This year, I began working with the Somali Bantu refugee community in Pittsburgh as part of a church-led community effort to help them thrive in this city. What started as the simple task of collecting clothing items or kitchen utensils for families evolved into a deepening understanding of their hopes and their struggles here. As I became acquainted with our neighbors, their complex stories emerged. The flight from their war-torn home country and the hardships endured to build a new life in Pittsburgh show their resilience and strength.
Many people in the Somali Bantu community live in poverty. The majority reside in public housing complexes or below-market rate apartments. Homeownership is a dream of many. For some, it’s becoming a reality. Many of the Somali Bantu families who are working with a realtor are searching for homes around the North Side, Bellevue and the South Side Slopes.
From my conversations, the Somali Bantu people show a deep appreciation and love for Pittsburgh, and it is home to them now. However, this city has not always shown the Somali Bantu love in return. Misconceptions about Muslim refugees abound, and the best way to combat false impressions is to share these stories. I sat down with four families in the Somali Bantu community to listen to their journeys.
Abdulkadir Chirambo helps to clear the way for Somali Bantu refugees who came to Pittsburgh for safety and for change
Laughter flows out the double doors of the Northview Heights community center as dozens of Somali Bantu children chase balloons around the room while others color beautiful designs on paper. Volunteers guide them through group activities to bond with the children. The president of the United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh, Abdulkadir Chirambo, records the scene on his phone with a smile on his face.
His joyful, resounding laugh is heard above the crowd. He gives a directive to one child and asks another group of kids to pose for a photo. The children of his community are his main focus. He devotes much of his time and energy to their schooling, their security and their ability to thrive in Pittsburgh. For him, it’s personal.
The last time Abdulkadir was in his homeland of Somalia, he was a 9-month-old infant tied to his mother’s back as his family fled the bloody civil war. He has no memory of the land of his birth, but it is as much a part of what has shaped him as any place he has lived.
Abdulkadir is Somali Bantu. He is an American citizen. He is a Pittsburgher who now lives in McKees Rocks. As president of the community group, he said he helps to navigate dozens of situations every day for the more than 500 Somali Bantu in the Pittsburgh area.
New families arrive every week as the scattered members of the ethnic group try to find each other across this U.S. Families have been split and resettled thousands of miles apart. Abdulkadir is busy this Monday morning in April helping his sister-in-law get settled into her new apartment in Brighton Heights. His nieces and nephews, recently arrived from Massachusetts and not yet enrolled in school, run around the townhouse with the same spring fever common to all children in Pittsburgh in early April. They chatter about their new school and their new home, while Abdulkadir’s low, even voice tells his story over their giggles.
Arriving in Kenya at the Dadaab refugee camp in 1993 was his parents’ goal, but it did not bring immediate safety. “There was not killing in Dadaab, but for the first five years we were there, there was still so much raping and robbery,” he said. “There was no medication, and the clinic was so small with no nurses. Malaria was running rampant through the camp.”
Things slowly improved in the camp thanks to humanitarian organizations. Still Abdulkadir’s parents sought the permanency of a true home for their young family. While waiting for resettlement, Abdulkadir’s father obtained a job setting up food supplies for UNHCR, which allowed Abdulkadir to focus on his education. After eight hours of public school and two hours of religious school each day, Abdulkadir would then, in the late evenings, attend private school. “I never had free time, but if I had a short break I would play soccer. That was my life in the camp.”
In June 2004, Abdulkadir and his family finally had the chance to leave the camp and settle in Erie, Pennsylvania. Their guide in New York City, however, left them at the airport with no idea how to get to Erie. Abdulkadir, then 14, wandered around showing people his ticket, saying “I need help,” as strangers pointed his family to the right gate. After eight hours in the airport with no money and no food, sitting at the gate, the flight was canceled.
“We came here for safety and for change. We are not trying to feel like we are still in Somalia.”
The family finally made their way to their new home after much confusion and a night in a hotel. “It was so hard when we got there. I had never had a break before. Always schooling, never just sitting. But we got there on summer break and I was supposed to just sit.” Eventually, Abdulkadir was enrolled in high school in Erie, where he says he excelled in every subject. Despite viewing himself as a college-level student, he was placed in ninth grade.
As one of the earlier Somali Bantu refugee families in the district, he feels he played an instrumental role in helping to pave the path for new kids arriving. When then-Gov. Ed Rendell visited the Erie School District in April 2007, Abdulkadir was able to share his story with the top state official. He felt heard and that it made an impact.
“Before, our students were struggling and falling behind,” he said. Abdulkadir believes that, “Now in Erie, no Somali kids are left behind. They are all on track.”
In 2008, Abdulkadir moved to Pittsburgh to attend college at the Pittsburgh Technical Institute. While working two jobs as a security guard and in a chemistry lab, he finished a two-year criminal justice program in 15 months. Abdulkadir noticed, however, that other students in his Somali Bantu community were not having the same success. He began to advocate for his community by talking to teachers and working with Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] for the benefit of the community.
