March 10, 2003
Africa's Lost Tribe Discovers American Way
By RACHEL L. SWARNS
AKUMA, Kenya — The engines rumbled and the red sand swirled as the cargo plane roared onto the dirt airstrip. One by one, the dazed and impoverished refugees climbed from the belly of the plane into this desolate wind-swept camp.
They are members of Africa's lost tribe, the Somali Bantu, who were stolen from the shores of Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania and carried on Arab slave ships to Somalia two centuries ago. They were enslaved and persecuted until Somalia's civil war scattered them to refugee camps in the 1990's.
Yet on this recent day, the Bantu people were rejoicing as they stepped from the plane into the blinding sun. They were the last members of the tribe to be transferred from a violent camp near the Somali border to this dusty place just south of Sudan. They knew their first trip in a flying machine was a harbinger of miracles to come.
Over the next two years, nearly all of the Somali Bantu refugees in Kenya — about 12,000 people — are to be flown to the United States. This is one of the largest refugee groups to receive blanket permission for resettlement since the mid-1990's, State Department officials say.
The refugees will be interviewed by American immigration officials in this camp, which is less violent than the camp near Somalia. The interview process has been slowed by security concerns in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Despite the repeated delays, the preparations for the extraordinary journey are already under way.
Every morning, dozens of peasant farmers take their seats in classrooms in a simple one-story building with a metal roof. They study English, hold their first notebooks and pens, and struggle to learn about the place called America. It is an enormous task.
The Bantu, who were often denied access to education and jobs in Somalia, are mostly illiterate and almost completely untouched by modern life. They measure time by watching the sun rise and fall over their green fields and mud huts.
As refugees, they have worked the soil, cooked, cleaned and labored in backbreaking construction jobs, filling about 90 percent of the unskilled jobs in the camp in Dadaab, Kenya, where most Bantu people lived until they were transferred here last year. But most have never turned on a light switch, flushed a toilet or held a lease.
So the students here study in a classroom equipped with all the trappings of modern American life, including a gleaming refrigerator, a sink, a toilet and a bathtub. They are learning about paper towels and toilet cleanser and peanut butter and ice trays, along with English and American culture.
Refugee officials here fear that the Bantu's battle to adjust to a high-tech world will only be complicated by American ambivalence about immigrants since the terrorist attacks in the United States.
The Bantu are practicing Muslims. Women cover their hair with brightly colored scarves. Families pray five times a day. In Somalia, they were in a predominantly Muslim country often described as a breeding ground for terrorists.
The American government requires refugees from such hot spots to undergo a new series of security clearances before they can be resettled in the United States. The new system has delayed the arrival of thousands of refugees, leaving them to languish in camps where children often die of malnutrition.
But most people here are willing to do what it takes to live in a country that outlaws discrimination. While they wait, they learn about leases and the separation between church and state, and they practice their limited English.
About 700 Bantu have gone through this cultural orientation. By the end of September, State Department officials say, 1,500 are expected to be resettled in about 50 American cities and towns, including Boston; Charlotte, N.C.; San Diego; and Erie, Pa.
In America, the refugees tell each other, the Bantu will be considered human beings, not slaves, for the first time.
"It's scary," said Haw Abass Aden, a peasant farmer still trembling as she stepped off her first flight through the clouds. She clung tightly to a kerosene lamp with one hand and her little girl with the other. But she regained her composure as she considered her future.
"We are coming here to be resettled in the United States," said Ms. Aden, 20, speaking through a translator. "There, we will find peace and freedom."
After centuries of suffering, they are praying that America will be the place where they will finally belong. The United Nations has been trying to find a home for the Bantu for more than a decade because it is painfully clear they cannot return to Somalia.
In Somalia, the lighter-skinned majority rejected the Bantu, for their slave origins and dark skin and wide features. Even after they were freed from bondage, the Bantu were denied meaningful political representation and rights to land ownership. During the Somali civil war, they were disproportionately victims of rapes and killings.
The discrimination and violence continues in the barren camps today — even here — where the Bantu are often attacked and dismissed as Mushungulis, which means slave people.
But finding a new home for the Bantu refugees here has not been easy. First Tanzania and then Mozambique, the Bantu's ancestral homelands, agreed to take the tribe. Both impoverished countries ultimately reneged, saying they could not afford to resettle the group.
In 1999, the United States determined that the Somali Bantu tribe was a persecuted group eligible for resettlement. The number of African refugees approved for admission in the United States surged from 3,318 in 1990 to 20,084 a decade later as the cold war ended and American officials focused on assisting refugees beyond those fleeing Communist countries.
"I don't think Somalia is my country because we Somali Bantus have seen our people treated like donkeys there," said Fatuma Abdekadir, 20, who was waiting for her class to start. "I think my country is where I am going.
"There, there is peace. Nobody can treat you badly. Nobody can come into your house and beat you."
The refugees watch snippets of American life on videos in class, and they marvel at the images of supermarkets filled with peppers and tomatoes and of tall buildings that reach for the clouds. But they know little about racism, poverty, the bone-chilling cold or the cities that will be chosen for them by refugee resettlement agencies.
What they know is this flat, parched corner of Africa, a place of thorn trees and numbing hunger where water comes from wells when it comes at all — a place of fierce heat and wind that whips the sand into biting and blinding storms.
In the classes, the teachers try to prepare the Bantu for a modern world. Issack Adan carefully guides his students through the lessons, taking questions from older men with graying beards, teenage girls with ballpoint pens tucked into their head scarves and young mothers with babies tied to their backs.
The lesson of the day: a white flush toilet. "Come close, come close," Mr. Adan said as the women approached the strange object doubtfully. "Mothers, you sit on it, you don't stand on it."
The women nodded, although they seemed uncertain. Mr. Adan showed them how to flush the toilet and how to clean it. "You wash with this thing and you will have a good smell," he said.
"A very nice smell," the students agreed.
Then Abubakar Saidali, a 30-year-old student, looked closely at the odd contraption and asked, "But where does that water go?" For an answer, Mr. Adan took the refugees outside to show them the pipes that carry the sewage.
Back in the classroom, the students spent the next few hours learning about the refrigerator, ice cubes and strawberry jam. They watched eagerly as Mr. Adan washed dishes in a sink and admired the bathtub and shower. One woman demurred, however, when he invited her to step into the tub.
"It is so clean," she said shyly. "Can I really step in it?"
Some students grumbled that the American appliances seemed more complicated than their ordinary ways of living. Why worry about cleaning a toilet, some refugees said aloud, when the bushes never need to be cleaned?
But Mr. Saidali said he was thrilled to learn about modern toilets after years of relying on smelly pit latrines.
"This latrine is inside the house," marveled Mr. Saidali, a lean man in tattered sneakers. "It's better than what we are now using. It has a seat for sitting and the water goes down.
"Even this sink — it's my first time," he said. "This sink is for washing. It cleans things very nicely."
Even with the lessons, some Bantu are worried about how they will cope in America. They know that blacks and Muslims are minorities there. Will Americans be welcoming? Will they learn English quickly enough? Will they find jobs and housing and friends? Some officials here worry, too.
"These people are from rural areas," Mr. Adan said. "They don't know much about modern life."
But the refugees who arrived on the plane here said they were eager for the challenge.
Uncertain of what might be needed in the United States, they carried most of their precious possessions — broken brooms, chipped mugs, metal plates — as they boarded a rattling bus that roared deep into the camp as the sun sank beyond the horizon.
The refugees knew they would be sleeping on the ground again and going hungry as they have often done. But they also knew that this was only the first phase of an incredible journey.
First stop, Kakuma. Next stop, America.
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