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The Long Journey
by Peter Koch
This is the first of a two-part series about Buffalo’s Somali refugee population. The stories herein are not meant to represent the experiences of all local Somalis. Rather they are portraits of a handful, which, when put together, form not only an African mosaic, but also tell a distinctly American story that readers will find familiar. It is a story that must be retold, though, especially as it now unfolds in our own city.
For many of us, our only experience of Somalia is the movie Black Hawk Down, which depicted an American Special Forces raid into the capital city of Mogadishu in October 1993. The mission of the 120-odd Delta Force, Army Rangers and Navy SEALs was to capture several key lieutenants of Somalian warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who opposed a United Nations-led effort to cobble together a coalition government out of Somalia’s warring clans. In the end, 18 American soldiers were killed and nearly 500 Somalis lay dead in the streets of Mogadishu. International news outlets later played gruesome footage of the bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets and burned.
That episode came in the middle of a bloody civil war in Somalia. In 1991, rival clans ousted the corrupt government of Somalian President Mohamed Siad Barre, leaving a power vacuum that plunged the nation into a chaos from which it has yet to recover. As rival warlords battled back and forth across southern Somalia (with the most intense fighting occurring in and around Mogadishu), throngs of Somalis of all ethnicities fled the country for refugee camps in Kenya. Over the course of the next 13 years, the UN resettled hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees in the United States and abroad.
Scores of those refugees now call Buffalo home. Two major waves of Somali refugees—the first in 1996 and the second in 2004—have swelled the city’s Somali population to well over a thousand, most of whom live on the West Side. They are a colorful people, and they bring with them not only their unique cultures and traditions, but also fresh ideas and perspectives that will help our city grow as long as they remain.
Located on the far side of the world, in eastern Africa, Somalia forms the cap of the Horn of Africa (so-called because it resembles a rhinoceros horn), which separates the Gulf of Aden from the Indian Ocean. The Egyptians called it Punt, and sent commercial expeditions to its northern coast for frankincense and myrrh as far back as the 15th century BC.
Somalia’s history is as turbulent as most of Africa’s. In the 15th and 16th centuries, it became a centerpiece in the ongoing battle between Christianity and Islam in the War of 128 Years. The Portuguese later helped to end the era of republican coastal city-states (similar to that of Greece), wreaking havoc on Mogadishu, Zeilah, Berbera and Brava.
In the late 1800s, historical Somalia, which included parts of modern-day Eithiopia and Djibouti, was arbitrarily partitioned between the Christian colonial powers of England, Italy and France, They used the country for economic gain while supplying Ethiopia’s Christian Emperor Menelik with modern weapons, which he used to make raids on the Muslim Somalis.
When the country finally gained its independence in 1960, the dozens of tribes identified as strongly with their bloodlines as with the nation. Part of the reason for this is that the people of Somalia are named after their fathers (middle name) and grandfathers (last name). This means that bloodlines can easily be traced back for centuries. Also, arranged marriages were frequently kept within a tribe, to keep the wealth inside a family, instilling further identification to a tribe or clan. These pressures finally erupted in 1991, with the overthrow of Siad Barre and the subsequent civil war.
Buffalo’s Somali refugee population is as rich in diversity as that of its troubled homeland, Somalia. Whether Benadir, Brava, Bantu or part of a Somali clan, they’ve all come here for the same reason: to escape the horrors of civil war and start anew. None of us can imagine what it’s like to walk a mile in their shoes, and nobody should ever have to.
Juweria Abdalla remembers clearly the day the civil war started. It was a bright Tuesday morning, and she was just a 12-year-old girl in school. “I didn’t know what was happening,” says Juweria, from across the small table, “but all I could hear was gunshots. That was all you could hear.” There were also huge explosions, she says, making a boom sound. School was immediately dismissed, and Juweria stayed home for the next week. The situation continued to degrade, until one day when strangers started asking those threatening questions: “Who are you? Who’s your tribe?” “That’s when things really started getting ugly,” says Juweria.
We’re sitting in the living room of Juweria’s apartment, which she shares with her mother. The room is comfortably furnished, and I sip on ginger-infused Somalian coffee and nibble some sweets while Juweria talks. She is in her late 20s, a Somali Banadiri who came to Buffalo 10 years ago (“July 24, 1996 to be exact,” she says, smiling, “so we just had our 10th anniversary). She wears a hijab wrapped Somali-style around her head and neck, with the extra material draped over her shoulders. Juweria works for the state as an income franchise tax editor, which keeps her on the road about a week each month. She has an easy smile and clear eyes, and speaks with confidence. She is eager to talk about her people.
