Keep It Real

SOCCERBALLThe assimilation process is difficult for the Somali Bantu refugees. Many organizations exist to help them adjust to their new lives. The University of Pittsburgh hosts one organization called Keep It Real (KIR). KIR sends volunteer Pitt students to the homes of local Somali Bantu refugees to tutor the grade school and high school kids. The volunteers assist the children with their homework because their parents can’t. Their parents give education a high priority and encourage them to do their best but they lack  schooling and cannot help their children with their homework. The KIR volunteers provide this support for the families they are assigned to tutor. Some volunteers even help the parents with their citizenship tests.

The Pittsburgh Refugee Center (PRC) is another institution that helps refugees adjust to their new lives in the city. They provide various services for refugees such as counseling, health promotion, community outreach and tutoring, and translation. PRC is also responsible for forming soccer teams with students from ESL classes. Soccer is important to many refugees because it is popular in their home countries. Because so many children are absent from extracurricular activities PRC initiated the BW United soccer team with the help of the Harrison Middle School of the Baldwin-Whitehall School District.

PRC services all refugees in Pittsburgh, not just the Somali Bantu. They frequently host events such as the play and photography exhibit that exposes the plight of refugees. PRC is active globally too. Some members visited Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. They aim to encourage more refugees to settle in Allegheny County.




School in Dadaab, Kenya refugee camp

Education in Somalia is not accessible to the Bantu minority. The Bantu villages are often neglected by the government and, therefore, lack formal education institutions past primary school. The rest o the Somali population, as of 1975, had a literacy rate of 24 percent (which reached 38 percent in 2011); this is significantly lower for the Somali Bantu before their resettlement. Their illiteracy limited them to positions in agriculture. Because the Bantu were primarily farmers, literacy was not as important to them.

One of the reasons why education was inaccessible to the Bantu is that the official language of Somalia did not reflect the needs of minorities. As a result, the Bantu, who speak Mishungli, were unable to participate in either institutions. The national language of Somalia, Af Soomaali, officially became written script in 1972.

When they reached the United States, however, the Bantu people began to value education highly. After some schooling in the refugee camps, they became very concerned with the education of their children. In America, they often encourage their children, male and female, to graduate high school and continue their schooling. This is difficult for the younger generations though because they are still bound by cultural traditions such as early marriage and children. Young families are especially hard for Bantu women who want to pursue higher education. Often, these young mothers are led to believe that they can easily go to college and care for their families at the same time. They don’t realize how much of a commitment school is.

Interview on Assimilation in America

This an interview conducted with Sarah Khalbuss, volunteer for Keep It Real and student at the University of Pittsburgh. Sarah talks about the culture of the Bantu people and the struggles they face as they adjust to life in America.

Audio Essay Transcript:

Raechelle: The Bantu people were forced out of their homes in Somalia when civil war broke out in 1991. After staying in refugee camps in Kenya and other surrounding areas, about 12,000 Somali Bantu refugees were relocated to the United States, an ambitious project that was made possible by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This project, initiated in 1999, has inspired the creation of several volunteer based organizations that exist to help the refugees adjust to their new lives in the United States. One such organization is called Keep It Real. Keep It Real sends volunteers to the homes of local Bantu families and they tutor children in elementary school and high school. One volunteer, Sarah Khalbuss, has become very passionate about the plight of the Bantu refugees.

Sarah Khalbuss: All right, I’m Sarah Khalbuss I’m a sophomore here at Pitt. These, these people so they’re the Bantu refugees they’re Bantu so it doesn’t mean they’re just Somalis it means that they’re an ethnic group within Somalia that in their war in the struggle there are being extremely persecuted and a lot of racism against the Bantu people. They speak their own language. You know, it’s not like in America, I’m American it’s very different the fact that their Somali it refers to their geographical area. But they have their own language it’s called something with an m it’s like a long word it’s hard to pronounce. And they have a Muslim religion, which pretty much a lot of Somalis are Muslim. But um so they have their own thing going on so a lot of them in order to come to America would go to Kenya and stay in the refugee camps a lot of those kids I know were born in Kenya, born in the refugee camps they stay there for a year before going to the U.S.

Raechelle: What kind of assistance do they get from the government?

Sarah Khalbuss: When they first come the government helps a little bit but there isn’t a lot of help. And actually a lot of help that comes after the government is from charities, religious organizations. A lot of Christian groups, Jewish groups. Which it’s so great, I think because these people are Muslim like you hear about religion be a dividing [factor] but actually I think you don’t see that so much with this.

Raechelle: What about their access to education?

Sarah Khalbuss: A lot of these kids, they’re going to graduate and they’re very lucky that they work hard and we help them and a lot of them do graduate but do they have the money to go to a four year university? I know that one of my boys wants to go to Pitt so badly he’s a senior, he’s taking AP classes but I think he’s going to end up going to CCAC (Community College of Allegheny County) because can he afford Pitt? No. Does the government offer enough assistance to students? Not really, not really at all.

Raechelle: So what about assimilation overall? It must be difficult for people such a different culture to suddenly migrate to the United States.

Sarah Khalbuss: That’s a big topic in sociology as well, immigrants assimilating to a new culture, how that works like culture shock and all of those things. I can tell you now that with the Bantu’s they keep their culture, their proud to keep their culture. And I think that’s a very special thing.


In Somalia, polygamy is a common practice for Bantu families. A husband with multiple wives is likely to have more children than if he had only one wife. Because children are considered the wealth of the family, polygamy and early marriages are common in Bantu families. Seven to ten children is the average for a Bantu family not practicing polygamy. This is practical in Somalia where the Bantu people were predominantly farmers. The women or co-wives share the responsibilities of household chores and raising the children. The men didn’t have to provide the same kind of intense financial support for their large families as they do in America. As farmers, they were self-sufficient in regards to nutrition.

