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.

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

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