texasmonthly.com: How did you become aware of the Bantu refugees in San Antonio?
Jim Lewis: I had been calling around the various refugee placement groups, trying to find the best way to tell the story. I was looking at a group of Afghans in Amarillo, but the woman who ran the program said there were more Somali Bantu coming in than Afghans and she told me a bit about them. So I called around some more, and, actually, a woman who works with refugees in Houston suggested I go down to San Antonio, because almost all the Bantu were living in one apartment complex there.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of research did you do prior to meeting the Mohamed family at the airport?
JL: Well, I went down to Nob Hill a few times, introduced myself to the community there, talked to some of the case workers, and read whatever material there was on the Bantu people. But really, there isn’t much research to do for a situation like that. You just go meet them, and see what happens.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think this story is an important one to tell?
JL: Because it reminds us that America is still a nation of immigrants, that Ali’s family’s story is the story of most of our families, and because it reminds us, again, that Texas itself isn’t just white-black-Hispanic but filled with people from all over the world who might be invisible if they weren’t pointed out. The Sudanese guy crossing the street there, he’s a Texan, too. And so is the Burmese woman in the supermarket, and so on. Those are the obvious reasons, but it was also important to me because I hoped it might give us all a chance to see how we live through the eyes of someone very different from us, to see Texas as, frankly, a strange, strange place, with incredible wealth and odd customs. There’s always value in making your own surroundings seem new and inexplicable.
texasmonthly.com: How did you communicate with the Mohamed family?
JL: Some of the younger Bantu men had learned a little English from CARE workers in the camps, and when they came here, they immediately started gobbling up the language as fast as they could. After ten months, they knew enough to translate informally.
texasmonthly.com: What are the most significant differences between Bantu culture and American culture?
JL: Oh, God—there are so many. Maybe one of the most evident is that the Bantu have lived in a culture without free time (when they were farming), or else with lots of free time (when they were in the camps) but no activities to fill it. Whereas Americans spend great swaths of their lives at leisure; so pretty much everywhere you turn in the U.S., someone is trying to sell you some form of entertainment or distraction.
texasmonthly.com: How do the children adjust to public school when they can’t speak English?
JL: Pretty much the same way as my grandparents, who could only speak Yiddish, adjusted when they were children. Or Italian immigrants, or Poles, or whoever. Kids pick up languages quickly; in the meantime, the school district has hired some extra staff to help them adjust. Soon enough the kids will be fluent. And the parents won’t, which will be interesting.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of impression of the United States do the Bantu refugees have? Is it favorable, unfavorable, or are they ambivalent?
JL: They are absolutely thrilled to be here, although they’re bewildered by the size and complexity of the cities and the culture. It is, to them, a land of literally unimaginable wealth and possibility.
texasmonthly.com: How much time did you spend with the Bantu refugees? Were they open to the questions you asked them?
JL: I went down to San Antonio maybe a half dozen times, for periods ranging from three or four days to an afternoon. They answered every question I asked. Like many people with hard histories, they had a story to tell about what had happened to them, and they wanted someone to tell it to.
texasmonthly.com: Perhaps it’s too soon to ask the question (since the Bantu refugees’ arrival is so recent), but do you see upward mobility as viable for the refugees?
JL: Of course. In a generation or two, they’ll be businessmen, teachers, doctors, lawyers, congressmen . . .
texasmonthly.com: Do you think the United States and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are doing enough for refugees?
JL: I don’t know what “enough” might be. UNHCR does a lot, and the United States does a fair amount—we take in far more refugees than any other country, and that’s something to be proud of. On the other hand, we could always do more, probably much more, including trying to prevent the situations that create refugees in the first place. And we could send more food to refugee camps, more teachers, more doctors, and so on. In fact, dollar for dollar and life for life, it’s probably the most efficient and effective use of our foreign-aid budget.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think that the system of organizations in place for assigning refugees to countries and supporting them until they get a job is effective?
JL: Yes, I think it works quite well, actually, especially considering the difficulty of the task. Of course, it would work even better if the organizations had more funds.
texasmonthly.com: You said that the Bantu refugees mostly get minimum-wage jobs. Are they able to support themselves on the small income?
JL: Well, you know how it is: If mom and dad each work two jobs, and everyone makes do with the lowest viable standard of living, they can squeak by. I do think it’s time we raised the minimum wage, though.
texasmonthly.com: Some minority groups assimilate into the dominant culture and others tend to form ethnic enclaves. What do you predict will happen with the Bantu?
JL: Probably both, simultaneously; much like, say, working class Pakistani immigrants. My impression is that most groups assimilate to a point—until it comes to food. That’s the one thing everyone hangs on to: cooking from the old country.
texasmonthly.com: What thoughts were running through your head as you heard stories like the ones that Nur told you (about his knees being burned and being shot)?
JL: Oh, well, it’s not about what’s going through my head. It’s about what’s going through his. I’m just trying to listen, let him tell his story.
texasmonthly.com: Have you followed up at all? Do you know how the Mohamed family is doing now?
JL: I was down there a few weeks ago, and they seem to be doing very well. Ali has a job, and his wife has a job, and the kids are in school. They’re on board the juggernaut, now.