Following Freedom's Trail

Newsweek, September 2, 2002
By Donatella Lorch

The Somali Bantus have been persecuted and exiled. Soon, thousands will be coming to America. They're eager, but they may not be ready for the world that awaits them

Abdul Qadir Musa didn't mind the sand and dust, which blew in from the desert through the windows and parched his skin, or the 105-degree heat that lulled his four young children into a silent daze. Lurching across Kenya's rutted dirt roads on a bus crowded beyond capacity, Musa passed the stifling hours musing to himself about life in the United States. "I am so happy," he said. "This is the first time I have taken a bus. Today, I even took a shower, because in America, you have to be clean."

MUSA'S DREAM of going to America may soon become reality. He and all the other passengers in the eight-bus convoy are Somali Bantus, a long-persecuted people from one of the world's most ruined countries. Two centuries ago their ancestors were taken from their homes in Mozambique, Tanzania and Malawi, and sold as slaves in Somalia. After slavery was gradually abolished in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Bantus remained pariahs—even though they, like most Somalis, are Muslims. Their children faced discrimination in Somali schools. Some shop owners refused to serve them. Intermarriage was not accepted. When civil war between rival Somali clans broke out in 1991, thousands of Bantus fled on foot to Kenya, where they have since lived in the grim poverty of refugee camps.

Their lives are about to change dramatically. In 1999, the United States designated this group of exiled Somali Bantus a persecuted class of people who deserved to be resettled in America. During the next two years, as many as 11,800 Bantus could be approved by the INS. Yet the journey to the New World won't be smooth, or quick. Concerned that Islamist terrorists might try to use the visa program to gain entry to the United States, Immigration officials must go to greater than usual efforts to verify the identity of each refugee—an especially painstaking task, since most have no birth certificates or official documents of any kind. New security regulations require refugees to be fingerprinted, and men arriving from predominantly Muslim countries must be screened by the FBI.

Those who make it through the security checks and into the United States—a process that could take anywhere from three months to a year or more—will confront a new world of difficulties. Few of the refugees can read or write any language, and almost none speak English. Most have never seen a light switch or telephone, or even a building that wasn't made of mud. "They are very pre-Industrial Revolution," says Lavinia Limon, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees. Various government and private agencies will help them for a year or so, but then the refugees will be expected to make it on their own.

To someone like Musa, 35, such concerns are a luxury. A carpenter, he once lived and worked with his family on a mango and coconut farm. But in 1992, Somali militiamen invaded his town. They beat him and the other men, and raped his first wife before forcing them off the land. By the time he crossed the border into Kenya after a month-long trek, four of his children had died of hunger. He arrived at a camp in Dadaab, which became his home for the next decade.

Dadaab is a parched, wind-flattened landscape of scrub brush and nomadic camel herders that is now home to 134,000 refugees. The only roads are a maze of tire tracks in the sand. Bandits with automatic weapons can ambush anyone who leaves the relative safety of the camp. Relief workers hire Kenyan policemen to protect them. Even in the camps, other Somali refugees forced the Bantus to do all the heavy and dirty work, building latrines, hauling grain sacks and constructing huts. "They considered us slaves," said Sheikh Yusuf Jama, a 27-year-old who learned to speak English while training as a carpenter in Kenya. He remembers being so poor he went to class in Somalia without shoes, and the Somali students taunted him, tearing up his schoolbooks and pushing him out of the classroom. The Somalis called them "Gosha" ("forest inhabitants") or "adoon" ("slave").

But when the United States announced its decision to take in the Bantus, hundreds of other exiled Somalis suddenly declared themselves part of the underclass. Somali refugees as far away as Nairobi boarded buses to try to buy their way into Bantu families. Some threatened Bantus with retaliation from the large Somali community in the United States unless they helped them. "It is the first time in my life that Somalis like me," says one Bantu ruefully. To avoid corruption and impostors, each Bantu underwent two lengthy interviews and multiple identity checks. Members of families were interviewed separately, to make sure that their stories matched. The Somalis left behind in the Dadaab camp are furious that the Bantus have been handpicked by the United States. Crowds gather regularly to demonstrate in front of the local U.N. compound, demanding resettlement.