She tells me about the Banadiri, or Reer Hamar, an urban coastal people and minority in Somalia. Juweria’s people were the first to inhabit the region immediately surrounding Mogadishu. That’s where she grew up, in the city’s oldest district—Hamar Wayne—which is closest to the beach. The Banadiri are fishermen, businessmen, textile makers and sometimes go into politics, though Juweria says they are “like the Green Party of Somalia.” When the war broke out, Juweria’s family fled Hamar Wayne to the small town of Afgoye, about 30 kilometers from Mogadishu. The fighting died down after a month, and her family returned to find their house emptied out. “At that time, though, nobody cared about where their stuff is. It was more, ‘Thank God I’m alive and okay.’” She said that most of the city was looted. “During that time you either got robbed, or you were robbing someone else,” Juweria says, shaking her head.
In 1991, a four-month war forced her family to again flee to Afgoye, where they lived in a farmhouse with more than 50 other people seeking refuge. One day, while visiting the market in Afgoye with her cousin, a bomb exploded. A piece of shrapnel tore up her cousin’s intestines, and she could only stand by helplessly while her cousin bled to death. “So that was the first person in our family that we lost to the war.”
Ten of her family left after that, by boat from Merka to Mombasa, Kenya. In April 1992, her family entered the Utanga Banadiri refugee camp. The schooling in the camps was limited, mainly a place for kids to have fun together and play. There were no jobs for adults. The United Nations High Commission of Refugees provided oil, flour, rice and corn—something to get people by. Like everyone else, Juweria’s family often ended up bartering away their food to get water. Four years later, Juweria was resettled to the United States with her mother, sister and two brothers, making them five in all for the long journey. “Our plane was 500 people, all Somalis. We flew from Mombasa to Paris, where there was a three-hour layover. Nobody was allowed to leave the plane. The crew changed, but we stayed on.”
Then they flew on to New York and the unknown, each family carrying only a white bag with the “IOM” acronym for the International Office of Migration printed in blue lettering on the side. “We were all carrying those bags. They had our I-94s, our visas, our health information, x-rays, our shots—all of our information. We were told, ‘If you lose this bag, you are lost.’ So everyone was so careful with that bag to make sure we don’t get lost in the middle of nowhere.” Juweria and her family didn’t know what to expect, where they were going, who they were going to face.
They were settled by Catholic Charities in an East Side home, the sixth or seventh Somali family to come to Buffalo. After a midnight scare from a ne’er-do-well, her family decided to leave. All seven Somali families chose the West Side, because of the high concentration of Italians there. “We could speak Italian, because Italy colonized southern Somalia. Also, we ate the same foods, so we thought they’d be the least trouble to live with.”
Asked whether she’d ever go back to Somalia if there was peace, Juweria answers quickly and confidently. “I would love to, it’s my real home.” Right now, though, she’s not sure there will ever be peace. “To be honest, I’ve kind of lost faith. It’s been such a long time. But, who knows, when I get to be 55 or 60, there might be peace.” And Juweria knows that with her education and understanding of the world, she’d be a great help to her family.
“I am a proud American, an American citizen, and this is my home for now. But deep down inside, I know that I am from another place where half of my family still lives. And they need me desperately, as we speak now.”
Ahmed Hassan, 47, stands across from me in a pool of light on Grant Street, a cigarette dangling from his lips. “Sit down,” he says, motioning to a white plastic chair outside of a small restaurant. His restaurant. In his lifetime, Hassan has had nearly everything taken away from him, but through persistence, the kindness of others and a fair amount of dumb luck, fate has dealt him a second chance, and he’s not taking it for granted.
Originally from Mogadishu, Hassan figures he’s been in Buffalo about 10 years and four days. Though he was a member of the Bravanese minority there, he made a good living as a businessman selling cooking oil. Until the civil war came, that is. In 1991, he was shot in the back and robbed by one of Mogadishu’s countless khat-chewing, gun-toting street children. “I’ll show you,” he says to me, standing up and removing his jacket. He rolls up his shirtsleeve and shows me the light brown circle of scar tissue on his bicep, where the bullet exited. It went into his back and came out his side before penetrating his arm. “They shoot first, ask questions later. But what can I do?”
What Hassan did was take his daughter and flee the country by boat from the port of Merka. They sailed to Mombasa, Kenya and from there were taken to Utanga Brava refugee camp. Camp life was dismal. Mosquitoes frequently brought the malaria virus, and there were no jobs for the adults. However, Hassan did meet his second wife in Utanga Brava, and they were married there. That camp closed in April of 1995, so they took their five children by bus to Kakuma refugee camp, where the UNHCR processed them for resettlement in the States.
