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The Next Page: Somali Bantu take two primary paths toward settling into American society

In early March 2011, I was one of seven people at the launch of the Somali Bantu Community Association. The meeting took place in a deeply segregated public housing community, at the home of a Somali Bantu family that recently moved to Pittsburgh. Colorful fabrics hung from the windows and covered the walls. These materials, reflecting the family’s cultural and religious life, were the same as those that would have adorned a living space in Somalia.

A Kenyan security officer guards the Somali Bantu as they line up at the International Organization for Migration offices in Nairobi in May 2003, after arriving from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. A group of Somali Bantu and Sudanese were approved for resettlement in the United States in 2004. Khalil Senosi/Associated Press

A small-statured gentleman was elected president of the group. We introduced ourselves. “My name is Ervin,” I said, “and I am a student at the university, and I’m doing a study.” He asked me — the only black American at the meeting — “What are you going to do to help us?” I took his inquiry as an invitation, as an appeal not only to study the Somali Bantu but also to work in tandem with their efforts to make a successful transition to American society.

The Somali Bantu I know are among the 14,000 who were resettled in America beginning in 2004. The Bantu people are a mosaic of ethnic groups. However, in Somalia, from the time of slavery, because of their dark skin, wide noses and “hard hair,” they were racialized into a separate and persecuted minority.

For the next few years, in trying to “help” the Somali Bantu, I remained active within the association, allowing me to closely follow the lives of 13 Somali Bantu fathers living in the North Side public housing community. In so doing, I found myself dancing at Somali Bantu weddings, sitting in their living rooms on colorful woven mats and traveling with them in a full sedan as they crossed the interstate to visit family. I was able to observe the fathers’ daily routines; to note the hours when they went to work as butchers, janitors or grocery aides; to laugh with them at action movies like “Waqti” (a Somali film) or ’80s flicks starring Chuck Norris; and to see who came to their front doors. I ate dinner with them. I helped their children with homework and with the pronunciation of English words — rendered beautifully by their Bantu and Arabic accents — and chatted with their sons about education and their potential to become engineers, police officers or actors. I met their social workers, their brothers and their neighbors. By immersing myself in their lives, I was able to map their culture and ways of adapting to their new land.

In my more than four years with the Somali Bantu, I saw them take two primary paths toward settling into American society. One path was laid through their associations with a network of social workers and volunteers connected to faith-based and refugee aid organizations. These were mostly middle-income, professional white people who, either directly or through friends of friends, connected the newcomers to jobs, better-performing schools, and American mores and values. Given the dynamics of race, disparity and social influence in Pittsburgh, this was not an unexpected sociological finding.

A more astonishing observation was seeing the Somali Bantu fathers follow another path. They chose to settle and stay in a public housing community beset by concentrated poverty, high unemployment and random violence. Almost counterintuitively, they found hope and home here as they became integrated into a community many considered “broken.”

As refugees, the Somali Bantu have been helped by U.S. policy to connect to vast social networks of people and assistance programs. This array of resources has enabled them to take their first steps into American society. But make no mistake: Despite the assistance, the majority of Somali Bantu fathers remain among the working poor. They came to the U.S. with very limited formal education. As rural and agrarian people from the Jubba Valley of Somalia, they raised yams, mangoes and maize to feed their families.

Displaced to Kenya by a prolonged civil war, many had nowhere to go but squalid, sparse refugee camps, where they ground out a living digging latrines, serving as bike couriers or building mud homes. Now resettled in Pittsburgh, a region reinvigorating itself with a med-ed economy, they don’t have the high-tech skills or educational backgrounds to rise above service employment. As a result, most of the fathers work for low pay in factories, in laundry services or as cooks.

To survive economically — and to care for their large families — the Somali Bantu fathers soon found themselves drawn to public housing. The public housing community where they landed is more than 96 percent African-American and geographically segregated. It sits isolated from mainstream society. In many respects, it’s akin to a township under South African apartheid, where residents were cut off from resources and locked into separate and unequal existences. What possible “path” forward could be found here?

The Bantu fathers found what they have described as “wonderful neighbors” — welcoming, long-term residents whom they came to view as being like kin. These African-American neighbors watched over the Somali Bantu children and offered advice on how to survive violence and cultural tension. They knew what it meant to be stereotyped and oppressed by race and class, and understood the history, subjugation and economic challenges that led the Somali Bantu to reside in this space.

As word spread that the public housing community was not all broken, more Bantu came, creating a comfortable little village. In this village, they found they could escape the forces of assimilation and pressures to melt into the larger society — a phenomenon explained by sociologists Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan in their 1963 book, “Beyond the Melting Pot.” They did not have to culturally whitewash themselves, but neither did they feel they had to wear the mask of “blackness,” if that identity meant being a street tough or entangled in the drug trade. Rather, in the community they created, they retained their language, manner of dress and values. In fact, more and more of their cultural practices became visible, and their lives became ever more intertwined with those of their neighbors.

Over time, the residents pooled resources to create a vibrant, supportive community. Examples of collective efforts include a celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Most Somali Bantu follow Islam.

A series of forums called “Moms and Cops” helped Bantu families to build better relationships with the police and learn about available social services, and mental health counseling enabled Bantu families to come to grips with war trauma and the cultural shock of adjusting to a new society.

Also, since their arrival in 2004 in Pittsburgh, Somali Bantu have become increasingly connected with the community’s institutions, such as the local residents’ council and the city’s Housing Authority. These connections foster a sense of integration because they attach the refugees to the same issues and goals as the larger community, including neighborhood improvement and reduction of crime.

A Somali Bantu leader who helped to organize the festivals and celebrations described the teamwork between the neighborhood residents and Bantus in his native language: acamo wadajir baa wax ku goyan, meaning, “we can break the burden in us together” — or, in unity there is strength.

The Somali Bantu have found a place to begin again. Though they live in the gloom of American poverty, their communal “village” offers an economic and cultural foundation that provides enough hope to light the way toward a future that is brighter than their past.

Ervin Dyer (edyer@pitt.edu) recently completed his doctorate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. His study focused on the Somali Bantu families referenced in the article.


Sunday, September 11, 2016
By Ervin Dye


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