Many of the refugees suffered horrendous atrocities along the way. Militias showed up at night, abducting men and raping women. Some children were forced into labor, others witnessed their parents getting killed.
Things didn't get much better once they arrived at the mushrooming Dadaab refugee camp, near the Kenya-Somalia border. Today, there are 100,000 Somali refugees in Kenya. At Dadaab, the Bantu found themselves at the bottom of the pecking order, forced into menial jobs like cleaning latrines.
People of Special Interest
The U.S. government agreed to resettle the Somali Bantu only after efforts by the United Nations to move them to Mozambique failed. The 12,000 Somali Bantu are now the only people categorized by the U.S. government as a "special interest" group, making them automatically eligible for asylum.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, refugee admissions have slowed to a trickle. Only 27,000 refugees out of a quota of 70,000 arrived in the United States last year. Even fewer are expected this year.
Refugee advocates blame government red tape. U.S. government officials were not even allowed to travel to Dadaab to screen refugees because the camp is considered too dangerous. So the Somali Bantu had to be transported to another Kenyan refugee camp, Kakuma, near Sudan.
When the refugees stepped off the bus at Kakuma, after a three-day journey, some of them cheered, thinking they had arrived in the United States.
They soon found that life in Kakuma was not much better than Dadaab.
"The camp is extremely poor," said Erol Kekic, associate director of immigation and refugee programs with the Church World Service, one of the nine U.S. agencies that are settling the Somali Bantu in the United States. "Teenage girls won't even go to school because they have no clothes to wear."
Coming to America
Hassan Lamungu and his familyhis wife, their six children and Hassan's 61-year-old mother, Khadijawere among the first 1,400 Somali Bantu approved to travel to the United States.
Before they could leave Kenya, they had to go through a cultural orientation class, studying the skills needed to get through a typical American day. At one point, the class got stuck in a classroom. No one knew how to open the door, because no one had seen a doorknob before.
Since the Lamungus arrived in Phoenix last month, their days have been filled with cultural eye-openers.
When Hassan first visited the grocery store, he couldn't believe its size and selection. "He just stood there, staring," said Abraham Reech of the Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest, who is the case worker assigned to the Lamungu family.
The family was equally amazed at the three-bedroom city center apartment they were given. "They were saying, 'Is this all for us?'" said Reech. "They're used to sleeping nine people in one room."
The first night, all nine family members slept on the living room floor. Since then, they've slowly begun using the bedrooms too.
At one point, Hassan had to take one of his sons, Mohammed, to the doctor. As they sat in the waiting room, a man wearing a Mickey Mouse mask and a tail came out to entertain the children, offering Mohammed a balloon.
Both Hassan and Mohammed were terrified. They thought the man in the Mickey Mouse suit was the Devil and had come to take them away.
The Bantu, who will move to some 50 U.S. cities over the next two years, may be the most challenging group of refugees settled in the last two decades. Unlike most refugees to the United States, the Somali Bantu don't have family already in the country.
Family size poses a problem. The Somali Bantu generally have very large families. In one case, refugee workers found that 26 Bantu families with over 300 people were related. "It would be impossible to put them in the same place," said Kekic. "The kids would overrun the school system."
Learning English will be a struggle, since the majority of Bantu are illiterate. Education was out of reach for most Bantu children, who often worked on their parents' farm instead of attending school.
However, resettlement officials are not necessarily worried about how the refugees will adapt, but how the local communities will react. "The Bantus will work hard, pay taxes, and in some cases take jobs that others will not take," said Kekic. "They will contribute to the rich fabric of our society."
So far, the Lamungus have been catching on quickly. Halima, 16, who speaks the best English in the family, is amazed at the fast pace in the United States. "Everyone is always in a hurry," she said. "We get dizzy."
But she's very excited about school, and already knows what profession she wants. "It is my dream to be a doctor," she said.
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