Bantu refugees in Fort Worth still searching for sanctuary

Posted Saturday, Jul. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Somalia Somalia is an East African country that borders the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. It sits east of Ethiopia. Somalia has been marked by violence and instability since the central government collapsed in 1991. In January, the U.S. government recognized the Somali government for the first time since 1991. But the United States does not have a diplomatic presence there. The Bantus are a distinct group of refugees out of the many who have fled Somalia since the 1990s. They are descendants of slaves taken from southeast Africa in the Indian Ocean slave trade. They are descended from Bantu-speaking tribes that originated in Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi. In Somalia, the Bantus were agricultural workers who lived in the south. After civil war broke out, they were forced to leave. Thousands ended up in refugee camps in Kenya. Sources: U.S. State Department, Immigration and Refugee Services of America

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Life for the ethnic minority Bantu people from Somalia has meant a steady stream of danger, whether from armed militiamen, wild animals or disease-infested refugee camps.

Children were taught from an early age to survive. When in the path of a lion, stand tall. Don’t panic. Don’t run.

“The danger of Africa, we were prepared for it,” said Ahmed Omar, a Somali Bantu who fled the war-torn country and moved to Fort Worth.

After the State Department began resettling Bantu refugees in America in 1999, dozens of families ended up living at an apartment complex in southeast Fort Worth.

But rather than finding peace, they encountered more heartbreak, this time from a predator for which they were unprepared.

Last month, Somali refugee Sida Osman — described by all as a charming and happy 5-year-old boy — was beaten to death with a bowling ball.

A 13-year-old boy from the neighborhood was arrested on a capital murder warrant and remains in custody.

Sida had been playing outside on the evening of June 26 and was last seen riding his bike.

His lifeless body was found the next day in the back yard of a nearby vacant house.

The suspect, who is not being identified because he is a juvenile, told police that he and Sida went into the fenced back yard in the 4800 block of Lois Street. The teen became irritated with Sida and hit him multiple times in the head, police said.

“Right now, what we see is a 5-year-old baby who is dead,” Mohamed Bulle, president of the Tarrant County Somali Bantu Association of Texas, said through an interpreter. “He didn’t do nothing wrong.”

Sida’s family and friends are left to wonder what lesson they missed, what they could have done to protect him.

Many of the local Bantus grew up in Kenyan refugee camps, one of many stops in their search for a peaceful life. As they mourn Sida’s death, some can only wonder whether they’ll ever find that place.

“My heart went out to the family,” said Myra Denton, a neighbor who offered condolences to Sida’s mother. “They were trying to find a safe place when they came to America.”

A home in Fort Worth

Sida’s family made it to Webber Garden, a complex near Pate Elementary School, thanks to relief agencies that aid refugees.

As war and genocide have ravaged countries such as Sudan and Somalia, local agencies — namely World Relief, Refugee Services of Texas and Catholic Charities — have tried to find new homes for the displaced in Fort Worth and Dallas.

Once in North Texas, many stayed because they found work, including at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, or formed strong communities.

From 2004 through 2008, about 13,000 Somali Bantus resettled in various states, including Texas, Kansas, Maine and Missouri. Somali Bantu communities emerged in Fort Worth, Arlington and Dallas; a group in Amarillo has ties to the Fort Worth community.

Community leaders said about 70 Somali Bantu families live in the Webber Garden complex or nearby, a gathering that began in 2005.

The community includes elders who grew up in Somalia, others who grew up in refugee camps and youngsters born in the United States.

Couples have many children, often five to 10. Sida had four brothers and a sister.

Many of the Bantus in Fort Worth were resettled by the local office of World Relief, a Christian-based organization that helps with employment, case management and immigration so refugees can get green cards or become U.S. citizens.

“Our goal is to connect them with community members through churches,” said Jeff Demers, office director at World Relief in Fort Worth.

Most Bantu men found work at DFW Airport, driving buses, cleaning airplanes and working as custodians, said Hussein Muday, who lives at Webber Garden.

Most of the women, who still wear colorful African dresses and robes, stay home to care for youngsters, many of whom attend Pate.

Charles Hamilton, an apartment resident who has embraced the Bantus, said that when they moved in, he was drawn to his kitchen window by a procession of people dressed in brightly colored clothes.

“I saw all these people in all these colors,” Hamilton said. “I said, ‘Where did they come from?’”

A difficult journey

Becoming acclimated to American culture hasn’t been easy for the Bantus. Many spoke little English and brought few belongings.

Most had no money and had to find work, food and shelter. Children needed to be enrolled in school.

They knew little about life in the United States.

“Their journey has been long and difficult,” said Mike Auman, director of Refugee Services for Catholic Charities Fort Worth, which helped the Bantus find their way.

Sharon Armstrong has helped the Bantus and other African refugees for eight years through her work with SEARCH, or Southeast Area Churches.

“A lot of people were not familiar with running water,” she said.

Armstrong said she worked to build ties with the low-income or working-class Americans who are the Bantus’ neighbors.

“The cultures sort of clashed a little bit,” she said. “Being from Africa is a lot different than being poor in America.”

Several years ago, Armstrong said, SEARCH organized a meet-and-greet at Pate Park. The Bantus brought African dishes, and their Fort Worth neighbors brought American food, she said.

Armstrong said the University of North Texas helped put together a booklet that informed the neighborhood about the cultural challenges the Bantus face.

The Bantus at Webber Garden are a tightknit group, with youngsters often moving back and forth among apartments.

Older relatives speak their native language, while the young ones converse in English.

Resident Mohamed Hamza, 33, said the children are lucky to be in the United States.

“They are not in a refugee camp,” said Hamza, whose family left Somalia when he was a child. “Whoever is not a refugee, he can go wherever he wants.”

‘We are here legally’

Still, life in America has its challenges for the Bantus at Webber Garden.

The girls are singled out by other young people because of their hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women. Some recalled stones being thrown at their apartments when they moved in.

After Sida’s death, frustrations boiled over.

Community members took to the streets, shouting “Peace and justice!” Others carried signs saying, “We need peace” and “We are here legally.”

A suspect is in custody, but many Bantus remain terrified.

“We are wondering what we are going to do right now,” said Bulle, the Somali Bantu Association president. “We understand that here is not safe.”

Hamilton, the neighbor, said the Bantus are hesitant to call police because they learned to fear the authorities in Somalia. A loud banging at the door can create a wave of fear in a Bantu home, he said.

But there have also been moments of kindness toward the refugees.

When Sida went missing, several women who are not part of the Bantu community helped search for him.

“They were really scared for him,” Hamilton said.

Church groups came in to pray and offer assistance.

Many Bantus praised Hamilton, who has always made them feel welcome.

When they arrived in 2005, he organized a grassroots drive to collect beds, pots, pans and other items for them. In the years since, Hamilton has remained a friend.

When new refugees arrive at Webber Garden, they know to “ask Mr. Charles.”

Bantus survived a civil war.

“They were raping our families,” said Ayub Ibrahim, a Somali Bantu who lives in Dallas. “They were killing us.”

And they made it out of Kenyan refugee camps.

Now, after Sida’s death, they wonder whether they can find sanctuary anywhere.

“We don’t know where we are going to be,” Bulle said. “We are just scared a lot.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675 Twitter: @dianeasmith1

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