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|'Here Is Better,' Refugee From Somalia Says Of Salt Lake|
By Elaine Jarvik
Salt Lake, (Desert Morning News) – Downstairs, the clock on the living room wall says 10:30, but that's just wishful thinking. The real time is 4:30 a.m. Downtown, in the Little America Hotel, the guests are still sleeping.
Daud Eftin rises in the dark, does his morning prayers, washes up, puts on his uniform: black pants and vest, a crisp white shirt, a tie. He goes into the shed outside the apartment, gets his bicycle, says goodbye to his mother. Now he is riding swiftly through the apartment complex, his white helmet and the sleeves of his white shirt barely visible against the dark blue sky.
At 18, Eftin is helping to support his parents and six siblings by working at the Little America, where he vacuums the halls and cleans bathrooms.
Hotels and vacuum cleaners and bathrooms were among the long list of things Eftin had never seen before arriving in Salt Lake City last December. Eftin and his family are Somali Bantus. Like other Somali refugees, his family fled his country's civil war 11 years ago. But the Bantus, who were captured as slaves from other parts of Africa and taken to Somalia 200 years go, have long been the most marginalized of all Somalis, discriminated in jobs and formal education. In Somalia they lived in remote rural regions, where even doors were a luxury.
Bantus like Eftin and his family have lived in refugee camps in Kenya for more than a decade, where there was no electricity, no running water, no doorknobs. So the learning curve has been huge for the 100 Bantus who have been relocated to the Salt Lake Valley so far.
But here is Eftin, sitting in the employee break room of Little America on a recent Saturday morning. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a cell phone.
"Probably I was so excited when I got a cell phone the first day," he says.
That's how things are. One day your family leaves a third-world life, boards an airplane, arrives in America, and before you know it you can't imagine your life without text messaging. If you're the mother, you soon long for a washing machine, when before you had never had running water.
In the Little America break room all the other workers are speaking Vietnamese. Eftin sits by himself, a quiet, serious young man waiting for his 6 a.m. shift to begin. Later, after work, he will take TRAX back to where he then bicycles to home.
He lives with his mother and father and six brothers and sisters in an apartment complex of stark two-story townhouses off 500 East in South Salt Lake. His mother, Fatuma Yerow, has decorated her home in the Bantu way, covering the walls with colorful fabric. In a strange country, with limited resources, you have to make do, though; so Eftin's mother has decorated the room with hand-me-down bed sheets, including one featuring Sesame St. characters. The effect — Ernie and Big Bird, plus a string of colored lights — is festive.
Eftin turns 19 in July. But like many refugees from Africa, who arrived without birth certificates, he left his actual age behind when he was relocated to America. Like them, Eftin was randomly assigned the same new date of birth: Jan. 1. Because they rarely have calendars, says Aden Batar, a Somali who is director of immigrant and refugee settlement at Catholic Community Services, the Bantus often will mark their birthday by a season.
It was rainy and hot," a Bantu might say.
By the end of the year, estimates Batar, the Salt Lake Valley will have a total of 225 Somali Bantus.
Eftin learned to read and write in the refugee camps, and before moving to Utah had actually become a teacher himself in the Kakuma Camp in Kenya. Most of the refugees have no jobs in the camps, so the idea of steady work is also something to get used to in America. Eftin's father, Abdullahi Kulo, works at Farmland Industries, one of many sub-Saharans working in the frigid rooms of the meatpacking plant. Like all Somali Bantus, Eftin took the last name of his father's father.
Eftin says he would like to become a doctor some day. In his free time he studies for his high school equivalency exam and, more recently, for his driver's exam. Catholic Community Services is helping him get a car.
"Here is better than Somalia in all the ways," Eftin says about his new life.