Exiles on Main Street

Roughly 4,500 refugees will resettle in Texas this year, but few will have a tougher time adjusting than Ali Mohamed and his family. When they arrived in San Antonio from Africa in February, they didn’t know how to speak English. Or read or write. Or use a telephone or an electric stove. And in a few months they would have to start paying the rent.

July 2005By Comments

TO ANY CONNOISSEUR OF HUMAN HAPPINESS, especially in its more hidden forms, this was an occasion not to be missed, the sort of modest moment from which an entire people’s history might someday be made. It was nine-thirty on a Thursday night in February, and the last flights of the night were arriving at San Antonio International Airport: families coming back from a late-winter vacation, men in cowboy hats whooping at the sight of friends who’d come out to greet them, three chattering blond women in tight blue jeans pulling their rolling suitcases across the floor to the elevators, and behind them, unnoticed, a young black couple and their four children, all but the mother wearing new white Keds and gray sweatshirts with “USRP” printed on the front.

The man was small, compactly built, and he was obviously and openly exhausted. His name was Ali Shidad Mohamed, and his wife’s name was Madina. She was tall and dressed in a wrap of blue and red and yellow, and a yellow and orange and brown head scarf; she carried her youngest, still a baby, in a sling on her chest; she wore a dazed and solemn expression; and she was so profoundly beautiful that she looked like God himself had brushed up against her on his way to some other errand. The six of them said nothing, even when their caseworker and their translator waved to them from behind the security barrier, even when they were led through the airport parking lot and into a large blue van, even as they pulled out into the bright lights of Texas’ second biggest city. They were tired, bewildered, overwhelmed, and silent. They were Somali Bantu, among the world’s most mistreated people; they had just flown 9,300 miles from Kenya, where they’d been living in a refugee camp for thirteen years, enduring every possible form of privation, humiliation, and violence; and now, at last, they had sanctuary in America.

In the early nineteenth century, the Bantu were kidnapped en masse from Tanzania and Mozambique and sent to the fields of southern Somalia to work as slaves. Set nominally free in the early part of the twentieth century, they nevertheless remained second-class citizens, subsistence farmers—despised, abused, and forced to serve—and when the Somali civil war started, in 1991, the Bantu were the first to be raped and murdered, the first to be driven off whatever pitiful property they had managed to accumulate, the first to be chased to the Kenyan border, where they were put in refugee camps and told to wait, and then wait, and then wait some more.

By the time they learned they were coming to the United States, an entire world had passed them by. Ali and his wife had never used telephones, or electricity, or running hot water, or flush toilets; they’d never watched television, or sent an e-mail, or used a fork, or worn a pair of sunglasses; they had no passports, hence no citizenship anywhere in the world; they did not know their own dates of birth, or where exactly America was, or how to sign their names—indeed, Mai-Mai, the only language that they speak, has no written form. There are Bantu for whom a doorknob is a bit of bewildering technology. They aren’t primitives and they aren’t savages; they’re simply starved of knowledge of the modern world, like the youngest child of a large family who’s been left behind by the side of the road and never fetched back again. They are homeless and jobless and, beyond that, stateless, rootless, and invisible. And yet here they are.

During the past year, about 210 Bantu refugees have been brought to San Antonio. Most of them live in a large housing complex called Nob Hill, which lies just off Interstate 410 in the northwest part of town. They’ve been placed there in clusters of small one- to three-bedroom apartments by Catholic Charities, the aid group charged with resettling them. When Ali and his family pulled into the Nob Hill parking lot that night, there were a few young women in bright African dress standing on the walkway. They smiled, they laughed; there was some back and forth in Mai-Mai, and soon a dozen or so Bantu men and women were congregating under the bare lightbulb outside the Mohameds’ new apartment, and scores more were inside, at least half of them children—Bantu are nothing if not prolific—who sat with their mothers and grandmothers in the living room while the men commandeered the kitchen table and settled down to a meal so lavish, by refugee camp standards, that for a good half hour all Ali Mohamed did was eat: bread, bananas, broiled lamb, rice, and roasted chicken (it was the first time he’d ever tasted chicken), and orange juice, and a generic brand of pineapple soda. “In Africa,” someone said, “only rich men can afford to drink this soda,” and they all laughed and belched and then went back to eating. Someone had brought a boom box, which played Arabic pop, and at least a third of the children were screaming and crying, and the women were bustling about the kitchen, and the food kept coming, and all in all it was about as happy an occasion as one can imagine, a cross between Thanksgiving, Independence Day, and the sort of party that an auto mechanic might throw after learning he’s won a $47 million lottery.

