From Somalia to Pittsburgh: Bantu refugees find cause to celebrate new lives in America
The women gather in brightly colored fabrics. The men, many in suits and ties, test the sound equipment and ask the women to hush the babies and children. A council of elders sits on stage. It is a Sunday afternoon at the University of Pittsburgh's O'Hara Student Center, and Pittsburgh's Somali Bantus are having their first community celebration.
This is a coming-out party -- a chance to rejoice both in who they are and in who they can become. It is a time filled with traditional songs that resonate in the sweet cadences of their homeland. There is rousing dance. Rice and sambusa, a stuffed meat pastry, fill hungry stomachs.
It is a time also to recognize the tireless volunteers who have helped the largely agrarian Somali Bantu families ease into the rush of urban life and to acknowledge those in their community who have crossed the waters into American citizenship.
Roughly 40 families, some 200 Somali Bantus, now call Pittsburgh home. Their roots here go back only about eight years, when three families came to Pittsburgh from among the 14,000 who were a part of the largest single effort to resettle a mistreated ethnic minority in the United States. They've spread throughout the area, but mostly in patches in Lawrenceville and the North Side. Recently, 10 Somali Bantu families, because of economic struggles and changes in policy at the Pittsburgh Housing Authority, have been pushed into Northview Heights.
For the past year and a half, in the tradition of urban sociologists William Foote Whyte, Elliot Liebow and Elijah Anderson, I've been observing this community. I've immersed myself into the lives of 10 Somali Bantu fathers in an attempt to offer an ethnographic peek into how they're assimilating into the American mainstream. I've visited their homes, attended cultural celebrations and weddings, watched movies with them, helped young kids with homework, participated in community meetings.
All of this takes place in Northview Heights, a dense, low-income housing project in the far north corner of Pittsburgh. Left behind by urban renewal and shifting jobs markets, Northview Heights is beset with social dislocations. It is a racially segregated place (nearly all black) where census figures show most residents are jobless, living in single female-headed households and welfare-dependent.
In Somalia, the majority of Pittsburgh's Bantus lived in the fertile Jubba Valley, mostly as subsistence farmers and herders. Yet, somehow, the urban dystopia of Northview Heights is a place both familiar and foreign to them.
They recognize the racial segregation. In the Horn of Africa, Bantu people, actually a mesh of ethnic groups, were racialized from the time of slavery, marked by their dark skin, wide noses and "hard hair." These distinctions marginalized Bantus and turned them into a separated and persecuted minority. Even behind the walls and the squalor of the refugee camps of Kenya, where the Bantus fled to escape Somalia's 1991 civil war and drought, they were pushed to the bottom of the social ladder.
In this respect, Bantus have much in common with the other residents of Northview Heights, a community walled in by security gates that went up several years ago in an effort to reduce drugs, crime and violence. In a land of plenty, Northview Heights residents have little. Even its one elementary school closed in August.
"It is Africa here," confided one Somali Bantu during a recent conversation, referencing the jobless men on the corner, the wide expanses of barren land and the crowd of black faces.
Despite their common experiences, the Bantus remain outsiders at Northview Heights. They are set apart by their language, dress and religion -- they are Muslim. These differences mark them for harassment and violence.
Given these conditions, how can Somali Bantus enhance their lot in life?
My early observations brought to mind urban scholar Elijah Anderson's book, "Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life." Mr. Anderson describes two orientations that African-Americans deploy to get by. One is being ethnocentric, relying on friendships, kinships and shared culture. Mr. Anderson called this being "ethno." The other is simultaneously being "cosmo," or cosmopolitan, embodying a broader range of associations and values beyond one's ethnic circles. I began to see that two of my chief Somali Bantu informants embodied these orientations.
Mr. H is a small, always smiling father of seven. He has some English-language training but prefers to speak his first tongue: Kizigawa. His friendships are mostly among Somali Bantus and groups that help African immigrants. He has worked in a laundry and janitorial services. His community role is circumscribed; he will host meetings but shies away from formal leadership. His use of technology is limited to entertainment; mostly this involves watching movies on TV. His greatest concern is that his youngest daughters, all born in America, are losing their cultural roots. One day he nearly cried when he revealed that they often cannot understand him when he addresses them in Kizagawa; he needs the older children to translate.
Mr. A is more cosmopolitan. A married father of four, he has some formal education in the United States and has completed some community-college classes. His English is fluent, and he uses it to maintain a wide array of associations, including activists in other immigrant organizations, faith leaders, women who assist with housing and settlement issues, and connections at Pitt, such as a tutoring group and a recently named Rhodes Scholar. He is a master at technology, using Facebook and email to sustain new relationships. He aspires to bigger things. He's employed now at a big-box store but has worked for a major airline as a customer service representative. His greatest concern is giving his children "as many models of success as possible."
Mr. H and Mr. A offer windows into how Somali Bantus in Pittsburgh are finding ways to overcome poverty and adjust to both American and urban life. Their early successes are worthy of celebration.
First Published December 2, 2012 12:00 am