His family has set down roots in Pittsburgh, but he remains concerned for Somali Bantu people living here. “We have been told that this city is No. 1 in racism,” he said, referencing casual talk among peers. “And they send all of our kids to Brashear, Allderdice or Arsenal. No matter where they live in the city, they will be on long bus rides because PPS only wants to hire a few [English Second Language] teachers. They cannot go to their neighborhood school, so we end up segregated.”
To address these persistent issues, Abdulkadir works with many local organizations, such as the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh and the City of Asylum bookstore. “We came here for safety and for change,” he said. “We are not trying to feel like we are still in Somalia. And these associations, they are working with us.
“…The last month though, as we start to meet more neighbors and get more connected, we are realizing people want…a good connection with us. That way we can all work together, to fix things in this city for us and for everyone else.”
Overcoming tragedy and harassment, Fatuma Muya builds a new life in Pittsburgh
About a dozen Somali women and children were forced into a hut, staring at the barrel of a machine gun whirling around on a tripod. Mothers and children, cousins and neighbors, watched their way of life crumble around them when their villages were attacked. The invaders — the Darood and Hawiye rebel clans — told them that whoever moved would be shot and killed on the spot. Fatuma Muya believed them. She was around 10 years old. She had witnessed these clans slay six of her brothers during the bloody civil war that began in Somalia in 1991. She sat still, trembling with fear. Her mother could not sit still.
Contractions. She was going into labor with the child she was carrying. The timing of her child choosing to arrive at this moment threatened her very life. The men warned her. “Stop moving,” they said as they laughed at her claims of pregnancy. They accused her of stuffing money up her dress. When she writhed in pain once more, one of the soldiers smacked her in the stomach with the butt of his machine gun. Her water broke immediately, and her youngest child was stillborn. Fatuma lost another sibling that day before she ever had a chance to know them.
Sorrow and tragedy are part of what has shaped her life. Yet she chooses to not let it define her as she builds a new foundation in Pittsburgh 26 years after these events. Now, a mother herself, Fatuma loves and appreciates Pittsburgh, especially after several years at a refugee camp in Kenya and slow-moving resettlement process. However, she has noticed a shift in the city she has lived in for over a decade. With the beginning of Donald Trump’s campaign, her family has felt animosity rise. One incident in particular remains etched in her memory.
“On Donald Trump’s inauguration day, we were at the bus stop by Family Dollar on Brighton Road. I had my children all with me because my car was broken. We saw an older respectable man. He pointed his middle finger to us and yelled, ‘Go back! We don’t need you here. We don’t need Muslims in this country.’
Everyone around us was uncomfortable, but no one stood up for us. I did not stand up for us because I had my children and I did not know if he had a gun or wanted to hurt us. We were just shocked. But I try to just put my heart towards God.”
Some of the younger members of the Somali Bantu community have asked the older members if they should alter their Muslim dress to avoid persecution. “I tell them, ‘No.’ I cannot change me just because someone wants to hate me. I cannot give into that.”
Fatuma’s road to Pittsburgh was long. Having escaped the fate of her siblings in her native Somalia, she arrived to relative safety in Kenya at Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. It was 1997. The next six years in the camp were spent preparing for hopeful resettlement somewhere in the world. Fatuma often spent the money she received from relief groups for food on English classes instead. Fatuma met Dadiri Malambo as a child, and they were together in the camps. Their friendship grew into love, but they avoided marrying in the camps. “We did not want to have our babies in those camps,” she said. “What would their life be? They would be trying to survive just like us. No.” Finally, in 2003, she was able to begin the process of immigrating to the United States.
After the long vetting process, Fatuma and her mother were settled in Charlotte, North Carolina. Because they had chosen to wait to marry, no effort was made to keep Dadiri and Fatuma together. Upon arrival in the United States, Fatuma and Dadiri spent weeks calling around the country to other refugee resettlements, desperately trying to find each other. Six months after their arrival in this country, Fatuma located Dadiri in Pittsburgh. Fatuma moved north, and they were finally married. Thirteen years after arriving in Pittsburgh, they are raising their eight American-born children in this city that they have grown to love. Dadiri has been employed as a maintenance worker at the William Penn Omni Hotel for all this time.
While their home city and Dadiri’s employment have been relatively constant, they have still encountered instability here. For awhile, they lived in public housing in the Hill District. It was razed for market-rate condos, forcing them to find a new home. For a year, an autoimmune disease affected Dadiri’s health and, therefore, their income. Fatuma said she has found work as a court translator and in a variety of service roles, but her days are filled at this point advocating for her community. “I am down at the elementary school almost daily sometimes, trying to stand up for our kids. I am trying to find jobs for our members, trying to find them furniture or clothes,” she said.
Both Fatuma and Dadiri have been U.S. citizens since 2012 and 2015, respectively.
Currently living in a Housing Authority townhouse in the North Side, her family is in the process of buying their first home. “None of us want to be in public housing,” she said.
“We are trying. It is hard. Our entire way of life is different here. We were farmers in our country… Now we are trying to find work and earn a living so that we can have our dreams come true. If our country was safe, we would not be here.”
Meg St-Esprit is a freelance writer based in Bellevue. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MegStEsprit.