Somali-Bantu families get holiday treat

By Kim Leonard
Sunday, December 17, 2006

Deana Ribar, with Catholic Charities, talks Saturday with Fatuma Abdi, 7, and Asha Salim, 6, both of Lawrenceville, at Khalil's restaurant in Bloomfield. The restaurant hosts people from the Somali-Bantu community each year for a holiday celebration.
Andrew Russell/Tribune-Review

Dozens of children tossed balloons, giggled and bounced on mattresses laid out on a party room floor. Their parents and older siblings, all former Somali-Bantu refugees, talked nearby, catching up on family news.

"I enjoy it, because a lot of people get together to see each other," Ibrihim Muya said of the Saturday afternoon holiday party that Khalil's restaurant in Bloomfield hosted for about 165 members of Somali-Bantu families who have settled in Pittsburgh during the past three years.

As leader of the local Somali-Bantu community, Muya talks often to many other refugees, "but some families, I didn't see for a long time. That's why it's interesting," he said, smiling and looking around the room.

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh resettled about 35 Somali families in the region from refugee camps after their country suffered wars and political instability.

Muya, 29, spent 13 years in refugee camps before coming to Pittsburgh under the auspices of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He, his wife and three sons, ages 9, 7 and 4, now live in a rented house in Lawrenceville, the neighborhood where most Somali-Bantu families reside. He works as a cook at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown, and dreams of buying a house and starting his own business -- an African restaurant, or a small grocery store that sells meat and fish.

The Somali-Bantu families are becoming more self sufficient, said John Miller, director of refugee services for Catholic Charities. Several men work at the Omni hotel, he said, while others are employed at the Little Earth Productions' factory, Uptown, and at USA Gourmet, North Side.

Many of the women work at Clean Care laundries in Lawrenceville and on the North Side, he said, and they faithfully attend English lessons in a program sponsored by the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council.

The children, meanwhile, learn much of their English in school. Halima Abdalla, 20, is in her last year at Schenley High School, and plans to take classes at the Bidwell Training Center or Community College of Allegheny County.

The Khalil family sponsored a party two years ago for the refugees at their restaurant, Dalel Khalil said, but had to skip last year as her father, Mikhail, recovered from a stroke.

Her mother, Agnes, started hosting parties for needy groups in 1972, Dalel Khalil said. She died three years ago, but Mikhail Khalil wanted to carry on the tradition.

"And he's much better this year," she said, as her father greeted his guests and restaurant workers got ready to pass out children's presents that the family purchased.

Kim Leonard can be reached at [email protected] or (412) 380-5606.

Source: Tribune-Review, Dec 17, 2006

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