March 22, 2006


After 3 years, Somalis struggle to adjust to U.S. (Rick Hampson, 3/22/06, USA TODAY)

[Dan] , a Portland (Ore.) State University professor involved in a national effort to study and assist the Somali Bantu, says almost all the men who can work do, usually in low-wage posts such as janitor, warehouse worker and orderly. Most of the men have learned some English. Many have bought cars and gotten driver's licenses.

Most of the women are isolated at home without a car and with several small children. Their only exposure to English is a volunteer tutor for a few hours once a week.

Bantus are determined to drive — so determined that many living in Connecticut, which does not offer the driver's test in Somali, have flown to Arizona, which allows them to take the test with a Somali-speaking interpreter. To fulfill the residency requirement, Abdiaziz says, they list the address of the relative or friend with whom they're staying. There is so much to learn about America.

Last winter, Hartford police were called after some newly arrived children were seen playing outside without coats or shoes, just like in Africa. On July 4, some Bantus in Springfield, Mass., were terrorized by what they thought was gunfire. "But at least we had them prepared for Halloween," says Robert Marmor, director of Jewish Family Services of Western Massachusetts, which helped resettle 250 Bantus.

For some Bantus, the adjustment has been particularly difficult:

•More than 200 Bantus ended up in homeless shelters last year in Columbus, Ohio. They'd moved to the city, which has a large Somali population, from the communities where they were originally settled, looking for work.

•The 100 Bantu families who were resettled in Pinellas County, Fla., in 2004, found jobs and housing so scarce that within a year all had moved elsewhere.

"We had no idea how hard it would be, even though we spent a year preparing for their arrival," says Marmor, the Springfield agency director. "We didn't realize there would be people with no knowledge of Western civilization."

The biggest problem, he says, is a lack of English, particularly among women. Their children also are not learning as fast as they should, partly because for the past two years there were only a few part-time Somali interpreters for about 90 Bantus spread among 20 Springfield public schools. (Last month, in response to a civil rights complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education by advocates of the Somalis, the school system agreed to hire more bilingual tutors and start after-school programs for the high school students.)

Overall, however, Marmor says he is struck by how much Bantus are like other refugees: "You could be talking to a Russian émigré from 1900. They want the same things — a job, a home, education for their children." Whatever their disadvantages, he adds, Bantus have passed other trials — bondage, war, the camps. "They may not have known what a door was," he says, "but they know how to survive."

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 22, 2006 7:55 AM

In 3o years, one of their children will be in Congress. And some of them will wind up as senior officers in the military.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 22, 2006 9:03 AM

Working for low wages and yet - they managed to purchase a car....

Posted by: Sandy P at March 22, 2006 10:02 AM

It was easier / cheaper to fly to Arizona than to learn enough English to pass the drivers test?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at March 22, 2006 11:19 AM

I'm fairly sure they are not new cars. Most likely some Toyota from 1987.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at March 22, 2006 11:20 AM


Maybe. Tickets are cheap, if you aren't picky about times. And learning enough english to work at a manual labor job is one thing; learning enough to take directions while operating a motor vehicle with limited experience under stress is quite another.

Posted by: Mike Earl at March 22, 2006 1:18 PM

If the kids were left alone, they would have learned how to speak English within two years. I wonder if the Somali translators had something to do with stopping the natural process that's worked for every other immigrant group.

Posted by: erp at March 22, 2006 1:26 PM
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