Bantus Struggle to Stay Afloat in Adopted Town

A federal grant that supported 250 Somali Bantus is running out in Springfield, Mass. Three years after the Bantus arrived, 80 percent of the men have jobs and many children are doing well in school. But virtually all need more public help to make ends meet.

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Three years ago, the State Department granted permission for 12,000 members of the Bantu tribe in Somalia to escape the violence of their country by immigrating to the United States. Two hundred fifty Bantu men, women and children settled in Springfield, Massachusetts, 7,000 miles from their homeland to make new lives for themselves with the help of a federal grant. Karen Brown of member station WFCR reports on how the city and its new Bantu citizens are adjusting.

(Soundbite of people talking)

KAREN BROWN reporting:

About two dozen barefoot Somali women sit in a circle at the Community Music School of Springfield where they take part in a weekly cultural program. With babies and toddlers afoot, the women try to talk to a representative from the school department.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #2: She says the problem is that, like, in school, they give the kids--do the homework--like, homework.

Unidentified Man: Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Woman #2: And then they, like, write a little note saying: Your mom can help you. So mama--the mother does not have an education to help her kids.

BROWN: These refugee women are blunt about life in Springfield. They feel isolated. They have trouble getting around in the snow. Their children feel lost in the schools. The city already has severe budget problems, and the school department has had to absorb 100 new Somali children who couldn't speak English. When the Somalis first arrived in Springfield in 2002, they were put in the care of Jewish Family Service, and now, says the agency's director, Bob Marmer(ph), most of them are ready to try it alone.

Mr. BOB MARMER (Jewish Family Service): All of them are in their own apartment, and 80 percent of the Somali Bantus, the employable adults, are employed. That's successful.

BROWN: Jewish Family Service got a $1 million federal grant to help the Somalis find jobs, find apartments and learn English, basic services to put them on a path to self-sufficiency. But most of these families have between six and 15 children. The average wage they earn is less than $9 an hour, and almost every refugee is living below the poverty line. The $400 that each refugee received upon arrival is long gone. Some are still on waiting lists for subsidized housing and pay upwards of $800 a month in rent. Meanwhile, Marmer says virtually every Somali in Springfield is on welfare, food stamps or other government subsidies.

Mr. MARMER: Well, they become part of what we may term the working poor. I mean, they are working, they are contributing, they're paying taxes, but they're not earning enough to maintain a household of six or seven people.

BROWN: Adding to that, most of the Somali Bantus still don't understand English. The women with young children at home can't get to English classes. Even the men haven't progressed as much as their sponsors had hoped. Mahmoud Muhammed(ph), a Somali native who runs the refugee program for Jewish Family Service, says many men weren't going back to English class after finding a job.

Mr. MAHMOUD MUHAMMED (Jewish Family Service): They were just like this: I have a job and I am working in a shift, say in that shift, and then, you know, I don't have to go to school. That's actually a little barrier for them because, you know, you still need more English in order to succeed in your work, in your situation or in your life here in the United States.

BROWN: Or to get basic medical care. Julie Akrette(ph) is one of several community volunteers who help the Somalis.

Mr. JULIE AKRETTE (Volunteer): There's one woman in the group who had a miscarriage, and she did not know that if she was in trouble, she should call 911. She had a phone.

BROWN: It's unclear who, if anyone, is responsible for checking on the families when they encounter social or medical problems. Bedel Hussein Ahmad(ph) was one of the first Somalis to arrive.

Mr. BEDEL HUSSEIN AHMAD (Somali Refugee): Majority of my people come here or some of them--they come from all over the place. They are farmers, these people. They are not understand a lot of things. Clearly they need help, more help.

BROWN: Ahmad now works as an interpreter at a Springfield health clinic. He remembers one Somali man who came in with an infection and went home with one bottle of antibiotics, another of Tylenol. After a week, the man was no better.

Mr. AHMAD: He's supposed to use antibiotics, and instead he used the Tylenol because he mixed it. It looks like each other.

BROWN: Ahmad says he'd like the local sponsors to continue checking up on all the refugees, but Bob Marmer of Jewish Family Service says his agency has done its best with limited resources and he says he never turns away a refugee asking for help.

Mr. MARMER: If there's a problem in the family with a kid, a medical problem, school, they get a letter they don't understand, they come back to us. So there's no formal exit. There's a weaning as a family or an individual becomes more acclimated to life in America.

BROWN: State refugee officials say the Somali Bantus in Springfield have done as well as could be expected. Several older children now attend community college, studying to become nurses and doctors. A few Somali men are emerging as community leaders hoping to set up a mutual assistance organization. And all of them say they're grateful to be here. Dixie Khamed(ph) is a mother of six.

Ms. DIXIE KHAMED (Mother): (Through Translator) We're lucky. We're still in the United States. We're safe, we have food and I appreciate the people here.

BROWN: Still, the Somali Bantus are worried about the next step. Each family must repay the State Department for their airfare from Africa, which could amount to thousands of dollars. And now that they're officially resettled, they'll be expected to rely on the general poverty programs for all Americans with no special services. Meanwhile, another New England winter is settling in unlike any they had in Africa.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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