Relocation, however, forces the men practicing polygamy to choose one wife and family to support in America. The wives not chosen become single mothers to their children. This change is often difficult and causes disruption in family dynamics. While the families are initially separated by resettlement, the single mothers and their “ex” husbands adopt the role of primary bread winner to their children. This is a role they are unprepared for with their limited knowledge of English and societal norms in the U.S.

Despite intolerance, the families usually reunite by moving into the same communities. Husbands move their chosen family closer to their “single” wives and continue to parent children with them. They usually adopt financial responsibility for their children as well. For this reason, early marriage is still encouraged because when a daughter marries she becomes the responsibility of her new husband instead of her father.

Polygamy is illegal in the United States but how do you make a people whose culture encourages it stop following their traditions?

Dadaab, Kenya

Before their arrival in the United States the Somali Bantu refugees sought (relative) safety in the three refugee camps in Kenya. The camps, collectively called Dadaab after the nearby city, provide aid to refugees from African countries including Somalia.

Dadaab population-page-0 (1)

Something in Common

If there is one thing that all humans share it is a healthy appreciation of food. The Somali Bantu people usually cook rice with either chicken or goat. When the refugees arrived in the United States their access to different kinds of food expanded significantly. The amount of food available astounds most Bantu refugees who are accustomed to rationing in the over extended services of the refugee camps. Kristen Tsapis works closely with Somali Bantu families as they assimilate to the United States. She has observed the results of their first trips to the grocery store. They buy everything in bulk and make sure to fill their kitchens with as much pasta and rice as possible.

3748516748_6f41098441_zThe refugees buy rice and pasta because they are preparing for famine or food shortage, something they would have faced regularly in Somalia and Kenya. In the U.S. however, they are exposed to all kinds of new foods and it is very unlikely that they will find their kitchens empty.

Three Bantu sisters living in Pittsburgh discussed their favorite foods with a Keep It Real tutor from Pitt. They love lasagna, pasta, and Indian food. And the tutor agreed with them and then offered to teach them how to make some of her favorite foods like stir fry.

Finding common ground is essential to their assimilation to the United States. Not only do they get to experience different foods but they have access to healthier foods. Where they used to eat mainly corn now they can eat tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and carrots. Food is a great way for people to bond and it is one aspect of the Bantu culture that can easily be maintained in the U.S. For the Bantu, food is not only a source of energy and nutrition but also a way for families to work together and enjoy one another’s company.

For more information about Somali Bantu culture check out the new Somali Bantu Association of America.

Refugees vs. Immigrants


Refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya

Refugees are different from immigrants. They are forced out of their homes by war, persecution, or natural disasters. They have no choice in whether they want to leave or not; if they want to survive they  leave. Immigrants make the decision to leave their own countries and they have the means to do so.

In the case of the Somali Bantu refugees living in the United States, civil war caused them to flee. War broke out in 1991 when the Siyaad Barre regime failed and a struggle for power ensued. The Bantu people, being mainly farmers, were targeted as society fell apart and regular farming operations collapsed. With the fall of agricultural networks in Somalia, the Bantu became victims of theft, rape, and murder as Somalis began stealing their food to satisfy their hunger. As a result the Bantu fled to refugee camps.

By 2002, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that about 135,000 refugees (both Bantu and Somali) were living in the three refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya. These camps were not meant for that many people. They became overcrowded and the people malnourished. Safety in the camps is also an issue. The Bantu settled near the edge of the camps and therefore were more likely to be attacked by bandits. Camp life is especially difficult for a minority farming community like the Bantu.

In 2002, 12,000 Bantu refugees were transferred to a different camp in Kenya by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to be interviewed. By 2007 about 12,000 refugees were placed in cities throughout the United States.

How Somali Refugees Celebrate Birthdays

cakeIn Somalia they don’t celebrate their birthdays. In fact, the anniversary of a loved one’s death is more notable than their birth. Many Somalis don’t know when they were born. It isn’t a significant date for them.

This makes the tradition of celebrating a person’s birth every year unusual for them when they come to America. Jozefina Lantz, representative for new Americans for Lutheran Social Services of New England, says that they don’t have time to worry about silly things like birthdays: “People don’t have access to water or food, let alone proper documentation.” But once in America, refugee or no, it is inevitable that you will have to celebrate your birthday or someone else’s. The Boston Globe published an article describing the new birthday celebrations of Somali refugees titled Culture Note for Refugees: Happy New Year Birthday. Most of them share the same birthday, January 1. Due to the lack of documentation, they are usually assigned the first day of the year of their birth as their birthday. As of 2009, about 31,000 of the 203,566 refugees in the United States, admitted since 2005, were assigned this birthday.

One family that I visited in Pittsburgh, PA teaches their children to celebrate their birthdays. Bahati, one of the younger children, told me how excited she was to turn six on Saturday, February 16. Because her celebration wasn’t taking place on January 1, I assume February 16 is her real birthday.

As she munched on Swedish Fish, Bahati told me that on her birthday she would get to eat chicken nuggets. While I’m not sure what a traditional American six year old would ask for on their birthday, I don’t think that McDonald’s chicken nuggets would be far from their minds. She said that her eldest sister worked at Giant Eagle and would be bringing home a cake for them. They would sing her the “Happy Birthday” song and she would blow out the candles on her cake. Bahati didn’t say anything about presents other than that the Swedish Fish she was eating were a gift for her birthday.

Of course, birthday celebrations represent only a minor cultural change for the Somali Bantu refugees. But even this minor difference suggests that other issues, such as the lack of documentation in Somalia, are still relevant. It also shows that even these small cultural differences can contribute to culture shock.