“My wife passed away in Kakuma refugee camp,” Hassan says, pausing to light another Marlboro Light. “So I take care of her children alone.” Now with three girls and two boys, he had to fetch the water, wait in the food lines and wash the children’s clothes himself, duties that were traditionally the responsibility of women. On top of that, there was no school for the children to go to. Finally they got approvals from the UN in late 1996, and the 36-hour trip to Buffalo began. A bus took the family to Nairobi, where they boarded a plane bound for Amsterdam. From there it was on to New York City, and finally Buffalo. When he arrived here, Hassan spoke no English, had no belongings besides the clothes he was wearing and had five children to care for. Catholic Charities settled Hassan on the lower East Side, near Fillmore and Olga Place.
“I get new life. I get welcome. I get welfare and health for eight years.” Hassan is not ashamed of having received welfare for so long, nor should he be. He worked several entry-level jobs to support his family (since he didn’t speak English) before settling for several years on dishwashing at Tandoori’s in Williamsvile. After that, he drove a taxi for four years. And now he has the Somali Star, a modest, pastel yellow takeout stand of a restaurant between Lafayette and Ferry on Grant. Hassan has only owned the restaurant for two weeks. His older stepson and a friend opened the restaurant in mid-July, but it didn’t generate enough business, so they gave it to Hassan.
The restaurant is closed for the day, and Hassan’s family is busy cleaning up the kitchen. Occasionally throughout our conversation, various silhouettes lean out the door to ask Hassan a question in Somali. His younger stepson, Adan, stops now and again to listen to Hassan talk. “I was 11 when we came here,” Adan tells me. “It was a hard time. He worked in a factory at first.”
Now Hassan’s hard work is paying off. His daughter is married and going to ECC, his oldest stepson finishing up at UB.
This seems to remind him of something, and he yells in Somali through the open door of the restaurant. “The one who’s young,” he explains to me, “I don’t want her to go here until her homework is done. She likes the music here, though.”
Hassan is bald on top, though he still has graying hair on the sides. He has a trim moustache set on a friendly face, and gray stubble sprouts from his chin and jaw line. He is a genial man, though he doesn’t smile as much as you’d expect. It’s when he talks about his children that his face softens and his eyes smile. At 13, Hanan, his middle daughter, is first in her class every year. “She is no student,” her teacher tells Hassan, “she is a miracle.” He beams with pride.
“If the war ends in Somalia, would you ever go back?” I ask Hassan.
“Oh no,” he responds, staring out into the street. “Never. I am safe here. I think that if I stayed there, I’d be dead already from disease or violence.”
“God bless America,” he says over and over again during my visit. “She opened her heart to me, so that I could live. She saved me and saved my kids.”
The Somali Bantu Community Organization is set in the lower half of a modest duplex in Buffalo’s Riverside neighborhood. When I knocked on the door there on a recent sun-shining Monday morning, an imposing silhouette emerged from the darkness within. An African man with a brush-cut and thin moustache opened the door and stood aside, beckoning me in without saying a word. Once inside, Chairman Abdikadir Yusuf offered me his hand and a chair. He looked at me with intense eyes through thin, gold-rimmed glasses. “There is a lot I must tell you.”
And so he began to weave the history of his people, the Bantu, into being, the way his elders have done countless times before him. Yusuf is a master storyteller, whose voice rises and lowers at just the right moments. At 57 years old, he is considered an elder and has already outlived his country’s life expectancy by 12 years.
The Bantu have a very different history from the rest of Somalis, he says. Bantus are not from Somalia at all, but were brought there from southeastern Africa—Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi—by Arabic slave traders. Damaged slave ships would limp into the port at Merka for repairs before rounding the Horn of Africa. Many slaves continued on from here to European markets, but some were sold at these stops and forced to work on plantations in the Shabelle River valley. Tens of thousands of Bantu were brought to southern Somalia’s riverine areas from 1800 to 1890. In the 1840s, fugitive slaves found and settled the more remote, forested Juba River valley. “They stayed in the bush, in places like Jilib, Baidoa, Chisimayu, Jamaame,” says Yusuf. “My people, the Wazigua tribe, remained in the lower Juba River valley.” The villages they founded became safe harbors for runaways, and were named for the family that first settled them. By the 1900s, there were an estimated 35,000 ex-slaves in the Juba River valley.
