February 23, 2003


Strange world awaits Bantus in metro area (MARK BIXLER, 02/23/03, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Sometime this spring, in cities around the United States, the first of nearly 12,000 African refugees will step off airplanes and into a modern world as alien and strange as the bottom of the ocean. They will come with hopes of work, education and safety, at last, from a legacy of persecution.

They are Somali Bantus, a people devastated by massacre and rape after Somalia crumbled into civil war in 1991. Thousands left rural homes for refugee camps in Kenya. They have languished there for the last dozen years. Now the United States is opening its doors to the Bantus in one of the most ambitious and complex refugee resettlement initiatives in recent years. [...]

They will come in need of more help than most refugees. Few speak English. Many cannot read or write even in their native language. Only in the last few months have most seen telephones, flush toilets and clocks, in classes on American culture at the Kakuma Refugee Camp, on the sweltering plain of northwest Kenya. Some saw a bathtub for the first time and asked whether it was some sort of boat, said Sasha Chanoff, who coordinates the classes for the International Organization for Migration.

"They really don't have any exposure to modern development," he said.

The Bantus are descended from natives of Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania who were enslaved and taken to Somalia in the 1800s. They eventually won freedom but remained frequent victims of discrimination. They performed menial jobs and lacked political power and access to education. The Bantus also lacked clan affiliation, which made them easy prey for all sides in Somalia's civil war.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees sought to resettle the Bantus in one of their ancestral homes, Mozambique, but that plan fell through in 1997. Two years later, the State Department recognized the Bantus as a group eligible for resettlement on humanitarian grounds. [...]

There are various groups of Bantus, but the ones coming to the United States are those who volunteered to go to Mozambique in 1997. Nearly all belong to a Bantu branch called the Mushunguli. They were subsistence farmers who shunned society. Other Somalis sometimes refer to them with derogatory terms such as jareer, which refers to the characteristic kinky hair of Bantus, gosha, a Somali term for "forest dweller" and adoon, which means "slave."

That puts resettlement agencies in a tricky spot. They need Somali-speaking caseworkers but must find staffers able to give even-handed treatment.

Our racist past offers fertile soil for those who wish to revile America, but it says pretty much all you need to know about us that where African nations won't take in these folk, we are. And, in February 2021, you'll be reading about how a child from this group is valedictorian of her high school and is headed to Harvard. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 23, 2003 8:18 AM

Mr. Judd--

We didn't say give us your poor, downtrodden huddled masses for nothing.

Posted by: Buttercup at February 23, 2003 8:32 PM

But we also don't always mean it.

Posted by: oj at February 24, 2003 1:41 PM