Relaymedia

First Somali Bantu Refugee Families Arrive In U.S.

Jun 05, 2003 02:08 PM EDT

DENVER, CO & PHOENIX, AZ -- Two of the first families of Somali Bantu refugees being resettled in the U.S. by global humanitarian agency Church World Service (CWS) arrived safely last Thursday (5/22) in Denver and Phoenix. The families are the first of more than 900 to be resettled by Church World Service and among the first of 12,000 total the U.S. has committed to bring into the country over the next two years.

The two families are part of a first wave of 74 refugees who left Nairobi, Kenya, last week for their respective U.S. cities. The U.S. commitment to the Somali Bantu's plight follows tightened post-9/11 domestic security, in which U.S. refugee admissions dropped from 85,000 in 1999 to 27,000 for 2002.

"The U.S. State Department is working very hard to admit 3,000 Somali Bantu by September 30 of this year," says CWS Executive Director John L. McCullough. "That means the government will have to admit an additional 9,000 between October and the end of September 2004 to meet the 12,000 goal.

"We are totally supporting the U.S. to fulfill that goal, " McCullough adds.

McCullough expresses great enthusiasm for the Bantu's resettlement. "Church World Service is honored to be a part of literally helping the better part of a group or tribe of people step out of generations of slavery, oppression and discrimination.

"The Bantu represent one of the most under-served peoples on earth," he notes, "They've been historically denied access to education, land or home ownership, and acceptance as equals due to their heritage and physical differences."

McCullough further called for advocacy and continued "strong support of the U.S. government to keep its promises and once again expand its acceptance of refugees and asylum seekers."

In addition to resettling refugees, CWS administers the offices for refugee processing programs in Nairobi, Kenya, and Accra, Ghana, through an agreement with the U.S. Department of State and assisted in pre-screening and preparing the Bantu refugee candidates prior to their final immigration processing.

In Phoenix, Craig Thoresen, Director of the CWS affiliate in Phoenix, Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest (LSMS), reflected on seeing "his" family of Somali Bantu arrive.

"This was a very special moment for me," Thoresen says. "I had seen them in Kakuma. I met the Somali Bantu when I traveled with CWS to Kakuma Camp. That was about nine months ago.

"Between then and now, there have been lots of frustrations and rumors, hard work and waiting on all sides," Thoresen reflects. "Seeing this family walking up the airport concourse was a sweet completion, a happy conclusion."

LSMS facilitated a strong community interfaith welcoming group for the Phoenix Bantu family's resettlement, including the city's new Somali Association and the refugees' host churches in Phoenix, the Congregational Church of Tempe and The Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque of Tempe.

Arriving in Denver, one Somali Bantu family of five was greeted by representatives from Church World Service, CWS partner agency Ecumenical Refugee Services of Denver and an ERS interpreter, and St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Church, co-sponsors for the family.

Sharif Amin, a Somali refugee and a caseworker at the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center and Board of Directors Member of the Denver Somali Association, also welcomed Denver's Somali Bantu family.

Amin said the Bantu believe they've been one of the most oppressed groups. But Amin notes, "We're all one in the U.S. I myself belong to a minority community within the Somali people.

"I don't think the clan differences will be repeated here," he noted. "The Somali community has collected clothes, small appliances, and other goods to help" the new family settle in.

Denver's Ecumenical Refugee Services Director Patricia Vorwerk said that not only is there a strong refugee support network in Colorado now, but in preparing for the Somali Bantu arrival, CWS and ERS worked very hard to enjoin the interfaith community in creating a positive, welcoming environment for the Bantu.

355 Somali Bantu in all are presently slated to resettle in Denver through CWS and other agencies. To date, Phoenix is scheduled to receive 660.

Although media were dissuaded from camera coverage of the Denver and Phoenix families' arrival, national Public Radio News reporter Jennifer Ludden had made separate arrangements to record the Denver Bantu family's first reactions to being in the U.S.

From the airport, Ludden had asked the father, "What will you do in lightened and he smiled, ""I know what I can do in America. I know I am not some point along the highway, the man saw cornfields and a tractor. His face young now. But I drove a tractor when I was a young man," he said. "I can drive."

All of the 12,000 Somali Bantu to be resettled lived for about ten years in Kenya's Dadaab camp near the Somalia border while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees sought- but failed- to find a home elsewhere in Africa for the oppressed group.

In August 2002, the Somali Bantu were all transported to Kakuma Camp in Kenya, where they waited and were processed for resettlement in the U.S.

The Somali Bantu are descendents of people who, in the 1800s, were made slaves in Mozambique and dispersed. After slavery was abolished, the Bantu in Somalia remained outcasts, denied political representation and the right to own land.

From the Somali civil war in 1991, they fled to Kenya and have lived in outside a refugee camp. refugee camps ever since. Many Somali Bantu children have never known life

Now, in Phoenix, one new Bantu refugee family is discovering a new life, thanks in part to the attention of their co-sponsors in the city, St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Church. The church's head of Missions Jean Firmin has been coordinating the church's efforts to receive the family, collecting furniture and new large appliances for the past six months.

With help from ERS and the church's volunteers, the family has already begun those rites of passage of living in America. Going to the doctor. Getting a social security number. Getting a driver's license. Learning English. Going to school. Going to mosque. Going to the 7-11. Finding jobs. Finding their way.

Phoenix CWS affiliate Craig Thoresen reports, "On arrival our family was a little dazzled." But once in their new apartment, Thoresen concludes, "they were smiling and happy, very appreciative and thankful, if somewhat confused", he added. "They looked around at the three bedroom, two bath place and said incredulously, 'Is this all ours?'"

A global humanitarian agency of 36 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican denominations, Church World Service works with indigenous organizations supporting sustainable self-help development, meeting emergency needs, aiding refugees, and advocating to address the root causes of poverty and powerlessness.

By Albert H. Lee
chtoday_editor@chtoday.com