Give us Your Tired, Your Poor

By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Bantu refugees come to Syracuse

Imagine never having had enough to eat, only to be introduced to an American grocery store. Imagine having a diet that consisted only of rice, beans, and sometimes, a small portion of meat, only to look into the refrigerated meat case at Wegman’s. Imagine never having seen a book, or never having experienced a modern method of transportation, only to be faced with learning to read or with riding on an airplane or a public bus system. These are just a few of the obstacles that members of the Bantu tribe of Somalia will have to conquer in their new home in America. Nine Somalian Bantu refugees have settled into their homes in the Syracuse area. Their arrival marks a new phase of life for people who have lived in constant oppression, persecution and slavery since the 1800’s. They are a rural, agricultural people who were denied education and lived in the lowest levels of African society. Since 1991, the Bantu tribe have lived in refugee camps along with Somali refugees who once had been their oppressors. According to information provided by the Church World Service, in 1999, the U.S. agreed to accept 12,000 of the Somali Bantu refugees, and moved them 900 miles from Dadaab to Kakuma Camp which was considered one of the best run refugee camps. Kakuma is home to about 80,000 people from various African countries, cultures, and ethnicities. However, due to increased homeland security and restrictions on immigration, the Bantus’ expected U.S. arrival in 2002 was delayed. In addition, the number of approved refugee admissions dropped to approximately 10,500 by mid-2002. Through the combined efforts of the U.S. State Department Resettlement Program and the Interreligious Council Refugee Program, the refugees approved for admittance to the U.S. are expected to be settled in 50 communities throughout the country. Syracuse will receive between 300 and 500 over the next two years. Onondaga County Catholic Charities in conjunction with St. Margaret’s Parish in Mattydale has worked to set up the first home for a family of four.

Kipp Hargrave of Catholic Charities Refugee Settlement Program shared what life is like for these people now that they have touched down on American soil. “They have had no formal education and are illiterate. They have never seen or read a book in any language. While they do speak Somalian and are able to communicate with their interpreters, they also have their own language of Bantu, which is not a written language. To teach them the English language, both spoken and written, is very difficult,”explained Hargrave. “They do not think in a sequential, linear way. In their culture, stories were always told, not read. Reading for them, can be very confining. They must learn to think like the author instead of thinking creatively. This goes against their culture of verbal storytelling passed down from generation to generation.” A host of volunteers and staff will help introduce English through the English as a Second Language (ESL) Program at the Refugee Assistants Program (RAP) located on Park Street in Syracuse. They will help the parents and children to conquer both the written and spoken word. The children have already started attending classes in preparation for entry into the public school system in the fall. The parents will go through an intensive training program at RAP that will allow them to become self-sufficient. They will be taught how to bank, how to use the public transportation system, how to shop and how to find employment.

“According to federal guidelines, the refugees must be self-sufficient for six weeks at the six month mark. The goal is to have them employed within four months of their arrival. This is a hard goal to obtain in this country. The welfare system does not provide enough support to make ends meet,”explained Hargrave. “The paperwork for public assistance is overwhelming. If one small mistake is made in the paperwork, you are dropped from the system. It’s very difficult, then, to get back into the system.”

For the first month, the federal government picks up the tab for their welfare. For the second and third months, the burden falls to the county level through the Department of Social Services , who in turn seeks reimbursement from the federal government. By the fourth or fifth months, hopefully, the refugees will be employed. The case worker from RAP will assist the refugees in finding employment. “They will be qualified to do office cleaning or light industrial work,” stated Hargrave. “But industrial jobs are hard to find in Syracuse right now.” The African culture allows women to work. “In the African culture, oftentimes, the man is not the breadwinner. Women worked in the fields and took care of the children. If the children are of school age, both parents can look for employment. The refugee men don’t mind taking care of the children which will allow both parents to be able to work –– perhaps different shifts,” explained Hargrave. “The financial obstacles they face will be the hardest to overcome.”

After years of living in poverty, becoming acclimated to a furnished apartment and the modern conveniences of stoves, refrigerators and indoor plumbing can be overwhelming for the refugees. Recently,when the family returned home from an orientation class, they found that the door to the apartment was ajar and the windows were open. Concerned that their house had been broken into, they immediately called the interpreter on the phone. She returned to the house and upon inspection could find nothing missing. “What do you think was taken?” she asked. “Our food,” they replied. They had left their food cooking on the electric stove while they went to the meeting and it was the fire department who had broken in. Welcome to America.

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