Though the Italian colonial authority officially abolished slavery in the early 1900s, it reintroduced coerced labor laws and involuntary conscription of Bantus for economic purposes in the 1930s. They were forced to abandon their own farms and work as laborers on Italian plantations. British rule in the 1940s and 1950s was the most just, Yusuf says. “The British get seed from Nairobi and England—watermelon, mango, sugar cane. That’s how we started to have our own big farms.”
In 1960, the British north and Italian south of Somalia became independent and merged to form the United Republic of Somalia. Life only became worse for the Bantu, according to Yusuf. “’You came here by ship, you came here as slaves,’ the Somalis say to us. ‘You must find another land.’” In 1969, President Abdi Rashid Ali Shermarke was assassinated and Mohamed Siad Barre, a general in the army, took power in a coup d’état. “Before, everyone was fighting with his ability, but now they are government and they start again to attack the Bantu,” Yusuf says, his hands dancing in the air. “They can take your daughter to the bush, and nobody can say anything, because they have power, they have guns, they start to take whatever they wanted.” He repeats the last phrase twice.
Siad Barre’s regime was brutal, dramatically reducing Bantu rights and making them third-class citizens. They weren’t allowed to go to school, or be in the army or government. They couldn’t get Somali passports, which prevented them from entering neighboring countries and complaining of the human rights violations. As a means of control, Bantus weren’t allowed to speak the national language, and could only speak their own languages. Over time, the Bantu became uneducated and illiterate—prisoners in their own land. They were a ghost people, existing entirely off the books and denied the basic rights of education, citizenship and freedom from persecution.
“We were dhubwashi,” Yusuf says, his voice lowering and his eyes flashing. “It’s like something over there,” he says, pointing to a corner, “where anytime you need it, you can pick it up. If you don’t need it, you just leave it there, like a stone. We were people living inside a hole.”
The civil war provided the Bantu with their first real chance to leave the country. UNHCR officers were already at the Kenyan border to screen and accept refugees from the civil war. The Somali clans, particular the Hawiye and Darod, were busy fighting each other. “They hit each other, they kill each other. Sometimes they pass through our villages and kill us. That’s how they killed my mother,” he says, almost shouting to convey the violence and chaos of the war.
The Bantu people began to run from their villages and into the bush. They walked for days on end, sometimes hundreds of miles, to the Kenyan border. Some died of hunger, some of thirst and some were killed by lions.
At the Kenyan border, the Bantu faced the problem of convincing the UNHCR of their identity. They were clearly Bantu, but Somalia had no official record of Bantu people living there, at least not that the rest of the world knew about. With Kenyan soldiers providing security, the Bantu refugees met with UNHCR officials, and told them of their origins in Tanzania and Mozambique. The UNHCR brought in the Minister of Foreign Affairs from Tanzania, who speaks Zigua. “He said, ‘You can’t speak Zigua. Where are you from?’ We told him we’re from Somalia, and how we were brought there. ‘These are my people,’ he said. And they took 3,000 of us Wazigua to refugee camp in Tanzania.” The rest of the Bantu were brought to Dadaab, which refers to three refugee camps—Ifo, Dagahaley and Hagadera. The Bantus languished in the camps for over a decade total, because they were illiterate, and couldn’t properly petition the UN for resettlement.
In Dadaab, conditions were no better for the Bantu than in Somalia. Dadaab is located in the most remote, harsh area of Kenya. There is little vegetation besides some scruffy trees, and the Kenyan tribes in the area, primarily nomadic camel herders, regularly attacked the camps for the UN-rationed food. “At night, they walk around in the camps,” Yusuf says. “They knock on your door, and if you don’t open it, they break the door, kill you and rob you of your UNHCR food—oil, beans, maize.” Women were the most vulnerable, since they often had to venture as far as 20 kilometers from the camps to collect firewood to keep their cooking fires going. “Bandits watch the women and catch them and rape them.” But danger didn’t only come from outside the camp. Somalis within the camps continued the mistreatment of the Bantu in the refugee camps, attacking them at will for their rations or money sent from relatives abroad.
After two years in the camp, the Bantu finally understood that the UNHCR field officer, Dan Van Lehman (“Professor Danny,” Yusuf calls him) was running the show at the camp. One day, while Van Lehman was walking through the camp with his guards, some Bantu stopped him and told their story to him in Swahili. Van Lehman began an earnest search into their background, writing to the governments of Mozambique, Tanzania and Malawi. Mozambique sent a delegation to Dadaab. “They said, ‘We want to see your tradition.’ So we start to dance to show them how they dance in Mozambique. They said, ‘Yes, these are our people.’” The same thing happened when the Tanzania and Malawi delegations came. Van Lehman was able to finish his report to the UN, and nine years later the Bantu were finally resettled to the States.
