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Culture clash tears Somali family apart

Six children taken by Social Services


Malaika Sabtow, 28, holds photos of her six children, taken from her by Social Services.
Somalian immigrant Malaika Sabtow raised five children in African refugee camps, surviving for 14 years without electricity, amid persistent drought and regular outbreaks of malaria and tuberculosis.

But none of those 14 years, she said, was as bad as the past five months in Buffalo.

That’s how long it has been since the Erie County Department of Social Services took all of her children —she now has six, including a nursing 2-month-old daughter — and placed them in a foster home for reasons Sabtow doesn’t understand.

Sabtow, 28, wishes she were back in Africa.

“At least I had the kids there,” she said through a translator, Imam Yahye Omar. “Here everything is good, but if they are taking the kids from you, Africa is better.”

Supporters of Sabtow claim the county was overzealous in taking away her children and are concerned she and her husband, Madhey

A. Khamis, are being treated unfairly because they are new to the country and don’t speak English.

Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert said she could not comment on why the children were removed or whether they would be returned.

“We do want kids to be with their families whenever possible,” she said.

The case is tied up in Erie County Family Court, where Sabtow is being represented by Buffalo attorney Oscar Smukler.

“I think the kids have suffered immeasurably,” said Smukler. “We’re making a concerted effort to get the children back to their parents.”

Khamis received a letter in September from a county caseworker explaining that a report of suspected child abuse or maltreatment had been “indicated” — meaning credible evidence had been found to support “the determination that you maltreated or abused the child(ren) named in the report.”

Child Protective Services became involved following a July 30 incident in the rented family home on Chenango Street, in which Khamis allegedly beat his 8-year-old son, Abdi Abdi, with a belt and tied the boy’s hands and legs with rope after he misbehaved at school, according to friends of the family.

Corporal punishment is acceptable in Somalia, according to friends, who said Khamis didn’t intend to hurt his son.

“They already understand that what the man did is a no-no here,” said Osman Dualeh Abdullah, a longtime Buffalo resident who is from Somalia.

Abdullah and others, including Omar, imam of the Islamic Cultural Association of Western New York, which runs a mosque on Connecticut Street, have tried to intervene on behalf of the family.

“Child Protective Services, they don’t know the culture. They need to be educated,” said Omar. “There is a lot of abuse going on in America, but not with these people. Kids are the most valuable thing they have in the world.”

Dawoud S. Adeyola, vice president of the Connecticut Street mosque, wrote a letter to Dankert saying the family has been subjected to “brutal punishment” by the department and urging the placement of the children either with their mother or with a family that understands their language and culture.

Muslim community leaders can assist with having the children returned to their mother and keeping the father away, if Child Protective Services still has concerns about him, said Abdullah.

At the very least, the kids should be placed in homes more sensitive to their cultural needs, friends of the family said.

The parents have told friends and others that the children appeared ill in their few supervised visits with them.

The baby girl, Shamia, who is now 6 months old, has rashes on her body and constantly cries during the visits, according to Sabtow. Shamia was being breast-fed at the time she was taken from Sabtow.

Shamia and her brother, Hassan, 5, were recently hospitalized in Women & Children’s Hospital — and their parents were told by county staff not to visit.

“We’re afraid of the psychological damage to the children. Every time they go see them, the kids are crying, sick or suffering,” said Abdullah.

The children have been split among three foster homes — none of which is a Muslim family, said Omar, the imam.

One of the boys, Mustaffa, 12, was pulled out of an Islamic boarding school and placed in School 19, even though his parents paid $3,600 in advance for the boy to attend the private school.

According to Omar, Mustaffa told his mother that the people he was living with would not allow him to practice Islam.

A daughter, Fatuma, 11, also has not been allowed to wear the traditional Muslim head scarf, Omar said.

And none of the children was able to participate in Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, he said.

Child Protective Services works closely with the area’s four refugee resettlement agencies to make sure staff members understand cultural differences, said Dankert.

“Certainly there are different beliefs held by different cultures, and we have to work to navigate those,” she said.

But the aim of the department is child welfare, and “if there [are] grounds for removing the children we always have to have our work scrutinized by the courts,” she said.

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