Out of Africa
A model for immigration concerns
The debate over immigration to the United States is not a new issue. Since the inception of this nation, there have been divisions between those who would seek to limit immigration, and those who believe it is a cornerstone of this country’s greatness and a part of its responsibility to the rest of the world. Historically, the pendulum has swung between the two opposing views. In the current national debate, two issues that arise frequently are security and the financial impact of immigrants on American communities. In the article that follows, the United States Refugee Program (USRP) and the specific case of the Somali Bantu refugees will be examined as a model that works well in light of both security and financial impact concerns.
the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 that is the legal basis for refugee admissions into the United States. For the purposes of this discussion, the U.S. defines a refugee as someone who is of special humanitarian concern to the United States and can establish that they have suffered past persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, belonging to a particular social group, or political views and activities. The estimated number of refugees at the end of 2004 was 9.2 million people.1
Worldwide, refugee protection was legally established by two international documents: the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. These documents do not compel states to accept refugees, but they strongly argue against forcibly repatriating refugees (a practice known as refoulement). The United States is a signatory to the protocol only, yet has consistently opened its doors to tens of thousands of refugees from around the world every year. In the last decade, the numbers have been as high as 125,000, and as low as 27,000 (in the year after September 11, 2001). Although the U.S. typically still only admits less than one half of one percent of the world’s refugees and could resettle more, the USRP has some unique features that have enabled it to resettle different refugee groups in varying economic climates and under various administrations over the last several decades. These features include:
A long-standing tradition of public-private partnerships between the U.S. government, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, non-governmental organizations overseas and the domestic resettlement network. This network includes both faith-based and non-sectarian non-profit agencies.
Clear guidelines, expectations and timeframes for services given to refugees.
A consistent focus on self-sufficiency for refugees as the overall program goal.
Clear steps in the process of granting refugee status, beginning with the interviews and registration of potential refugees overseas, all the way through monitoring their arrival and integration into their new communities in the United States.
Security and background checks done on individuals overseas before they arrive in the U.S., allowing refugees to arrive with a well-defined immigration status.
Refugee status allows individuals to work legally in the U.S. from day one, enabling them to become employed in a short time period and begin to contribute to their community. Support, in the form of refugee resettlement agencies, for the new arrivals in the areas of language learning (ESL classes are mandated for most adults between the ages of 18 and 65), cultural orientation, obtaining employment, and accessing other resources/services in the community. This support, which is more involved in the first few months after they arrive, is crucial to the successful resettlement of refugees in U.S. communities.
Many, though not all, of these features could be explored in relation to other avenues of immigration into the United States as ways to address concerns about security and economic impact.
The USRP is a vast program involving international and domestic partners. Before looking at the specific example of the Somali Bantu, it is necessary to provide a brief, “nutshell” overview of how a refugee gets from a dismal refugee situation overseas to a community such as Boise (see box below).
The Resettlement Agency
The various agencies who work with newly arrived refugees are the final link in a chain of organizations that begins overseas. Once refugees are approved, they are allocated to a resettlement agency by the national voluntary agency (there are nine total). In Boise, World Relief and Agency for New Americans provide these services. The agencies are charged with several activities: assist new families with housing, English language learning, obtaining employment and learning to navigate their new community. Resettlement agencies typically have a combination of federal and private funding. In Idaho, refugees do not access public cash assistance; instead, they receive transitional refugee assistance for four to eight months after they arrive. They are eligible for food stamps and refugee medical assistance for a limited time as well. The resettlement agency basically is the single point of contact for newly arrived refugees until they are able to function on their own.
The Somali Bantu
The Somali Bantu are a group of refugees from East Africa. Although they have been collectively called the “Somali Bantu” as they have been processed through the USRP, they are in fact members of various tribes who have a long history of persecution and suffering. The Somali Bantu are an example of why the USRP is necessary. Currently, there are approximately 261 Somali Bantu individuals in Boise, and they seem to be adjusting and feeling comfortable in their new community.
