Refugees in the U.S.: One Family's Story

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
June 20, 2003
(World Refugee Day)
Hassan Lamungu had never seen a laundromat before. He knew he must first
put his clothes into the washing machine. So he did that. Add quarters
into the coin slot. So he did that too. Then he stepped back, waiting.

Nothing happened. Someone finally had to point out that he should press the little button that said, "Start." Lamungu looked confused. "Why?" he asked. "They told me it was an automatic washing machine."

To a Somali refugee from a world away, there are some things about the United States that aren't what they're cracked up to be. But for the most part, Lamungu's new home country has exceeded his wildest expectations.

Less than a month ago, the 42-year-old Somali Bantu refugee and his eight family members stepped off an airplane at Phoenix International Airport. The journey from war-torn Somalia, through a decade of being holed up in Kenya's squalid refugee camps, was finally over. A new life began.

Lamungu is one of almost 12,000 Somali Bantu—among the most persecuted people in the world—whom the U.S. government is bringing to the United States in one of its biggest resettlement programs ever.

"These people literally had nowhere else to go," said Craig Thoresen, director of the Lutheran Social Ministry of Southwest, the agency that is helping the Lamungu family to settle in Phoenix, Arizona.

In the quest to help the world's refugees, however, the resettlement of the Somali Bantu is a mere drop in the bucket. Friday marks World Refugee Day, and while the Lamungus are learning how to master American appliances, most refugees are still languishing in dirty refugee camps. There are at least 35 million people around the world who have been forced to run for their lives and are exiled from their homes.


The Somali Bantu have a hard history. Tracing their roots to Mozambique, Tanzania, and Malawi, their ancestors were enslaved by Arab sultans in the 18th and 19th centuries and brought to Somalia. Even today, they're sometimes referred to as Adoon, a Somali term for "slave."

There are other Bantu groups spread over large parts of Africa (please side bar). The Somali Bantu, with their darker complexion, look different from most other Somalis, whose physical appearance is more Arab.

For the past 200 years, Somali Bantu have been treated as second-class citizens, denied access to education and land. They settled in four villages along the Juba river, scratching out a meager existence in agriculture.

Following the overthrow of dictator Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia descended into complete chaos and civil war. As a minority tribe in Somalia, the Bantu had no affiliation with the major clans, and thus no protection. The Bantu fled their homes and headed for neighboring Kenya.

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 family—his wife, their six children and Hassan's 61-year-old mother, Khadija—were 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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