First wave arrives: Somali Bantu refugees present extra challenges

June 30, 2003

AFTER BEING SHUFFLED around refugee camps for more than a decade, nine Somali Bantu refugees arrived in Syracuse in June. Over the next two years, 12,000 Bantus are expected to be settled in 50 communities; Syracuse will receive 500. 

The Bantus were slaves once, brought to Somalia from Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi by Arab traders in the 1800s. They were freed decades later but remained burdened in the lowest standing in Somali society; somewhere between slave and sharecropper.

The refugees were met by 40 people that included other Somali refugees, church officials, refugee program officials and students and teachers from a local elementary school. The greeters brought American flags, coloring books, crayons and other gifts.

Marion Jones, a volunteer with the InterReligious Council's refugee program, said she could identify with the Bantus because of her family history. "This is exciting to me and emotional because my ancestors were slaves brought from Africa." 

This is a more challenging group of people to settle because they are illiterate, they don't speak English -- they will need to master English in order to work -- and are not accustomed to urban life, said Richard Parkins, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries. They speak Somali, Swahili and their ethnic language, Maay. Nonetheless, he is excited about their arrival. "We feel that any refugees that need to be rescued should be rescued," Parkins said.

The Bantus will be clustered in a community setting to provide more support from churches, Parkins said. "We are preparing resettlement sites to deal with the individual needs of these people."

Betty Collins, who works with churches to find sponsors for the refugees, said she has a million hopes for the new arrivals.

"I hope we can do a fine job and get them independent," said Collins. "They seem to be comfortable and in very good spirits; however, they have a lot ahead of them."

Weeks earlier, the first of about 400 Bantus arrived in the western suburbs of Chicago. After the first week, this initial family's members were not worried about whether they could make it here.

Strangers showered them with food, clothing and toys. The volunteer who gave them a basket of secondhand clothes shook the eldest son's hand and said, "We'll be praying for you."

"I can't express how happy I feel," Hassan Kasim, 21, said through a translator. "I wish I could tell the people back in Kakuma that they don't have to worry about the United States. We will all be treated well."