At the end of the night, the partygoers started to straggle out. It was late, and many had jobs to go to in the morning, and the children had school. Besides, they had all been in Ali’s position before: newly arrived, tired, excited, confused. In time the last guest left, and Ali and his wife went into the bedroom and lay down, on the first mattress they had ever owned.

THIS IS HOW YOU BECOME A BANTU REFUGEE in America. You’re a subsistence farmer in southern Somalia; you grow things and eat them; you marry and multiply. It’s always been so. Your father was a subsistence farmer too, and your grandfather was a sharecropper. Your great-grandfather was a slave. You are hated for having this history, called degrading names; you’re cannon fodder when war comes; you’re always the last in line.

Here, for example, is Sheikh Abdullahi Nur, at 75 the oldest of the San Antonio Bantu, hence their de facto elder, an authority he wears lightly and with a certain sly humor. He is six feet tall, gray-haired but still vigorous, and he’s been in America for ten months. Before that? “I was in a camp in Kenya for twelve years.” And before that? “I was farming for my father in Somalia. I worked the family’s farm, and when I finished, I went to another farm to get the daily bread. I did that for fifty years. We didn’t have a lamp, we didn’t have a bed. We went to the forest to cut some firewood to cook the food. When my wife needed to have a baby, there was no lamp at all, there was no light like this, there was no electricity. Then we were under colonization by the Italians. They would torture us. If you refused to do the things they wanted, they would get a fire, heat up a metal pole, and burn you on your knees.” He held up his pants leg to show the dime-size scars.

In the forties the Italians were kicked out, and the British took over. In 1960 the British left, and a period of homegrown regimes ensued. In 1991 the last of these local tyrants, Siyaad Barre, was deposed. Then a civil war began, and the country collapsed into a vicious anarchy overseen by gangsters, warlords, and clan leaders. Nur remembers those times too. “It was at the beginning of the civil war. They were saying, ‘You will give us your property.’”

Who are “they”?

“The gangsters. They were four of them, in military clothes. They came to me, and if it was beating and hitting with a stick, that would be okay, but they had a gun and they say, ‘If you do not give your property to us, we will shoot you.’ So they shot me.” He opens his shirt to show the hole in his abdomen where the bullet passed through. “And so I left. From the village, we came by foot. We were walking for fourteen days, and that’s how we came to the Kenyan border. I’m still missing three of my sons.”

Ali’s story is much the same. “I was eighteen years old when I had to leave Somalia,” he says, and it’s a sign of how devastated his life is that he later says he was fifteen, and his official record indicates that he was twenty. His birthday, like that of many Bantu, is listed as January 1—no one really knows when he was born. He remembers this, though: “They were torturing and killing, and raping my mom and my sister in front of me. They raped my mom and my sister, and then they hit me with the handle of the gun. We were farmers, and they were trying to take our property from us. In order to learn what we had, they beat us. When they beat us, we say, ‘I have this, I have this,’ and then they took it.”

This is how it goes: Someone tells you that the Kenyan border is that way, so you walk that way, not because you’re sure there’s safety there but because there’s no place else to go. You walk for ten days, fourteen days; you really don’t know where you’re going, but in time you get to the border, where there are men and women in white T-shirts with a baby-blue logo that says “UNHCR”—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They put you in a truck and take you to a camp, a vast, enclosed plain where there are tens of thousands of people like you. They give you a tarp to sleep under and rations every fifteen days: maize, vegetable oil, and porridge, and the night you get them you don’t sleep, because bandits will come around and shoot you for your food. You settle down there, and there you stay, living just like that. You use a trench for a toilet, carry water from a spigot a hundred yards from your little settlement. You create a life, a community, without ever leaving the camp. Ali and Madina met at a camp called Kakuma and were married two weeks later; her dowry was 1,500 Kenyan shillings, about $20. All four of their children were born in the camp and raised under that strangely mixed aegis of charity and captivity.

