A number of Somali Bantu refugees have resettled in Pittsburgh, but how are they adjusting? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A number of Somali Bantu refugees have resettled in Pittsburgh, but how are they adjusting?

“I am Somali Bantu, but that does not mean that I am not also American.”

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A few years after the Bhutanese arrived in Pittsburgh, Dahal says the community responded by volunteering and building up a community group from scratch. Now BCAP is comprised of nine board members, five executives and 20 elected representatives. They receive funding from some local foundations and support from the Jewish Family and Children’s Service. Dahal says they carry out citizenship and ESL classes; put on sporting events like soccer, cricket and volleyball; and hold big community festivals.

But unlike the Bhutanese, Ervin Dyer, of Pitt Magazine, who wrote a graduate research paper on Pittsburgh’s Bantus in 2012, says Bantus have an insular nature that has kept them from accessing services that could help.

When Bantus arrived in Pittsburgh, the community spent years moving from subpar housing to subpar housing: from Lawrenceville and Homewood to the Hill District and Manchester in the North Side, and finally to Northview Heights, where around 80 percent of them live today.

click to enlarge Betty Cruz presenting the community blueprint to help immigrants. - CP PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
CP Photo by Ryan Deto
Betty Cruz presenting the community blueprint to help immigrants.

“They were used to operating alone. They were excluded in Somalia, they were used to operating in their own world,” says Dyer. “... [Many] don’t even speak and write in their native language, let alone English. They were really up against it.”

A 2007 Georgetown Immigration Law Journal article on Bantus argued that if they were not given adequate support, they would become vulnerable to “an intergenerational cycle of poverty, which is hardly a humanitarian act and could have dire consequences for both the African refugee and their American neighbors.”

The Bantus also differ starkly from their African counterparts in terms of education. Slyvester Mejer hails from Nigeria and is the associate director of the Union of African Communities of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Unlike most of the Bantu, he says 60-70 percent of other Africans arriving to Pittsburgh come from educated backgrounds. 

Despite such challenges, Dyer believes Pittsburgh’s Bantus are on the right track. He says many youth performed well in high school, an “extreme achievement considering their background,” and almost none of them have criminal records. Dyer adds that while living in Northview Heights presents problems (census figures show that 41 percent of households in the neighborhood make less than $10,000 a year), it has provided Bantus an opportunity to live close to one another, and has provided a safe place for them to practice their cultural traditions.

“They found a challenge of concentrate[ed] poverty, but they also found a community that understood social challenges,” says Dyer. “Perhaps it wasn’t so broken to the Somali Bantu. It gave them this sort-of village. They could recreate the life they wanted.”

Pittsburgh has resettled about 4,000 refugees from around the globe since 2003. But assistance has shrunk over the past several decades. After the Vietnam War, the U.S. resettled thousands of Vietnamese in the country, providing three years of support through money and services. Today, those services last only eight months. Resettlement help applies equally to all refugees coming to the U.S., and strategies vary. But Dyer says agencies could cater each strategy to each refugee group’s separate needs by learning more about their culture.

“[The refugees] need to know all about us,” says Dyer, “but I think we need to understand who they are first.” 

In Pittsburgh, many African refugees, including the Bantus, were resettled in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. And while relationships between American and immigrant communities in Northview Heights are going smoothly now, Fatuma Muya, a Bantu from Northview Heights, told City Paper in December 2015 that many African Americans have bullied Bantu youth over the years, calling them names like “Africa” and “stink.” 

Police relations haven’t gone over very well either. Chirambo says when some Bantus in Pittsburgh call the police to settle disputes, the police sometimes arrest the father out of confusion. In December 2015, five boys were arrested by Port Authority Police during a ruckus at Wood Street T station. Out of hundreds present during the commotion, all the boys arrested were Bantu and at least four of the five cases never went to trial. The boys’ families claimed they were discriminated against, which Port Authority denied. 

“The events of last year, when you see stuff like that happening, it is disappointing,” says Mwaliya. “It seems hopeless. The solution is to have it come from the inside.”

But the county seems to be providing more outside help too. Betty Cruz, formerly of Mayor Peduto’s Welcoming Pittsburgh initiative, helped create a community blueprint with Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services to make it easier for immigrant communities to connect to services and funding. She says more can, and needs, to be done to help immigrant and refugee groups in the Pittsburgh region.

“Cities and counties that are doing a better job engaging immigrants are addressing the fact that immigrants aren’t all coming here with the same skill levels,” says Cruz. “... There is absolutely more that we can do to serve the community and the wide array of needs they have.”

Cruz says while Pittsburgh groups do offer English as a Second Language classes, the region doesn’t offer professional English-language services to help immigrants obtain high-skilled jobs like engineering and health-care work. Mwaliya says many Bantu men work as janitors and dishwashers and the women work in laundry service.

“It makes the difference from being stuck in survival jobs, to moving along the pipeline into [high-skilled] work,” says Cruz. “It is a big barrier right now.”

Another Bantu group was recently created to take on these issues. Abdulkadir Chirambo came to Pittsburgh from Erie to study at Pitt eight years ago, where he earned a degree in criminal justice. Chirambo, a relative of two of the boys arrested during the Wood Street ruckus, was recently tapped by community elders to start the United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh group. He has been integral in the Northview Heights garden project and has started providing family crisis counseling within the community. 

“We want to let people know we are alive and here,” said Chirambo, while weeding the community garden one Saturday. “[We were invisible] in Somalia, we don’t want that here.”

Chirambo’s group has struggled to find connections and has yet to receive any grants. But, he plans to try to find some rural land outside the city to start a large farm for the Bantu community. 

Despite the Bantus’ decade-long struggles in Pittsburgh, both Mwaliya and Chirambo say the garden shows the community is starting to hit its stride. Both say that a handful of Bantu families have moved to Pittsburgh recently from other U.S. cities, and Chirambo says the youth are starting to contribute to the community too. (On a recent Saturday, many young Bantus were eager to help at the garden.)

“In our religion, there is a goal, no matter what you do, you have to teach your kids the cultural way. Our Quran teaches us we have to help people,” says Chirambo. 

And a poem from Chirambo’s 19-year-old relative Siraji Hassan further points toward a positive future for Bantus in Pittsburgh:

“I am a Bantu, but I do not talk in clicks. I am Somali-Bantu, but that does not mean that I am not also American. I live in a world where my skin color, my income, my religion, and my style dictates what my life will become, but I am more than all of that. I once lived in a refugee camp, Kakuma. Now I live in the United States, Pittsburgh.

“When I return someday to visit, I will return as a citizen of the United States of America. … I am proud of who I am. I am different.”

Editor’s Note: Support for this story was provided by the Institute for Justice and Journalism. Ryan Deto was a 2016 fellow in the IJJ Fellowship on immigrant children and their families.

Editor’s Note: The Education Law Project sued Pittsburgh Public Schools on behalf of the Bantu community; the Bantu community did not sue the school district, as originally published. 

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