The Somali Bantu history dates back several centuries when European colonial rule in East Africa resulted in a thriving slave trade. Most slaves were sent to other parts of the world, but many were sent to other East African regions. People from tribes in what are now Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi were captured and sold as slaves to work on plantations in what is now Somalia. Approximately 25,000-50,000 slaves came into Somali lands during the 1800s, settling in large agricultural areas near the Juba and Shabelle rivers. Even after they were granted their freedom beginning in 1895, they were basically forced to work for colonial plantations and remained at the lowest rungs of society. Throughout the 20th century, they endured varying levels of persecution and harassment interspersed with a few periods of relative peace and stability. Once Somalia gained its independence in 1960, life became more difficult again for the Bantu. During the war between Somalia and Ethiopia in the 1970s and early 1980s, Bantu were forcibly conscripted in the war effort. Then, in 1991, civil war started in Somalia, and things became very dangerous and difficult for the Bantu.
Somalia is a country that is comprised of several large clans. When the civil war broke out, the various clans competed for power. The Bantu were very vulnerable for several reasons:
They did not belong to any of the dominant clans in Somalia, and therefore could not avail themselves of any clan protection during the fighting;
They lived and worked in the most productive agricultural regions of Somalia and had large amounts of food stored. As the clans fought each other, they often raided the Bantu villages for food and to gain control of these very productive regions.
The Bantu are of a different ethnicity and appearance than the dominant clan Somalis, and therefore were unable to “blend in” to any crowd. They were often the targets of violence, including beatings, rapes and murder.2
As the war worsened, the Bantu fled to neighboring countries by the thousands. Many died of starvation or thirst along the way; others walked on foot for 17 days or more to cross a border. Many ended up in one of several camps in Kenya. Ironically, many Somalis also ended up in those same camps because they were also fleeing the violence. Their co-existence in the camps often led to more violence and harassment of the Bantu.3 By 1994, approximately 10,000 refugees were living in four refugee camps in Northern Kenya. At their peak in early 2000, these camps held more than 160,000 refugees.4
Contrary to what many Americans may think, the majority of these Bantu refugees did not “dream of coming to America;” instead they wanted to return to the countries of their ancestors: Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi. The United States and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tried to make arrangements for return to those countries, but since those countries already sheltered thousands of other refugees and are not very wealthy, they denied entry to the large majority of Somali Bantu. After those efforts failed, the United States designated the Somali Bantu as a group with a well founded fear of persecution and made them eligible for resettlement in the U.S. Over the next few years, a tremendous effort went into identifying and processing an initial group of about 12,000 Somali Bantu refugees, the largest single group to be resettled in this manner.5
The effort included moving thousands of refugees from the dangerous border camps to a larger camp called Kakuma, about 600 miles away. They went by hot, dusty bus trips or, for pregnant women or women with small children, by plane. Once in Kakuma, they were assigned housing and the processing began. Refugee processing includes a series of interviews by Overseas Processing Entity staff and U.S. Department of Homeland Security officers to determine a refugee’s identity, family relationships, and for background checks. Since the Bantu are mostly preliterate with little documentation, this step presented enormous challenges. In addition, the Bantu are typically polygamous and have looser definitions of “family.” Before being approved, a polygamous male would have to choose one wife and “divorce” the others. Needless to say, the challenges were many. After individuals were approved, they underwent medical checks and attended cultural orientation prior to traveling. Stateside, the Department of State and the National Refugee resettlement agencies determined which communities around the United States would be appropriate for this very challenging group. Resettlement agencies in local communities had meetings with various local and state government agencies, schools, medical providers, employers and other who would potentially be impacted by this new group. The number of Somali Bantu assigned to a particular location depended on that community’s capacity to serve them well (more on this below). The first Somali Bantu families finally began arriving in the U.S. in April 2003. The first Somali Bantu family arrived in Boise in August 2003.
The Somali Bantu, as mentioned above, are not as monolithic as their group-identifying name implies. They are made up of people who have kept many different tribal and linguistic practices despite centuries of slavery and persecution. Broadly speaking though, there are some common characteristics:
They are multilingual, some speaking four or five languages.
Most are Muslim, having converted upon entering Somalia centuries ago. They are not, however, as strictly observant as some of the dominant clan Somalis. Men and women have fairly clearly defined roles in the family and the community, and in large gatherings, typically do not sit together.
