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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Hassan got a job as a cleaning man but lost it—last hired, first fired. Now he works at the airport, collecting luggage carts. So far, the federal and state assistance has been ample, along with food stamps. The family has gone from sleeping on the floor, being frightened by noises in the night, to a feeling of security. Hassan: “We can live in peace. There is a law in America: nobody can take your life. That’s what makes me believe in peace. I want my children to have a good education up to college level and me too. I want to live like the people who live in America—only better. I want to work.”

Another day, I asked Janell Mousseau, the resettlement supervisor for the Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest, whether drugs would be a temptation for the children. All are in school now. She said, “Drugs aren’t the problem with refugee kids. What happens is the family dynamic changes when the kids gain power. They get the language first, and they know it, and they abuse it. It is devastating to the parents.”

For the moment, however, all the Lamungus are in the same boat. One Friday afternoon, Hassan drove me cross town to fetch Mohamed and Amina from school. He was at the wheel of the $1,200 1999 Ford Taurus he bought with state and local financial assistance; 209,000 miles on the odometer and a radiator that wanted unemployment, the right rear tire whining all the while. Hassan has learned to drive, but he is frightened of the freeway. He is a little leadfooted off the lights, but otherwise a careful driver. We arrived at the tolling of the bell, 3 p.m. But on this day school had let out at 11 a.m. because of the state fair. The school had emptied, all except for Mohamed and Amina and the principal. The Lamungu children sat in the principal’s office for four hours waiting for their father. When at last they got into the Taurus, they did not complain. Four hours had been no test at all of their patience. When they got into the back seat, they buckled their seat belts, reminded their dad to buckle his, and slept like angels all the way home.


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