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|For Somali Refugees, Dazzling Start to a Safer Life|
Resettlement in America - Indoor plumbing and a night without gunfire
Tuscon, Arizona, Monday, July 21, 2003 (NYTimes) - The white wooden door swung open and the dazed African villagers stepped into their new home. It was a modest apartment with secondhand furniture and a stove in need of repairs.
But to Osman Yarrow, his wife and five children, refugees from Somalia's civil war, it seemed like a place of miracles.
Clean water coursed out of gleaming faucets, an astonishing luxury for a rural family who had spent more than a decade in mud huts without indoor plumbing.
"Red for hot," Yarrow repeated wonderingly as he held his fingers in the steady stream. "Blue for cold."
There were flush toilets instead of pit latrines and beds instead of straw mats. But what Yarrow said he treasured most on his first day in his American home was a sense of security. In Somalia, he said he had witnessed the execution of his father and son by marauding militias. In Kenya, his family had huddled in bleak refugee camps while bullets sang in the night. Here in Tucson, he listened to the squeals of his children and the hum of a contraption called an air conditioner.
"We will sleep without hearing gunshots," he said. "We're finally living in a safe place."
Yarrow, 40, represents the changing face of America's refugees.
Since May, more than 200 members of his tribe, the Somali Bantu, have been flown to 22 cities across the United States, the first wave of one of the government's largest recent refugee resettlement efforts.
By the end of next year, officials plan to resettle nearly 13,000 Bantu, who were enslaved and persecuted for generations in Somalia until civil war scattered them to desolate and violent refugee camps in Kenya in the early 1990's.
Over the past decade, State Department officials have increasingly shifted their focus toward Africa as wars there have displaced millions of people. The end of the Cold War has resulted in a sharp decline in refugees from the former Soviet Union and Vietnam. Africans are among those filling the gap.
State Department statistics show that Africans made up 3 percent of the refugees resettled in the United States in the 1990 fiscal year. By 2001, that figure was nearly 30 percent.
The pace of refugee resettlement has slowed sharply since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Thousands of refugees are awaiting security clearance because they are fleeing countries like Somalia and Sudan, which have been accused of sheltering terrorists. Even so, State Department officials say they hope to resettle more than 1,000 Somali Bantu by Sept. 30.
Families have arrived in Houston; Salt Lake City, Utah; Nashville, Tennessee; St. Louis, Missouri; Rochester, New York; Concord, New Hampshire, and other cities like Tucson, where the cost of living is relatively low and entry-level jobs are available.
For the Bantu, it is a journey in both space and in time. They are members of a tribe that was forcibly transported to Somalia from Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania by Arab slave traders two centuries ago. In Somalia, they were often denied access to education and jobs. Today, they are mostly illiterate and almost untouched by Western life. As refugees, they farmed, cooked, cleaned and labored in construction jobs in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. But most had never flipped a light switch, operated a stove, opened a bank account or flown in an airplane.
Members of the tribe began the long process of adapting to a new culture earlier this year when the International Organization for Migration began familiarizing them with English, American culture and modern appliances while they waited in the Kakuma camp in Kenya.
Yarrow and his family stepped off Delta Flight 3912 to Tucson this month, carrying little more than their dreams. They plunged into a sea of white faces in the airport, past the shops selling Cheez-Its snacks and leopard-print umbrellas and the passers-by who gawked at the colorful Somali dresses of Yarrow's wife and daughters.
They were welcomed by officials from the International Rescue Committee, a New York agency contracted by the government to help refugees adjust to American life. A caseworker who spoke Somali translated while other officials helped the family collect their small bags and drove them to their new home.
It was a 30-minute journey through a dizzyingly unfamiliar landscape. There were paved roads full of hurtling cars instead of dirt paths traversed by donkeys. There were strip malls and billboards instead of anthills and thorn trees.
In the apartment, the Yarrows were introduced to appliances they had never used: a sink, a refrigerator and a stove. After their flight and lessons, they were so exhausted that caseworkers decided to leave explanations about the dishwasher and air conditioner for another day.
But before the refugee officials left, Yarrow reiterated his biggest priority.
"I want to work," he said. "I want to learn English. I want to leave all my problems behind in Kenya."
His enthusiasm was clear, but challenges await him. The Bantu in America are practicing Muslims in a country that has become increasingly ambivalent about Arab and Islamic immigrants.
Yarrow and his family do not speak English and cannot read or write in their own language. They are farmers looking for unskilled jobs in a slow U.S. economy.
Some communities have expressed reluctance to accept the new arrivals. In Cayce, South Carolina, hundreds of people met last month at the City Council to question the decision to resettle refugees there, maintaining that they would strain the city's social service agencies and schools.
State Department officials, who are responsible for refugees, say most communities welcome them. Nationally, these officials say, more than half of refugees find some form of work within six months.
In Tucson, four Somali Bantu adults arrived seven weeks before the Yarrow family. Of those, two have found full-time jobs that pay $6.75 an hour and include health benefits, as housekeepers at a local hotel.
Officials at the International Rescue Committee say such progress is common. From the beginning, instructors prepare refugees with English classes, interview skills and job training, along with lessons about how to shop, where to bank and how the local bus system works.
These lessons are crucial. Refugees in Tucson receive assistance from the U.S. government for four months. After that, they are expected to support themselves. Needy families can continue to receive federal refugee assistance for several months and more from the state after that, but that is discouraged.
"When they realize our support is going to stop, that's when they will feel the pressure," said Miro Marinovich, the Tucson coordinator for the International Rescue Committee.
"But I am very positive about this group," Marinovich said. "Their willingness to learn and their willingness to work: That's what I believe will carry them through."
Abkow Edow and his wife, Madina Idle, who arrived seven weeks before the Yarrows, offer a glimpse of the thrills and frustrations of ordinary life in Tucson. They have opened bank accounts, taken the bus and learned to operate their stove.
They have also learned about the minimum wage and the 40-hour workweek. Edow, who was a truck driver in Somalia, seems poised to get a job as a steward in a hotel. He has two children and a grandson, and all three have fallen in love with strawberry ice cream and American cartoons.
But the family still tiptoes around some of the appliances.
"The oven, we're still afraid of it," said Edow, 55. "We're still afraid of the dishwasher. We have never seen such things in our lives."
Edow said he dreams of owning an auto-repair shop someday. But at night, he still returns, in his dreams, to the violence in Somalia.
Like Yarrow, he said he had seen his father executed. The killer, he said, used a hammer and nails. He buries his head in his hands at the memory.
"We want to move forward," he said. "We want to forget the past." On the day the Yarrow family arrived, Edow was in high spirits. He watched as Yarrow and his wife, Khadija Hussein, practiced using their first can opener on some Campbell's chicken soup and sampled their first taste of blackberry jam on white bread.
Hussein looked at the fruit spread hesitantly. Then she took a bite and smiled.