If you’re a Bantu, you’ve been living in the camps for well over a decade now, getting food from CARE International and medical treatment from Doctors Without Borders. If you’re young and strong, you can get a job digging slit trenches, and you’ll be paid about 8 cents for every meter you dig. If you’re a woman, you do a little laundry for anyone who has a few coins to spare and you take care of the kids; if you’re a kid, you do nothing much at all. Then one day you hear that people are being let out of the camps at last, so you apply, and you start to get processed, by UNHCR, by the International Organization for Migration, by the Department of Homeland Security. You’re questioned, your health is checked, and then you’re sent back to the camps to wait again. And while you wait, unbeknownst to you, a huge cantilevered contraption, made up of acronymed American governmental organizations—ORR, which is under ACF, which is under HHS—along with a dozen or so not-for-profit charities, is deciding where you will go, sending messages back and forth. We can take two hundred here. This family has relatives in that city. There are jobs to be found here. Your paperwork is being processed, money found, apartments lined up. You’re traded among local organizations like playing cards in a game of Go Fish. A winning hand keeps families together in affordable housing in a city like San Antonio, which is willing to host them and has the means to help.

At last everything is settled, and they come for you. You and your family are put on a small plane—you have never been on a plane before, and everyone gets sick—and sent to Nairobi. In Nairobi you wait some more: two months in a building that you are not allowed to leave. And then the jet, the transfer, a sleepless trip over an ocean you have never heard of, another transfer, and here you are in a city called San Antonio, an immense settlement full of white and brown and black people; cars, lights, and stores; and an apartment, relatives waiting, in time a home.

I HAD WONDERED HOW YOU DO THIS: how you take your family, put them on their first airplane, and bring them to a country about which you know absolutely nothing, with no language, no money, no skills. I wanted to know what the Bantu could have been thinking, but it turns out they were thinking mostly about food—always about food, always worrying about where the next meal was coming from and if it would be enough. Beyond that, it seems as if your soul goes into a kind of hibernation, where it can stay for years. “We Bantu,” one of the refugees who had been in San Antonio for a little while told me, “we do what we’re told. ‘Go here.’ Okay, we go there. ‘Go there.’ Okay, we go there. We really don’t think about it.”

And then gradually the soul comes awake again. The morning after he arrived, I went back to Nob Hill and picked up Ali and his cousin, who spoke enough English to act as a translator. They were a neat and dapper pair, the two of them, Ali in a borrowed blue checked shirt and green checked pants, the cousin in a white dress shirt and beige pants. They were polite, compliant; Ali seemed a little nervous as I ushered him into the cab of my pickup, but I had someplace special I wanted to take him, and his cousin was complicit. In they went and away we drove.

Still dazed from the plane ride, still dazzled by his surroundings, Ali was almost perfectly silent as we drove along the I-410 loop. Just once he spoke up. “The cars,” he said. “There are so many of them.” He paused. “They move like goats,” he finished, and I, not knowing how goats moved, made a noise of assent. After that, nothing, but he stared intently out the window, and as he did, I couldn’t help but wonder how the world looked through his eyes. It was an adventure in empathy: All these things, and what did he make of them? Sushi restaurants, laser car washes, cell phone emporiums. This was a man who had never opened a book, let alone been in a bookstore; and how would he react to bicycles, contact lenses, pornography, or poodles? We drove through the ragged strip malls of San Antonio, and absolutely everything looked new and strange to me, because I knew it looked new and strange to him.

I thought I would take Ali to the very apex of American superabundance, the symbol and instantiation of all that we as a nation hold dear: freedom, choice, democracy, capitalism, consumerism—the summa summarum of our country’s two and a quarter centuries on the continent. He watched the traffic, the passing signs, the garish buildings going by, and soon enough, there it was, rising up in the distance, an El Dorado with fluorescent lights. The cousin said something to Ali in Mai-Mai, a barrage of syllables that sounded strikingly like English played backward, until he reached the three letters at the end. Wada wada wada wada, the cousin said, his voice rising in excitement. Wada wada wada, H-E-B.

Once inside the store, with its endless bins of fresh produce, its towering aisles of imported pasta, its enormous, frigid lockers stuffed with frozen garlic shrimp and pizza rolls, Ali broke his silence only to giggle at a carefully arranged display of mushrooms. “These cost money?” he asked. “In Africa,” his cousin explained, “these are everywhere. We don’t eat them.” On through the store we went. Ali visibly shuddered at a package of bacon (Bantu, being Muslims, don’t eat pork), but gradually his cart filled up with foods both familiar (mangoes, bananas) and unfamiliar (guacamole, baby formula).