“Up to now, we have problems because our people are not literate. We do not read and write, we are not technicians, we have no skills. So for Bantu to be in the United States is not the end of our problems.” Yusuf grew up in Mugambo village in Somalia, and his childhood was unique for a Bantu. A wealthy Italian who lived there made it his business to help Yusuf’s father, a teacher, because the Italians had built a Catholic mission on his land. As a favor to Yusuf’s father, the missionary educated him and protected him from Somalis. He went to Rome for high school, where he learned electrical engineering.
These advantages certainly didn’t make life easy for Yusuf. He lost all nine of his children from Africa, either separated from him in Somalia or the refugee camps, or perhaps killed. He lived 14 years in the lawless refugee camps before coming to Buffalo in 2002. But now he’s compelled to use his education to help his fellow Bantu. Together with his wife, Rashana Saunders, an American whom he met on a city bus only days after his arrival, he runs the fledgling Somali Bantu Community Organization.
Yusuf is eager to solve his people’s problems. “We can’t talk about all of this,” he says, referring to his background. “There’s so much…we need to help these people.”
Isha Ramadhani and Kerey Imam
Before I can even walk through the door of #8 at the Wingate Apartments, there are three giggling Somali Bantu children jumping all over me, trying to hang from every available limb. This apartment belongs to Kerey Imam, 33, and her husband. Together they raise six children here.
With mid-afternoon sunlight pouring through the tall front windows, Kerey and her friend, Isha Ramadhani, tell me about their journey to Buffalo through translator and resettlement caseworker Anna Ireland. Anna spent two and a half years in Kenya with the Peace Corps, and now speaks fluent Swahili. As a caseworker for both women, Anna has become very close to them, making herself available around the clock to offer any help she can. She helped them prepare to give birth Isha even named her youngest daughter Anna in her honor.
They start with their lives in the refugee camps. The story is similar to the tales told by other refugees. “It was always hard to get food,” Isha says, “hard to get water, hard to get wood for cooking, hard to get clothes, there was no work and there was no money. It was always a big problem, just surviving. But here,” she smiles, “we don’t have the problem of hunger.” They couldn’t send their children to school in the camp, because they didn’t have shoes or clean clothes.
Both women are housewives, and their husbands work full-time jobs. Isha’s husband works at WNY Pallet Services in Kenmore, making wooden pallets. Kerey’s husband works at Tuxedo Junction. Before the civil war in Somalia, they were subsistence farmers, growing beans, corn, pumpkins and many other crops. They also picked bananas to sell at the market. The farms they worked were small. Isha points out the window to a small parking lot across Wadsworth, indicating the size of a typical farm.
The apartment is spare, but cozy when filled with the women’s warm voices and children’s shrieking laughter. The furniture includes a table, a handful of kitchen chairs and a desk, upon which sits the television. The windows are usually covered by long curtains, but today one is pulled back to let the sun heat the room. The only wall decorations are a Ramadan calendar, a wall calendar and a clock. The children, which include some of Isha’s four, settle down after a while, and play a simple card game called “Match.”
Next Isha and Kerey talk about the walk from the Juba River valley to Kenya. It was all at night, and lasted 12 days, with many people dying from hunger and thirst. For Kerey, the trip was particularly arduous, because she had two children with her. Both grew sick and died later on in the refugee camps.
After two years in Buffalo, their children are growing comfortable with school. “The only problem is,” says Isha, “that we can’t help them with their homework.” Though the two women are trying to learn English—Kerey in ESL courses from Catholic Charities and Isha from a private tutor—there’s not always time to raise a large family and learn a new language. In fact, the children are often able to help them with their English.
Various children come and go from the apartment while we talk. Here at the Wingate Apartments on Wadsworth near Allen, all but two of the apartments are inhabited by Somali Bantu. Because there are so many families from similar backgrounds living together, they exercise community care over their children. Early on a school day, you can see a clutch of Bantu women loading their children onto the school bus. They are hard to miss, dressed in bright, flowing robes called bati (in the Zigua language) and equally colorful ndangas, or head wraps.
What Isha and Kerey hold above all else is their children’s education. “What we’re happiest about is the progress of the children,” says Kerey.
Next week, AV will look at how the Somalis are adjusting to their new life here, with help from resettlement agencies, community activists and, most importantly, one another. We will talk furhter with Yusuf and Saunders about the struggles faced by the Somali Bantu Community Organization to help Buffalo’s 500-600 Bantus. Also we’ll speculate on how the recent influx of African immigrants can help revitalize Buffalo.
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