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Out of Africa, on to a fresh start

Portland scholar leads effort to resettle hundreds of Somali Bantu refugees

Back when Portland scholar Daniel Van Lehman was running a refugee camp in Kenya, he learned a memorable lesson about the Somali Bantus.

The camp had become a 'deforestation machine,' he recalls. Hungry people were ravaging the local forests for firewood for cooking. So Van Lehman asked the refugees to look into setting up a nursery to replace the trees that were being lost.

Before long, the Bantus had raised 500,000 seedlings. They didn't have any nursery materials like planting pots or tarps, so they made do with scattered bits of junk Ñ discarded milk cans, plastic bags, burlap sacks.

And while they were at it, they planted prolific vegetable gardens. 'They were growing watermelons in the middle of the desert,' recalls Van Lehman, shaking his head.

For Van Lehman, it was a reminder of the ingenuity and persistence of the Somali Bantus, one of Africa's most oppressed ethnic groups. He's banking that those same abilities will enable the Bantus to adapt to life in the United States and in Portland.

The U.S. government recently announced that it will accept 12,000 Somali Bantus as refugees during the next two to three years. Refugee-friendly Portland, which has successfully welcomed thousands of transplanted Vietnamese, Ukrainian and Ethiopian immigrants in similar programs, was approved this week as one of 47 resettlement sites.

In addition, if Van Lehman gains the $400,000 in federal grant money he has applied for, Portland will serve as a central distribution point for information and resources to help the Bantus adjust to a new land.

The first of the 12,000 Somali Bantus are expected to start trickling into the United States Ñ and into Portland Ñ sometime this summer.

Van Lehman, 42, served in the Peace Corps in Kenya and speaks Swahili fluently. He joined the Somali relief effort in 1991, working as a field officer in the Dagahaley Refugee Camp in Kenya for the U.N. High Commission on Refugees.

One morning at the camp he heard two women arguing outside his tent. Forgetting that Somalis generally don't speak Swahili, he asked in that language what the problem was. Much to his surprise, one of the women answered him in perfect Swahili.

It turned out the woman was not a Somali but a Somali Bantu. Van Lehman had never heard of such an ethnic group. He had always believed in what he now calls 'the myth that Somalia is one land, one people.'

His subsequent research has shown that about one-third of the people in Somalia are from minority groups. And none of these groups is more persecuted than the Bantus. Their ancestors were brought to Somalia in chains from Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi by slave traders loyal to the Sultanate of Zanzibar in the 18th and 19th centuries. They have been treated as second-class citizens ever since.

Omar Eno, a Somali Bantu who is pursuing a doctorate in history at York University in Toronto, grew up with the discrimination. 'A Bantu could not go to a university, could not hold a permanent position, could not intermarry people from the dominant clan,' he says. 'I was the only Bantu in the classroom. Other students would not even want to sit next to me.'

War brings more hardship

The situation grew more dangerous after Somalia's civil war broke out in 1991 and warlords and bandits took over. The Bantus enjoyed few rights and negligible security in an economy that University of Pennsylvania Professor Lee Cassanelli has described as 'extortion of surpluses from the unarmed to the armed.' The Bantus suffered disproportionately from wartime robberies, rapes and murders, according to Van Lehman's research.

Van Lehman wrote his master's degree thesis at Cornell University about the feasibility of reintegrating the Bantu back into the cultures their ancestors had come from. A U.N. plan to send the Bantus back to Tanzania and Mozambique was blocked by the two nations.

Eventually, the United States decided to take the Bantus. Then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright signed the resettlement agreement in 1999.

Heightened post-Sept. 11 security measures regarding immigration have slowed the migration process, but the recent announcement of the resettlement sites means that the Bantus soon will be on their way.

Several hundred are expected to resettle in Portland. According to Van Lehman's figures, there are only about 300 Somali Bantus in the United States today, compared with 150,000 Somalis.

Van Lehman and Eno have co-written a cultural profile of the Somali Bantus for the U.S. State Department and for people who will help the refugees in their new communities. They travel widely to give talks on the Somali Bantus and to prepare cities from Tampa, Fla., to San Diego for the coming migration.

Van Lehman also hopes to help land Eno a position in Portland if the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement approves their grant application for a resettlement center here.

Cultures differ

The two scholars acknowledge that the people they are helping to resettle are bound to face challenges in their new homes. The Bantus are African Muslims who historically have practiced polygamy and female genital mutilation Ñ both of which are illegal in the United States.

According to Eno, the Bantus already have stopped both practices. Still, not everyone is sympathetic to the plight of the Bantus. Freelance writer Jim Moore recently wrote in the online magazine Ether Zone that the Somali Bantus are 'bush natives who still eat with their fingers. É Their aboriginal nature inadvertently lowers the standard by which American progress is maintained.'

But Van Lehman and Eno say they are confident that the refugees will make ideal citizens.

'They adapt easily,' Eno says. 'They are extremely versatile. I am sure they are going to fit in very well and surprise a lot of people.'

Van Lehman says he has been talking to nursery owners, orchardists and winemakers outside of Portland about the possibility of hiring Bantu laborers, and the response has been positive.

'These are folks who were under the thumb of a dominant culture for many years,' he says of the Somali Bantus. 'But since being in the refugee camps they have just blossomed. Their children are doing well in school, they're learning new languages. And the thing about the Bantu is, they'll do any work. When they get a job, they'll be happy to do it. They'll show up to work every day, and they'll work really hard.'

Contact Ben Jacklet at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..