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|Somali Bantu Settling In Tucson, Phoenix|
Phoenix, May 23, 2003 (The Arizona Republic) - It was easy to tell the Somali Bantu families apart from the other passengers yesterday at crowded Sky Harbor International Airport.
They were the ones with the tired but happy faces, with the bold letters USRP on their sweatshirts and headscarves provided by the United States Refugee Program.
The two families, 15 people in all including six children and two babies, are among the first Somali Bantus to arrive in the United States after spending more than a decade languishing in refugee camps in Kenya. They left Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, Tuesday.
Another group of Somali refugees has arrived in Tucson, and an additional 40 are still waiting for federal approval for the day they can begin a new life in a different country.
The Tucson office of the International Rescue Committee welcomed six Somali Bantu refugees this week, but the others won't arrive "until the government decides they can," said Fred Klein, director of the Lutheran Social Ministries of the Southwest's refugee program in Tucson.
The new arrivals will be provided with living quarters and assistance in acclimating to Tucson, said Miro Marinovich, the IRC's local coordinator. They also are from a refugee camp in Kenya.
"We always have the same approach," he said. "For every family, we assign a caseworker who either speaks their language or is familiar with their culture. We have someone who provides basic mentoring. We provide a furnished apartment and sign them up for medical coverage, enroll their children in schools, sign them up for food stamps and orient them with Tucson."
Until now, these Somali Bantus were a people without a home or a country, and their arrival in the United States marks the end of a long journey for some of the world's most persecuted and oppressed people. "We are very excited. We are very happy," said the only man among the Phoenix group.
The refugees' arrivals represent the start of a new chapter of adaptation to a world far different and more complicated than their rural existence in Africa, U.S. resettlement officials say. "This group represents the truest of refugees in that they literally had no place to go, and that is why this country has so graciously accepted them," said Craig Thoresen in describing the Phoenix arrivals.
Thoresen is the refugee resettlement director of the Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest. The agency, along with Catholic Social Services, will help resettle the two families who arrived Thursday.
Thoresen was among the 20 people who welcomed the Somali Bantu with flowers and balloons.
"They literally have been languishing for more then 12 years in refugee camps, and before that they were victimized in their adopted Somalia, and so this ends a long journey and struggle for them," Thoresen said.
The welcoming committee included representatives from several groups that will help the Bantu adjust to life in Phoenix, including the Islamic Cultural Center of Tempe, the First Congregational Church of Tempe and the Somali Association of Arizona.
Cultural, linguistic and physical differences distinguish the Somali Bantu from other Somali refugees who have been resettled in the United States, according to researchers Daniel Van Lehman and Omar Eno.
"The culture of subjugation under which most of them lived may present special challenges to their American resettlement case workers," the researchers wrote.
Coming to the valley marks the chance for these two families to end oppression that has lasted for centuries.
The Bantu trace their roots to Mozambique and Tanzania. During the 18th and 19th centuries, their ancestors were enslaved by Arab sultans and taken to Somalia, where for the past 200 years they have been treated as second-class citizens, denied education and allowed to work only as farmers and laborers, refugee resettlement officials said.
In Somalia, they lived mostly along the Juba River "and scratched out a very meager existence in agriculture," Thoresen said. "They lived in huts with no electricity and no running water."
After the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, Somalia plunged into a bloody civil war that divided the country into feuding ethnic clans and fiefdoms. The Bantu were attacked, raped and murdered. Thousands of Somali Bantu, along with other Somalis, fled on foot, mostly to neighboring Kenya. From 1991 to 2002 the Somali Bantu lived in the Dadaab refugee camp, along with other Somali refugees who had been the oppressors of the Bantu, while the United Nations tried to find a home for them.
After the United States agreed to accept them, the Bantu were moved 900 miles from Dadaab to the Kakuma refugee camp, where they lived in wood huts, slept on straw mats and survived on meager rations.
Helping the Somali Bantu adapt to American life will be one of the biggest challenges for American resettlement groups, said Joseph Roberson, immigration and refugee program director for Church World Services in New York. The organization is one of nine national agencies that will be responsible for resettling the Somali Bantu. Many Somali Bantu children have known no other life outside of refugee camps, resettlement officials also point out.
"It's a group that in no way has been exposed to a Western way of life with modern conveniences," Roberson said.
On their flight over, several of the Somali Bantu children got sick and vomited.
"We've never flown on an airplane before, so it was kind of overwhelming," the Somali Bantu man said.
In 1999, the United States agreed to accept 12,000 Somali Bantu after efforts by the United Nations to resettle them in Mozambique and other parts of Africa failed. The process was delayed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent concerns over homeland security, which slowed the resettlement of refugees in the United States to a trickle, according to refugee resettlement officials.
The 12,000 Somali Bantu will be resettled in 50 cities during the next two years.
So far, U.S. immigration officials have approved only 1,200 to come to the United States, and the first 74 Somali Bantu began arriving this week, according to resettlement officials. Some Somali Bantu families are also being resettled in Denver and several other cities.
Arizona is expected to receive between 600 and 800 Somali Bantu during the next two years, said Charles Shipman, the state's refugee resettlement coordinator.
From the airport, the Somali Bantu were taken to their new homes in apartments rented for them by resettlement groups. A meal prepared by resettlement workers also awaited them.
During the next several months, refugee resettlement workers will assist the Bantu with food, clothing, school enrollment, jobs and English lessons.
Citizen writer C.T. Revere contributed to this article.