Coming to America

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

A Bantu refugee boy in Florida
A Bantu refugee boy in Florida Wikimedia Commons

The unskilled, third-world refugee must find within himself a knack for patience. Life would be unbearable without it. In the camps, there is little to do. There is seldom electric light in the dirt-floored, tin-roof shack he and his family are provided, and so they wait for sundown and rest, and sunrise and food. They wait for reprieve, for resettlement. When years pass without change, they wait for the end of time.

For the Lamungu family, people of the loathed and preyed upon Bantu tribe of Somalia, it was 12 years of flight and waiting, squatting on their heels in the shade of an acacia, or thorn tree, before despair descended upon them, hitting the man of the house, Hassan, especially hard.

Hassan, who is 42 years old, looked after his mother, Kadija, 61, his wife, Nurto, 38, and his children: Halima, 16; Arbai, 14; Mohamed, 9; Amina, 6; Shamsi, 4; and Abdulwahad, 2. The four youngest children were born in the camps. The older two girls were born in their village, Manamofa, in southwest Somalia. There, the parents were married, in a year they cannot recall, although the ceremony is still vivid to them. This is Hassan’s recollection, filtered through an interpreter: “Her father and my father go together and sign the contract. After they sign the contract, then they make daytime lunch. They slaughter cows and goats, and everybody eats and everybody becomes happy. The groom’s family gives to the bride’s family a month of sheep and goats and some money, if we have some. Then at nighttime we sing and dance, and then we are married. Then the bride and the groom go home.” Hassan smiled at that last part, and Nurto covered her blush with her hand.

In Manamofa, Hassan, a one-eyed farmer (his right eye was shuttered by a childhood disease that he can describe only as “like chicken pox”), tended livestock, and grew maize, tomatoes, plantain and whatever else he could coax from the soil. To those unaccustomed to a humid heat that breaks on the cheek like a tear, or days so ablaze the back of a wristwatch could raise a blister, the life would appear unbearably hard. But the Bantu of Manamofa had known so much persecution that, left to farm for themselves, they were serene.

The Bantu’s roots are in Mozambique and Tanzania. Outnumbered by other tribes, they have risen scarcely a rung since their days as slaves a century ago. In Somalia, they have ever been a minority ethnic group, second-, third-, in some minds even fourth-class citizens. They have been excluded from education, the idea being to keep them as menials, the word “slave” having passed out of fashion. Even physically they stand apart from the Somali majority, who, given their Arabic bloodline, tend to be identifiable by their thinner lips and aquiline noses. Think Iman, the high-fashion model. The Somali majority has been known to refer to sub-Saharan Africans like the Bantu, who have kinkier hair than their oppressors and a nose that is broader and flatter, as “tight hairs” and “fat noses.”

The Somali civil war in the early 1990s brought an anarchic horde down upon the Bantu. Hassan, speaking again through an interpreter: “Militiamen from two tribes come to the village. A lot of guns. They come through our house. They break down the door with the bullets of their guns. They robbed us. They took the maize, the barley, the wheat. No, they did not harm us.”

The family fled on foot to Kismayu, the market town a three-day walk away on the Indian Ocean, where they had always taken their crops after the harvest. This was in 1991. Hassan: “We walked only in the nighttime because in the daytime the militia will see you and shoot you.” On the coast, Hassan got a $1-a-day job helping the warlords fence their loot. The militia had torn out most of the wiring in the country, and Hassan would cut the cables, especially the copper, into pieces more manageable for sale or transport. After paying him for a day’s labor, the militia would hold him up on his way home. He soon learned to get himself quickly to the town market and to hide his money inside the belly of a stinky fish or some vital organ of a goat.

Then, for 14 nights, Hassan and his family walked along the coast to the Kenyan border. They joined a long, dusty line of refugees. They carried only corn, water and sugar. As they stepped over the corpses of those who didn’t make it, they became afraid they themselves would die. Four refugee camps later, they were still alive. They stayed in one, Marafa, near Malindi, in Kenya, for three years, beginning in 1992. At the request of Kenyan officials, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees closed the camp. But the Bantu refused to leave. Denied food and water, they hung on for three months. Then the Kenyans burned their tents.

The Lamungus’ story does not lift up from the unrelievably grim until May 2003. They had learned in 2001 they had a shot at resettlement in America. They were then among thousands in the Kakuma camp in Kenya. The cold war was done, and the State Department had turned its eyes from Soviet and Vietnamese refugees to the displaced millions in Africa. From 1991 to 2001, the number of African refugees let into the United States leapt from under 5 percent of the total number of refugees to nearly 30 percent. Hassan got himself to the head of the line and commenced the processing.

Hassan: “I become happy. Some people in the refugee camp get money from relatives in America. They send money. I was dreaming about this life—being the people in America who send back money.” The wait lengthened beyond a year. What had happened was the September 11 attacks. Before 9/11, the State Department had intended to resettle as many as 12,000 Somali Bantu to new homes in the United States. But all of a sudden Somalia and Kenya were seen as breeding grounds for terrorists. The red tape for getting into the States became longer than the security lines at American airports. “We lose hope,” says Hassan. “We become depressed. We forget about America. This is just illusion. We become tired morally. This is just a lie.”

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.

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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