Their social networks are very strong and they often employ group decision-making processes when confronted with a problem or concern. Tribal elders or chiefs have a central role and their decisions are usually respected. Within a family, the adult males are typically the decision-makers for the families. When there is a single-female headed household, she will often seek advice from other men in the community. Having said that, the women are very outspoken and do not usually sit by quietly.
Bantu families are large, and women are usually married as teenagers and begin having children early. Children are seen as a blessing and a gift from Allah. Older children are very involved in watching over the younger children; this practice has caused a few issues with child protection services when American-born adults see an 8-year old in charge of a 2-year old.
Due to their longstanding second-class citizen status, most adults are not literate and have little if any education. However, the parents are very eager for their children to attend school in the United States.
Both men and women are eager to work (unless a medical issue prevents it) for the most part, although placing someone in a job who speaks little English and has few transferable work skills has been quite a challenge. The Bantu have been used to working hard, and typically apply that work ethic here.
Similar to many people around the world, the Bantu use a mix of traditional healing methods, spirituality and modern medicine to cure medical complaints. Several of the healing methods leave scars, so it is not uncommon to see children and adults with unusual scars on their faces or bodies. Many women have undergone the procedure of ritual female genital surgery (also known as female circumcision/female genital mutilation) because is it widely practiced in Somalia, but they are not insistent that it continue here (possibly because they have learned that it is illegal, or possibly because it is not a tradition in their original culture).
Few of the Bantu have ever lived with the many modern conveniences that Americans take for granted, but that is not so much a cultural convention as a result of their lack of access to those items.
Music, especially drumming and dancing, is an integral part of their gatherings. Since they come from a culture with a strong oral tradition, music and storytelling have been important tools in recording their history and stories. Many Bantu can recite their family history several generations back.
The Somali Bantu who have arrived in Boise are starting to organize themselves into a mutual assistance association that will allow them to help their own group address issues and problems as they may arise. They have celebrated the first wedding, and the first funeral. Several babies have been born in Boise and are U.S. citizens. Several families are participating in a community garden close to their homes. Many individuals have gotten their driver’s licenses and are driving for the first time in their lives. Most employable adults are working. These are the ways in which new refugees begin the process of adjusting to their new lives and enriching the community for all of us.
Many people wonder why Boise receives refugees. Refugees have actually been coming to Boise since the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed, and most of the refugee populations that have come to the U.S. in the last 25 years are represented here: Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Romanian, Bosnian, Russian, Cuban, Colombian, Sudanese, Afghan, Iranian, Liberian, Ethiopian, Somali and more. Boise continues to resettle refugees for a few reasons:
The resettlement agencies in Boise consistently help refugees find employment, usually by the fifth month after they arrive.
The cost of living is relatively low and that allows a newly arrived family who has to rebuild its life completely to get a better start.
The crime rate is fairly low.
The community of Boise is wonderfully welcoming to refugees. Volunteers, employers, apartment managers, faith communities, civic organizations and other members of the community extend themselves in a variety of ways that enable refugees to learn the language, navigate their community and ultimately integrate and contribute to their new hometown.
In Boise, the Agency for New Americans, World Relief, the English Language Center and the Idaho Office for Refugees work closely together to provide information to the community and its leaders about new groups, problem solve when issues arise, and strive to develop the best service delivery system for refugees. By aiming for these goals, the agencies assist refugees in Boise to become self-sufficient, and not reliant on handouts or public assistance.
Refugee resettlement is part of a long tradition of welcoming new Americans to Boise. The structure and processes of the USRP enable it to take the concerns over security very seriously and provide support in communities to minimize any negative economic impact, while allowing people in other countries who are in desperate situations to find a new beginning in the United States. The Somali Bantu, now 261 individuals strong in Boise, are one such group. For the first time in their history over the last several centuries, they have new opportunities and hope for their children’s futures, and while their challenges are many, so is their determination.
Proposed Refugee Admissions for FY 2006, Report to Congress, Sept. 2005.
somalibantu.com, “Following Freedom’s Trail”, September 2, 2002.