Because of its proximity to Somalia, an anarchic country where terrorists have sometimes found a haven, the Dadaab camp was considered too dangerous for U.S. immigration officers to visit. So the Bantu refugees are being moved to another Kenyan refugee camp, in Kakuma, about 600 miles away. Musa's family and the hundreds of others on the convoy gathered one recent morning in the cool, predawn darkness with their worldly belongings sewn into U.S.-donated grain sacks. Musa's small boys wore only torn, baggy T shirts. Musa himself traveled barefoot. As they stood in orderly lines, their identities were checked four times before they boarded buses. Two dozen police surrounded each convoy, guarding against bandit ambushes.

For most of the travelers, it was the first time they had been in a motor vehicle. Parents needed lessons to use the diapers handed out by relief workers. And each bus was stocked with plastic bags for motion sickness. Yet despite 3 a.m. departures and 12 hours a day stuck on the buses, no one complained. Even small children were impressively content. At each stop, Musa, a gentle bear of a man with gnarled, calloused fingers, patiently helped his kids scoop up rations of rice and meat, then washed their faces and hands. Musa's wife is pregnant, and traveled separately on a medical plane. Like many of the other Bantu men, Musa had another wife, but he divorced her once he was told that he could have only one wife in America. His ex-wife is now also on her way to the new camp.

Passing through Nairobi, many saw tall buildings for the first time. As the convoy snaked through the fertile Kenyan highlands, children pointed excitedly at trees and grass. There was rain and cold and fog. "It is strange," said Musa. "First it is hot, then it is cold. I hear that in America it is like that too."

The passengers were less enthusiastic when they arrived at the camp in Kakuma, where some may be living for more than a year. In many ways, it is even bleaker than the one they left behind. Like Dadaab, Kakuma is in a desert of relentless dust storms and temperatures in the triple digits. Though relief agencies have constructed mud huts with corrugated-tin roofs, there are no trees or bushes, and the choking winds blow day and night. Poisonous camel spiders and scorpions outnumber the refugees.

In September, INS officials will begin interviewing the refugees yet again, and the first group could depart for the United States a few months after that. What happens next is surprisingly unclear. The U.S. State Department and the Office of Refugee Resettlement plan to divide the refugees into groups of about 200, and place them in towns across the country. But it hasn't been decided where they will live, and it's unclear where they will find work. The Bantu haven't had much preparation for the culture shock that awaits them. In the camp, they will be given a three-day orientation class on life in America, but most still have no idea what to expect.

Federal and charity dollars will help to support the refugees for the first year or so, while private agencies help them find apartments and enroll their children in school. Yet when the money runs out, they will be expected to support themselves and their large families. Most Bantus marry in their teens, and almost all women and teenage girls are pregnant or have newborns.

Some relief officials worry that the government isn't doing enough to ready the Bantus for life in America, and that those who are unable to find jobs will wind up trading one kind of poverty for another. "We are doing them a disservice by not preparing them properly," says Kate Hilton-Hayward, who co-chairs the Somali Bantu task force at the Refugee Council USA. "If the economy bottoms out, we may have trouble finding them jobs," she admits. One concern: keeping them off the welfare rolls. Relief agencies had similar concerns in 2001, when the United States allowed 3,300 "Lost Boys," refugees from the civil war in Sudan, into the country. Today, almost all have jobs and apartments, and many are enrolled in college.

The Sudanese refugees had an advantage: all could read and write English. In the camps, Jama and the handful of other Bantu men who speak English are giving the others crash courses in the language, and helping aid workers ease them into life in the modern world. Musa, for one, says he is ready. "I hear the government lets you keep a cow wherever you want in America," he says with obvious pleasure. "I need a cow, because I need fresh milk." Imagine his surprise.

NEWSWEEK correspondent Donatella Lorch is currently an Alicia Patterson Fellow, researching refugee resettlement.