her first and second husbands were murdered by militias during Somalia’s civil war, Mohamed said, at this moment she couldn’t feel more fortunate.
“We’ve never had this kind of happiness in our lives,” she said, with barefoot children leaping around her. “I’m hoping the kids go to school, learn English, find jobs, and everything will go well.”
Meanwhile, Mohamed Abdi, another Somali Bantu refugee, comes to the Stone Mountain headquarters of World Relief Atlanta for English lessons every morning.
Abdi, 28, landed in Atlanta with his wife and four children in February, after living in a Kenyan refugee camp for 12 years. He quickly found a job with a tire company, and his wife had a baby. Several months later, he was laid off. He gets some financial help through World Relief Atlanta, but it will run out soon. He wonders how he’ll pay rent and support his family. So he attends English classes to improve his chances for another job.
“It’s like a regression,” said Abdi, who told of family members’ being slaughtered in Somalia and displayed a scar on his left thigh where he said he was shot. “I don’t even have a dollar for soap, to wash my kids’ clothes,” he said.
Yet his children are doing well in school, Abdi said, and he remains hopeful about their future.
“I’m lucky,” he said.
Bantus are resilient
As their first Thanksgiving holiday dawns, Mohamed and Abdi are grateful just to be here. Among more than 400 Somali Bantus relocated to Atlanta since February, according to World Relief, they are at different points in a refugee experience that’s often a trying roller coaster ride.
That ride’s unpredictability, common to immigrants from any country, is exasperating for the Somali Bantus. They often lack formal education, work experience, English skills or even familiarity with modern conveniences — many have to be taught upon arrival how to turn an electric light on and off. Many have also suffered unimaginable horrors as a result of Somalia’s war and related chaos.
Some resettlement workers describe these refugees’ emotional journeys as being shaped like a “U.” The experience begins with the euphoria of landing in the United States. That eventually gives way to the hard reality of trying to make it with little education or money. Most eventually will work their way back up to more rounded, if still difficult, new lives.
“At first it’s so exciting; they’ve been waiting 10 years or more for this opportunity,” said Barbara Cocchi, director of the World Relief office in Stone Mountain. “Then slowly reality hits. The longer they’re here, the harder it is. They sink down, hit the bottom of the ‘U’ somewhere around nine months to two years, then finally come back up as they learn to deal with the hardships and obstacles that being a refugee in a strange place throws in front of you.
“Finally you come out on top, feeling you’re successful, seeing your children thriving,” Cocchi continued. “Life is good again. But it is a long, slow process — down one side of the ‘U’ and then back up the other.”
About 9,000 Somali Bantus have resettled in the United States in the past year, with about 3,000 more expected in 2005.
Most of those sent to metro Atlanta live in Lawrenceville, Decatur or Stone Mountain. They are admitted to the United States on humanitarian grounds: Tens of thousands of rural Bantus were killed or displaced by armies, militias or roving bands of thugs after Somalia sank into civil war in 1991.
Many who have arrived in the United States lived in Kenyan refugee camps for more than a decade, living in mud houses without electricity or plumbing. Schooling was scattershot. Work was scarce. Atrocities — both in their homeland and at the hands of gunmen who invaded the refugee camps — were common.<p>
But the Bantus, who have been subjugated by one group or another for centuries, have proved resilient.
“They’ve always managed to survive and keep their families, communities, language and culture intact,” said Daniel Van Lehman, deputy director of the National Somali Bantu Project, a federally funded assistance program based in Portland, Ore. “So we haven’t seen people say they’re defeated. They’ve always been fighters. They’re very adaptable. Once they get a feel for the environment, they take off.”
Van Lehman said some Somali Bantus are already entering a new phase in adapting to American life, migrating from the cities where they arrived from Africa to cities where they’ve heard there are more jobs.
“There’s a lot of family reunification going on, and they’re hearing about jobs out there,” Van Lehman said. “A lot of young men are going off looking for work while the parents and sisters stay behind to see if they find it.”
Yussuf Mganga, 24, could be considered at a kind of midpoint in the refugee experience. He found a job as a welder in June, and less than three weeks ago his wife gave birth to their second child. He is able to pay his bills — after 14 years in a refugee camp, he’s had to learn how to do that — but says he has nothing left at the end of each month.
Mganga wants to open a savings account, as he has been advised to do, but he has no money to spare; everything goes for basic necessities. He hopes his wife will be able to work soon.
His sister also lives in his two-bedroom apartment in Stone Mountain, and his wife’s parents recently arrived from Africa. They’ve been resettled in Lawrenceville. Mganga and his family can’t get there by bus, so he and his wife have to take a taxi there for visits.
It’s a struggle. But Mganga, like Halima Mohamed and Mohamed Abdi, appears willing to deal with whatever is necessary to make life in America work. He said he thinks about Africa only when he is alone, and he is brought to tears by memories of friends and family members being tortured, raped or killed, or waking up in his village one morning to find it covered with blood.
“I tell myself, ‘Yussuf, you are a man, you’ll make it.’ I know it is a scary life, but I can keep myself strong.
“Although I didn’t get enough education, I’m sure these two will get enough,” he said, nodding toward his children.
‘I give thanks for this’
These refugees don’t need Thanksgiving to be reminded to give thanks. Abdi was so grateful for the help he got from his caseworker at World Relief that he named his newborn son after him. Mohamed has been moved to tears by the aid she has
received here, including medication for her epileptic son.
“One day I cried because I don’t speak English,” she said. “People in the government and [World Relief] are helping me, giving us food, a house. They come and talk and I don’t understand. I cry because I feel so bad that I can’t understand
them. I’m so happy.”
Mganga, meanwhile, is simply grateful his children will have a better life than he has had, without the painful memories he has of his homeland.
“We were dreaming of coming to the United States, and it was our luck to get this opportunity to come,” he said.
“I give thanks for this.”
Rain in a Dry Land
Check out this documentary that followed some our clients and caseworkers when two Somali Bantu families first came to Atlanta:
RAIN IN A DRY LAND