Coming to America

A Somali Bantu refugee family leaves 19th-century travails behind in Africa to take up life in 21st-century Phoenix.

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Then, last spring, Hassan Lamungu’s name went up on a chalkboard in the camp. “I never realize I am going to America until I see my name on the board. I cannot describe my happiness. Everybody hugs us.”

The grandmother, Kadija, speaks through the interpreter: “Everyone says we are so lucky. Hassan—they are kissing him. Shaking hands. A lot of feelings. Everyone follows us the seven kilometers to the airfield and waves goodbye.”

On May 22, 2003, the family of nine flew to Brussels, to Atlanta, and touched down in Phoenix. On the planes, they had trembled with fright. On the ground, the fear disappeared. Most of their possessions came to them on the luggage conveyor in one stuffed nylon bag. The rest were in plastic carry-ons.

I asked Hassan if he was sad to leave things behind. He laughed. “We had no possessions. No assets.” The daughter Halima, the 16-year-old, rocked on her heels, saying with derision, “We did not even have one chicken.” The interpreter, Ahmed Issa Ibrahim, explained: “To not have one chicken is the bottom of Somali poverty.”

Though the United States has committed itself to relocating thousands of Somali Bantu, what with the slowness of bureaucracy, only a few hundred families have made it so far. Those who have, like the Lamungus, have found the adjustment challenging. Christophe Calais, the photographer whose work accompanies this text (or more precisely, the composer upon whom these lyrics ride), told me he read a study in Somalia that said these people were coming from a standard of living that has not existed in the developed world since 1860. So the distance in miles is nothing alongside the distance in time.

The stove—many meals were burned, Hassan said, looking at the women of the house, who had until recently gathered firewood at the risk of being raped. The flush toilet. The bush still feels more familiar. The telephone: at a ten-day orientation, the Lamungus were taught to call 911 in case of emergency. They picked up the model phone and said, “911,” not knowing one had to press the buttons.

Today, Hassan, his wife and the younger children have a three-room flat in the Hill ’n Dell, a low-income housing project on a desolate rim of Phoenix, out beyond the airport. Across a courtyard interrupted by pines, eucalyptus, oleander and palms lives the grandmother with the two oldest girls, who have just learned from a Mexican woman how to apply makeup. They make up, then put on their veils to go outside. The family is Muslim.

When I was with them, there was bony goat meat and rice in a pot in the kitchen. There was not a single coat hanger in either apartment. All of their worldly goods, most of them donated, were in plastic trash bags, giving the rooms the feel of caravans put in for the night. The Lamungus rarely turn on any lights, being accustomed to dark shelter. The kids like cartoons on the TV, however. And they adore McDonald’s. The whole family belches incessantly, apologizing that it must have to do with the change in diet—they know it is rude. On the other hand, Hassan is offended when someone crooks a finger to beckon at him; in his world, that is the way you call a dog.

We went to the Arizona State Fair on a Saturday. At the entrance, to the left, was a fenced-in pen with two camels, a children’s ride. Hassan looked at the beasts of his culture wondering what kind of people could take pleasure in them; the kids went right on, paying them no mind. They could live the rest of their lives without any more camels. The Ferris wheel was what they were after.

Sophistication is coming. The first supermarket they entered, they were not surprised by the bounty—it’s America, it’s supposed to be bountiful—but they wondered why it was cooler inside than outside. Hassan says the family took to air conditioning immediately. For those perspiring moments outside, a social worker steered them toward a shelf of deodorants. The Lamungus dutifully bought some, took them home and put them in the refrigerator, where they remain.


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