Djibouti's poor frustrated by perceived U.S. indifference
Many await benefits of Marine presence
DJIBOUTI CITY,24 Feb 2003 - DJIBOUTI CITY, Djibouti - U.S. Marines are training in this desolate nation, America's key ally in the Horn of Africa, to fight regional terrorists or Iraqi forces.
What they are less prepared to confront is the potentially dangerous frustration that U.S. authorities and others report among Djibouti's poor. They'd hoped Uncle Sam would deliver jobs and foreign aid in return for their nation's hospitality.
"If I don't get a job, I'm going to feel angry," said Mahmoud Hussein, 24, wearing a neatly pressed shirt and pants. He was among scores of young, unemployed men seeking employment at the U.S. military base.
While Hussein appeared harmless, al-Qaida and other terrorist groups have a history of recruiting frustrated anti-American locals in the region.
"We need to make a difference in their lives, and they need to understand that having us here will have a positive benefit to them," said Marine Maj. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the Horn of Africa's new U.S. military forces. "We need to be contributing as well as we're using."
Last month, Djibouti's president, Ismael Omar Guelleh, took his country's case to President Bush in Washington.
After the meeting, American officials said they planned to reopen the office of the Agency for International Development, the foreign aid arm of the U.S. government, in Djibouti. The office was shut down for budgetary reasons in the mid-1990s.
"The U.S. vision of thinking that we're only here to defend U.S. interests is wrong," said Fatma Samoura, the head of the U.N. World Food Program in Djibouti. "People are getting more and more upset, and very disappointed that the U.S. is looking only after its own interest."
Reopening the U.S. aid mission, however small a gesture, underscores Djibouti's new importance, and the potential concerns. This moderate Muslim nation is an hour's speedboat ride from Yemen, Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland. He dispatched his suicide operatives from the region to bomb U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Djibouti also shares a porous border with Somalia. That lawless nation is home to al Ittihad al Islamiya, a group with reported links to al-Qaida. Somalia is also where 18 American soldiers were killed in a firefight that forced the United States to withdraw from a failed U.N. peacemaking mission in 1993. That was the last American military presence in the region.
Roughly half of Djibouti's 700,000 people are ethnic Somalis linked to various clans. There's also a sizable Somali immigrant population that travels freely across Djibouti's borders.
But what binds most Djiboutians is extreme poverty. Nearly half the population earns less than $2 a day. A third of Djibouti's children suffer from chronic or acute malnutrition, one of the continent's highest rates.
Thousands of job seekers have applied to fill the 200 or so posts available at the U.S. base, said Ibrahim Said, the manager of the employment agency that fills the jobs.
"Our people have nothing," said Daher Ahmed Farah, who leads the opposition Party for Democratic Renewal. "We are afraid that al-Qaida and other fundamentalist organizations will try to profit off the extreme poverty of our population."
Many Djiboutians hoped the Marines would inject lots of American dollars into their economy. But Djibouti's economy is so import-dependent and heavily taxed that GIs can't afford it. Beers are $5 and spaghetti is $20 a plate. Add security concerns, and you see why the Marines rarely venture from Camp Lemonier. The United States even flies in its own supplies.
Strange world awaits Bantus in metro area .
Sometime this spring, in cities around the United States, the first of nearly 12,000 African refugees will step off airplanes and into a modern world as alien and strange as the bottom of the ocean. They will come with hopes of work, education and safety, at last, from a legacy of persecution.
They are Somali Bantus, a people devastated by massacre and rape after Somalia crumbled into civil war in 1991. Thousands left rural homes for refugee camps in Kenya. They have languished there for the last dozen years. Now the United States is opening its doors to the Bantus in one of the most ambitious and complex refugee resettlement initiatives in recent years.
The U.S. State Department says it has approved plans to resettle the Bantus in 31 states, including Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Refugee resettlement agencies expect to shepherd up to 635 Bantus in the next two years into apartments in Clarkston, Decatur and Stone Mountain.
That will make metro Atlanta one of the top destinations for Somali Bantus, along with Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and Salt Lake City, the State Department said.
A cultural challenge
They will come in need of more help than most refugees. Few speak English. Many cannot read or write even in their native language. Only in the last few months have most seen telephones, flush toilets and clocks, in classes on American culture at the Kakuma Refugee Camp, on the sweltering plain of northwest Kenya. Some saw a bathtub for the first time and asked whether it was some sort of boat, said Sasha Chanoff, who coordinates the classes for the International Organization for Migration.
"They really don't have any exposure to modern development," he said.
The Bantus are descended from natives of Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania who were enslaved and taken to Somalia in the 1800s. They eventually won freedom but remained frequent victims of discrimination. They performed menial jobs and lacked political power and access to education. The Bantus also lacked clan affiliation, which made them easy prey for all sides in Somalia's civil war.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees sought to resettle the Bantus in one of their ancestral homes, Mozambique, but that plan fell through in 1997. Two years later, the State Department recognized the Bantus as a group eligible for resettlement on humanitarian grounds.
