US opens arms to Bantu Somalis
Some 10,000 African refugees with no homeland are now eligible for resettlement in the US.
DADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, KENYA
Mohammad Awish gets up from his prayer mat, puts on his sandals, and heads for the shade of the plastic UN sheeting nearby.
The heat is oppressive, and Mr. Awish, who is observing the fast of Ramadan, looks drained, but nonetheless pleased with life. "I am going to America," he announces in a reverent half-whisper. "I'm running later, but I am practically there."
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the US government temporarily closed its doors to refugees. Tens of thousands of displaced men, women, and children who had been promised, or were applying for, entrance to the US had reason to worry about their futures.
But concerns about a far-reaching change in the generous US refugee resettlement policy seem unfounded. The US has resettled more refugees - about 73,000 last year - within its borders than all other refugee-resettlement countries combined. And, say US and UN officials, America will continue to do so, even with new security concerns and checks. This month, for example, even as alleged links between Osama bin Laden and Somalia continued to be investigated, the UN's High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) began the process of readying one particular refugee group - a marginalized ethnic minority of 10,000 called the Bantu Somalis - for their eventual journey to the US.
"The climate of supposed xenophobia in the US does not seem to have extended to the acceptance of refugees," says Preeta Law, UNHCR's regional resettlement officer in Africa. "There is a recognition both by the US government and the American people that this is a humanitarian question."
Indeed, late last month President Bush authorized the admission of 70,000 refugees for resettlement into the US next year. Some of this flow, however, is expected to start within days.
With rare exception, none of the communities who have offered to welcome Awish and other refugee groups have reneged on their offers.
Within two years, the majority of the Bantu are expected to be in their US host communities.
"I don't want to paint too rosy a picture," says Hiram Ruiz, spokesman for the US Committee for Refugees in Washington, D.C. "In general, Americans are feeling there needs to be more care taken about who is permitted into the country. There is a sentiment that perhaps there should be less immigration than other times." Nonetheless, he says, fear among refugee advocates of a more widespread negative response to certain refugee groups has not materialized. "The government has stressed time and again that America is not in any way against Muslims, and this message has resonated in the public," he says.
To further alleviate fears, the US State Department is requiring the Immigration and Naturalization Service to check refugees against lists of suspected terrorists.
Of the 70,000 refugees to be permitted into the US this coming year, 22,000 slots have been allotted to Africa. The Bantu Somalis were designated as a priority group within Africa because of the level of persecution they have faced - and are due to face - in the future.
Descendants of slaves taken to Somalia from Tanzania and northern Mozambique, the Bantu endured harsh treatment and were denied land and civil rights, as well as educational and political opportunities. Their neighbors would not befriend them, their children were seen as undesirable partners, employers turned them away.
Somali Bantu farmers lacked clan protection during Somalia's civil war and were targeted by bandits and lost all means of survival. Village elders recount stories of whole communities being raped, robbed, and slaughtered.
In the early 1990s, almost the entire Somali Bantu population fled across the border to the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya. They live here in crowded, insecure conditions made harder because they live next to some 130,000 other Somalis who have continued to harass and persecute them. Plans to resettle the group in Tanzania and Mozambique fell through, and matters looked bleak until 1999, when the US made the group eligible for entry.
So finally, after weeks of waiting, Awish put on his worn New York Yankees T-shirt, draped himself in a long, loose traditional garment called a galabiya, and went for his first in a long series of resettlement interviews.
"My nose is different. My hair is thicker. I am different, and they hate me there. I could never go back to Somalia," says Awish. "We are ready to go anywhere, provided we get out of this terrible place. But in truth we dream America."
"I am ready," pipes in Abdullah Yussef Ali, another Bantu Somali waiting for an interview. "I will like all American things - the food, the apartments. I already like American juice, which I try sometimes."
Ali is a farmer, but his children, he says with pride "are going to be students in America."
The men dismiss any thoughts that they might face discrimination in the US as Muslims from a suspected terrorist-harboring country. "My origins are not Somali. I am Mozambican," insists Awish. "When I reach America, I will explain this to them."
Ali takes out of his pocket a soiled photocopy of a letter the community has mailed to the US embassy in Nairobi. It conveys the condolences of the Bantu Somalis to the families of the Sept. 11 victims. "We like America because there is so much peace there" he says. "We want it to remain that way."