The McGill Report

12,000 Somali Bantus Fly to Freedom ... and Maybe Minnesota

Rochester, MN, July 23 -- The largest African refugee settlement program to the U.S. ever is underway this year, possibly bringing a new wave of Somali immigrants to Minnesota.

Approximately 12,000 refugees belonging to the outcast Bantu clan of Somalia, who were initially cleared for resettlement to the U.S. in 1999, are finally boarding planes in Kenya and are bound for U.S. cities including St. Louis, Dallas, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Nashville, and Buffalo.

About 300 of the refugees have so far arrived in the U.S. from the Dabaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya, and all 12,000 will be resettled here by the end of next year, a State Department spokesman said.

While no Minnesota cities are presently on the government-approved list of destinations, Somali experts say that if previous immigration trends continue a sizable number of Bantu will relocate to Minnesota once they have spent a few months or years in their original host cities.

Minnesota has more Somali immigrants than any other state, and most of them relocated to Minnesota after initially being placed with host agencies in other U.S. cities. The state’s strong job market in the 1990s and its strong tradition of networked social services were the main attractors.

In addition, Minnesota is home to the largest U.S. population of Somalis who speak Mai, a minority dialect that is close to the language spoken by the Bantu – which thus might attract them to the state. Most Somali immigrants who live in Minnesota and elsewhere speak another Somali dialect, Maha.

“According to my experience, some will come here,” said Zakaria Gaal, who immigrated to Rochester from Mogadishu in 1997 and is now a legal assistant at the Klampe Delehanty & Morris law firm in Rochester.

Omar Eno, a Bantu at York University in Toronto who is helping educate U.S. host agencies ahead of the arrival of the refugees, agrees that some Bantu will likely resettle in Minnesota, especially where there are Mai speakers.

But there are important differences between the Bantu and other Somali immigrants that might limit the amount of “secondary immigration” of the Bantu to Minnesota, Eno said.

The biggest difference is that the Bantu are an oppressed class in Somalia, similar to the outcaste class in India. While some Bantu might therefore seek out cultural and language familiarity in the U.S., Eno said, others might try to avoid the established “dominant clan” Somalis who have traditionally oppressed the Bantu.

The Bantu were forcibly brought to Somalia from southern Africa by Arab slave traders circa 1800, and were totally barred in their new country from educational and social opportunity. Yet the Bantu are known for a strong work ethic and for decades have reliably toiled at Somalia’s most menial jobs such as ditch and latrine digging, construction jobs, factory work, and machine repair.

Because the Bantu stand outside of Somalia’s dominant clan rivalries, they won’t participate in the clan violence sometimes seen in America’s immigrant Somali communities, Eno said.

The biggest challenge for the Bantu will be learning how to navigate a modern society where families are dispersed and society is maintained not by patriarchs and tribal elders, but rather through impersonal institutions like schools, courts, hospitals, and social service agencies, Eno said.

Eno and other Bantu experts are sharply critical of early Western press reports, such as a March 10 article in The New York Times written from a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, which have portrayed the Somali Bantu as total primitives agog at the sight of flush toilets and “flying machines.”

“These reports are fodder for anti-immigrant groups,” said Daniel Van Lehmann, a professor of humanitarian issues at Portland State University. “I worked in the Kenyan refugee camps for two years, and the Bantu obeyed the rules more than any other group in the camps. Some did electrical work, some mechanical work, some were drivers. To suggest they are somehow out of the caves is demeaning and does a tremendous disservice.”

After the revolution in Somalia in 1991, when the dictator Siad Barre was overthrown and society fell into a chaos of warring clans, agricultural Bantu villages in the Juba River Valley were pillaged by rogue militias in search of food and bent on rape and destruction.

Those raids drove tens of thousands of Bantu across the border into neighboring Kenya. The refugees now being resettled in the U.S. are a subset of that group.

At the Hawthorne Education Center in Rochester, where many immigrants learn English, some Somalis say they are worried that if Bantu refugees resettle in Rochester they will complicate life for the Somalis already here.

But Sahra Ahmed, a Mai-speaking Somali who came to the U.S. in 2000 and works as a receptionist at the Center, says she welcomes the Bantu.

“We are different but we are in the same boat,” she says. “I am happy they are coming. In Somalia, they didn’t have rights they deserved. Here in the U.S. they deserve to have the same rights that anyone has. ”

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report