The Somali Bantus will follow 807,000 refugees admitted to the United States in the last 10 years, but they come at a time of increased scrutiny. The United States suspended its refugee program for two months after Sept. 11, 2001. Resettlements resumed with security measures that slowed the flow. Only 27,000 of 70,000 refugees approved to enter in the United States actually came last year, the lowest number since 1980.
There are various groups of Bantus, but the ones coming to the United States are those who volunteered to go to Mozambique in 1997. Nearly all belong to a Bantu branch called the Mushunguli. They were subsistence farmers who shunned society. Other Somalis sometimes refer to them with derogatory terms such as jareer, which refers to the characteristic kinky hair of Bantus, gosha, a Somali term for "forest dweller" and adoon, which means "slave."
That puts resettlement agencies in a tricky spot. They need Somali-speaking caseworkers but must find staffers able to give even-handed treatment. Agencies also know that most Bantus have led such an isolated existence that "when asked where they entered Kenya," the International Organization for Migration says, "many Somali Bantus responded, 'At the tall metal,' indicating metal telephone towers" at a border town.
"Do not assume they can open a door just because it has a doorknob," Chanoff said.
No concept of time
Like people of several other cultures, the Bantus do not share the American preoccupation with time. They often date important events such as a birth by referring to some natural phenomenon that occurred at that time.
"Where does one begin with people who have never held a pen or read a sign, who have no support network . . . and have no previous information about life in the United States?" Chanoff wrote in a November issue of Refugee Reports, a newsletter published by Immigration and Refugee Services of America.
"How does one begin to teach the relevance of time and dates and schedules? What about sensitizing people to the nuances of shopping and cooking and eating, when they won't recognize food in the supermarkets? How does one prevent children from sticking a finger into an electric socket or garbage disposal, falling down stairs, scalding themselves with a faucet or straying into the road?"
Resettlement agencies say the Bantus are unlikely to absorb all the lessons they receive in 10-day sessions at Kakuma that also cover U.S. laws, employment, housing and budgets. They envision months of orientation once the refugees arrive in America.
"It's going to take a lot of repetition, a lot of times of saying, 'Don't touch the hot stove. Don't touch the hot stove,' " said Mondie Blalock Tharp of Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta.
Many resettlement agencies are looking for additional funding to extend the four months' assistance refugees typically receive, said Christine Petrie, national resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee.
In Atlanta, four resettlement agencies are talking about applying for grants that would pay for intensive English classes, day care and instruction in riding MARTA and using kitchen appliances.
About 4,000 Somalis have been resettled in Georgia since 1992, mostly in Clarkston. About 1,000 left for Lewiston, Maine, in search of better schools, less crime and more generous housing subsidies and welfare benefits.
Among the Somalis still in Atlanta are about 120 Bantus. They form one of the largest Bantu communities in the country, said Abdullahi Abdullahi, a Somali Bantu and executive director of the Somali Bantu Community Organization in Clarkston.
43 cities make room
The State Department said it plans to resettle Bantus in 43 cities, including Atlanta.
At least one city opposed plans to accept Bantus. The City Council in Holyoke, Mass., voted in October to reject nearly $1 million in federal money for a "newcomer center." The city said it lacked money -- even with the grant -- to house and educate the refugees. The vote was largely symbolic because cities don't control federal money and can't legally prevent people from moving in.
Since 1980, 48,000 refugees have been resettled in Georgia from countries as varied as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq and Vietnam. Few faced challenges similar to those facing the Bantus, but experts draw parallels with two groups.
Several thousand Hmong refugees from Laos resettled in this country in the '70s and '80s with as little understanding of the modern world as the Bantus. Like the Bantus, the Hmong spoke little English, lacked formal education and knew little of Western culture. Both have views of health care at odds with Western medicine.
Some of the resettled Hmong retained their native language and religion and have limited contact with native-born Americans. Others converted to Christianity and blended into the mainstream, said Deborah Duchon, an anthropologist at Georgia State University.
The 12,000 Bantus also invite comparison to 3,800 Sudanese refugees who were resettled around the United States in 2000 and 2001.
Like the Bantus, these men in their late teens and early 20s, known as the Lost Boys of Sudan, grew up without exposure to modern life. Yet even the Lost Boys had a leg up on the Bantus: Most knew of a developed world beyond the horizon, having caught glimpses of it on TV during eight years in a refugee camp.
"We knew a lot of things in theory, but not in practice" is how one Lost Boy in Atlanta, Peter Anyang, put it.
Most Bantus first learned of gas ovens and electric stoves in classes after 11,800 of them were moved to Kakuma from the Dadaab Refugee Camp, near Somalia's border.
"All of us realize that it's going to take a Herculean effort to go far beyond what we normally do," said Barbara Cocchi, Atlanta director for World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency. "We realize the massive hurdles that they're going to have to overcome."