Then we came upon a ceiling-mounted TV monitor, which was playing a DVD of Shark Tale, and Ali stopped, transfixed, his head craned back, while on the screen the colorful animated creatures sported and joked. He stood there watching for a good ten minutes; I stood beside him and reflected on the unstoppable cash-making machinery of the Hollywood studio system, the juvenility of American mass culture, the enduring appeal of gangster stories—until at last Ali turned and asked me what, apparently, he had been wondering all along: “Those fish,” he said. “Are they edible?”

THE UNITED NATIONS ESTIMATES that there are about 17 million displaced people worldwide, collected in camps around the globe. The United States agrees to take about 70,000 a year, far more than any other country, although new security protocols after 9/11 have effectively clogged up the system to the point where only half that many, or less, actually get here. Still, there are refugees from all over the world being resettled in this country, about 4,500 in Texas alone: Cubans on the run from Castro, Bosnian victims of the war in Sarajevo, Burmese and Bangladeshis and Afghans and Iranians, Liberians crawling out from under that country’s complete collapse, Chinese escaping what’s left of Maoism, and Turks and Thais and Rwandans and Vietnamese. They come to San Antonio, to Dallas and Houston and Amarillo (the meat-packing plants hire lots of refugees). They settle and they stay: the newest Texans.

In 1999 the United States agreed to take 12,000 Bantu from the border camps in Kenya, but the logjam affected them too. Only in the past year or two have they started arriving in significant numbers; Texas has taken about 1,150. Catholic Charities, which despite its name lives mostly on a combination of federal grants and private donations, helps most of them get started. Ideally, refugees will be self-sufficient within four months. Their children go into the public school system. In a year the adults will have green cards, and in five years they’ll be American citizens. In a generation or two they will be doctors, business owners, congressmen, and America will have performed one of its periodic defining absorptions, some version of which has been going on since this country was founded.

It’s the Bantu dream. “Now I live in good conditions,” says Nur. “I eat rice, spaghetti, chicken, potatoes, tomatoes, everything. I am not strong enough to work, I don’t know how to write, I don’t know how to speak English, I don’t even know how to write the alphabet. All I’m hoping for is to keep my stomach full. And I haven’t had any problems since I came. No one is discriminating against me, abusing me, pushing me or hitting me, or saying some bad words. Everything is okay for me now. My children, they are American; forever they will not go anywhere.”

Paula Walker, the refugee resettlement program director of Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of San Antonio, says that in some ways the Bantu have it easier than immigrants from, say, Cuba or Eastern Europe. They’re unusually eager, and they have few ties left to their land of origin. They work hard, they’re adaptable, they’re unfailingly gentle, and they’re deeply grateful to be here. “They’re very, very willing to just do what they have to do, to give up what they have to,” Walker says.

But in other ways, resettlement is harder for them. They speak no English, and the very idea of literacy is foreign to them; that also presents them with a greater obstacle than even the most deprived of refugees from the West must face. What’s more, they have so little experience with even the most basic of Western practices: using a bank account, for example, or paying bills. It’s not that they’re irresponsible; on the contrary, they’re known for their industriousness and adaptability. It’s just that so much of this is new to them; there’s so much to learn. In a way, America is a harsher environment than the one they’re used to, more demanding and less forgiving. In the camps you could count on the aid agencies to deliver food every couple weeks; there was no rent to pay, no electricity or telephone to be turned off. Refugees, like the citizens of tyrannies, have very little, but most of what they have is given to them, and however willing they may be to learn how to care for themselves, it can take a while to adjust.

In Kenya, Ali and Madina were given an introduction to American culture, though the lessons they mention learning seem almost comically random: no urinating on the ground; this is how you light a stove; men and women are equal in America, and so are blacks and whites; you can’t buy a car without telling the government; in an emergency you pick up the telephone, press 9-1-1, and say, “No English. Fire! Fire!” And female circumcision (a.k.a. clitoridectomy, a.k.a. female genital mutilation), they were told in no uncertain terms, is forbidden, though the practice is as traditional and natural to Bantu as male circumcision (which they also perform) is to Americans.

Still, anyone looking for scandal will have to look elsewhere. “It’s a sin for a woman to be uncircumcised,” one young Bantu woman told me. “The religion says so.” But when another Muslim in the room insisted that the religion said nothing of the sort, she seemed to have no interest in arguing. “Well, that’s what they told us,” she said. Anyway: “We’re afraid to do it here,” she went on. “Only the boys, no girls at all. In Somalia, it used to be very easy to find someone who did the procedure regularly. You say, ‘Circumcise my daughter or my son.’ But here you’re not going to find someone who’s willing to do it, and 911 would be called. I can’t speak for other people, but that’s okay by me.”

