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.

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