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Local Somali Bantu learn to bridge gap between youth, elders
Sunday, May 05, 2013

Rahma Jibril speaks English as well as any American teenager, but she also speaks Maay-Maay and Arabic.

The 18-year-old Somali Bantu refugee wears a traditional Muslim hajib but wants to postpone having children so she can attend college.

Jibril is straddling the old world and this new place she calls home — a challenge that is common amongst refugee groups.

But for the Somali Bantu community, the most non-Westernized group to move to Utica in the past decade, the language and cultural gap is much larger to fill.

There is much less violence here, said Jibril, whose family moved to Utica in 2004. “If people there don’t like you, they’ll kill you.”

She described finding a body in her backyard at the age of 6. “I was very frightened,” Jibril said.

Somali Bantu refugees began coming to the area in 1996. Many fled from the ongoing civil war in Somalia and lived in the refugee camps in Kenya before coming to the United States.

To date, 288 Somali Bantu refugees have come to call Utica home, not including the 134 registered secondary migrants, who have moved here from other states, according to the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.

One of the main challenges they face is the language barrier.

Somali languages, such as Maay-Maay, are mainly spoken rather than written, and schooling is scarce, so many Somali Bantu refugees don’t know how to read or write in their own language, making it difficult to learn others. Without language skills, the cultural gap is more difficult to bridge, as is getting a job.

Community youth such as Jibril help translate for their parents and community elders.

Thursday, she sat amongst other refugees translating for them – easily switching between Maay-Maay and English.

But as the conversation turned more in-depth, Jibril stopped and looked to another refugee, Mohamed Ganiso, for help — she didn’t know the words in Maay-Maay.

“They (the youth) speak more English than Somali language,” said Ganiso, director of the Somali Bantu Association of Central New York. “We are struggling. They can’t translate in Somali,” he said.

To help, the association holds classes most week nights teaching the youth Somali culture and language and teaching the elders English.

That community mentality is typical of immigrant groups and can be both a plus and a minus, said Theodore Orlin, Utica College professor of government and politics.

“In one sense, you have a support group that’s going to help you, help you find jobs, and navigate schools,” he said.

“On the other hand, one could argue if they’re not asked to assimilate, their ability to pick up the language will be delayed,” Orlin said. “Their adaptability to American culture may be indeed shunted simply because they rely on their own community.”

Culture is still a big issue.

“For the Somali-Bantu community in general, the most difficult part of the process is to adapt to Western values and culture,” said Thalita Bovo, executive assistant at the refugee center.

“On top of it, many refugees from that area went through very difficult and sensitive situations and lived in camps for years. There was none or little opportunity for formal education and work,” Bovo said.

The refugee center helps with housing, employment, enrollment in schools and other services such as providing citizenship and immigration services as well as language support.

“Cultural orientation sessions are crucial,” Bovo said. The center provides enhanced sessions to the Somali Bantu community to try to bridge the large cultural gap.

“Unfortunately, it is never enough,” she said.

Electricity is new for them, the types of housing are different, the food is different and especially the cultural beliefs.

Jibril still remembers getting of the plane in Rochester and seeing all the lights and snow. “I was amazed,” she said.

She described starting third grade: “I was frightened,” she said. “I’ve never seen light skin. I was amazed and curious of everything.”

Somali Bantu culture also includes large families — having 10 children is not uncommon.

The more children a woman can give her husband the more honorable it is.

Jibril is one of 10 children in her family.

She’s a junior at Thomas R. Proctor High School and attends BOCES for Early Childhood Education.

Jibril wants to go to college and finish her education, an opportunity her mother didn't have, before she starts a family. “I’m not planning to have much kids,” she said.

But she still sticks strongly to her religion and culture.

 “People have different cultures and religions. You can’t just change because you came here,” she said. “I will continue to follow my religion and culture.”


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