A deeper and more intransigent problem may be race, for within the insanely complicated patterns of American race relations, Somali Bantu have no status at all. They’re wild cards, their blackness means whatever an onlooker wants it to mean, and there will be times when it will work against them. Drive into Nob Hill, and the first thing you’ll see is groups of Bantu congregating on the sidewalks, a habit they’ve carried over from their life in the camps, where there’s really no such thing as domestic space. Some of the neighbors in the complex assumed these clusters of black people were evidence of gang activity, and while it didn’t take long for the matter to be sorted out, that kind of mistake will probably happen regularly, and, of course, it will go right over the Bantu’s heads.

Moreover, the black community has no reason to identify with the Bantu, nor the Bantu with American blacks. After ten months in San Antonio, young Bantu men have adopted the standard city-kid uniform of loose pants, basketball jerseys, and baseball caps. They listen to hip-hop, and they know all the new handshakes. But so, after all, do white kids; it signifies youth more than blackness. More Africans now immigrate into the U.S. each year than were brought here during any year of the slave trade—an astounding statistic, if you think about it—but they come with their own set of assumptions. A Somali woman who’s been here for some years told me she was riding a bus in Knoxville, Tennessee, when she heard someone refer out loud to “that black woman.” “And I swear I looked around,” she said, “and I remember looking at my arm, and I thought, ‘Oh! They’re talking about me.’ In Somalia you’re many, many things: You’re from a region, you’re the daughter of that person, you’re from a tribe. But ‘black’ doesn’t come up.” It will almost certainly come up in Texas, but in what form no one knows.

In the meantime the Bantu have set up a little African village at Nob Hill. They occupy about thirty of the complex’s units, and they’ve brought what’s left of their culture over from the camps. Tiny American practices remain puzzling to them. Bantu call “seven o’clock,” when the day is starting, “one o’clock.” For the first few weeks, many of them forget to translate the difference and show up for appointments six hours late. There has been some slight, semi-comical business around their unfamiliarity with shower curtains, and I once saw a woman knock on the front door of her own apartment from the inside, to signal to her friends outside that she was about to join them.

A city like San Antonio can absorb a few hundred refugees without even noticing: two hundred lives saved with no disruption to the city; a few women on the bus lines in colorful clothing; a few men in the kitchen of a hotel restaurant, speaking to each other in a language no one else understands. In other cities it hasn’t been as easy. Holyoke, Massachusetts, begged off a plan to resettle Bantu there on the grounds that doing so would strain the welfare, school, and Medicaid programs. Cayce, South Carolina, did the same. One of the school systems in San Antonio balked at the prospect of taking on a few dozen kids who didn’t speak English. “They didn’t think they could handle it,” says Walker. “But actually it’s going quite well.”

ALL THIS TAKES PLACE WELL outside Ali’s understanding. For now, all he knows is that he’s here, his family is here, and he’s impatient to get started. Ten days after arriving in America, he was standing on a sidewalk corner at Nob Hill, looking out of sorts. He hadn’t left the apartment complex since we’d been to the H-E-B; he was waiting for his Social Security card, which would be arriving the next day. He wanted to start work, any work. “Anything given to me, I’ll do,” he said. “I don’t like sitting around doing nothing.”

He sat around and talked to me for a while instead. The pictures I had taken, printed, and given to him were piled on the kitchen countertop, most of them bent and worn from having been handled covetously by everyone else in the complex (most Somalis have never seen a photograph of themselves, aside from the head shot on their ID cards). He and Madina were running out of diapers for their youngest child; they needed to go food shopping again; he wanted to get a telephone. All this will come when work comes. He talked about the future. “I want to learn. That’s something that I didn’t get in Somalia, so I want to learn how to read and write.” He talked about the traditions he wanted to keep—“I’m not going to stop praying,” he said—and those, like arranged marriages, that he would be content to abandon. “If my daughter brings me some future husband, and they’re in love,” he allowed, “they can go.”

He seemed to be both anxious and determined, and I remembered something he’d said the night he and his family first came to San Antonio. It was toward the end of the party, late that night; Ali was grinning so widely he looked like he was trying to swallow his own ears, and he gave voice to a sentiment I’ve encountered so rarely that at first it didn’t register with me, and it was only later that I realized what he’d said. “Where we come from, we think of white people as very generous,” he said. “By nature, we believe that white people, they will help poor people.”

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