From the plains of Africa to the streets of Portland

For Somali Bantu children adjusting to Portland weather, wearing a coat in October may feel as unnatural as wearing flip-flops in the midst of an Oregon ice storm. In much of Somalia, temperatures rarely drop below 68 degrees Fahrenheit.


Portland State senior capstone students in Sam Gioia’s Bantu resettlement course encounter a host of cultural integration issues as they assist Somali Bantu children to adapt successfully to being a student in Portland area public schools.


Suffering over 200 years of slavery, discrimination, persecution and war, the Bantu are seeking refuge in the United States and other African nations, including Tanzania and Kenya. About two years ago the first wave of immigrants arrived in North America. About 300 Bantu have arrived in Portland and some 14,000 have settled in 50 cities across the United States.


The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement provides funding to states and nonprofit organizations to assist with Bantu resettlement. The Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization administers funding for the National Somali Bantu Project headquartered at Portland State’s College of Urban and Public Affairs. The co-directors of the project are Omar Eno, a Somali Bantu, and Dan Van Lehman, a former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who worked to establish the first resettlement for the Bantu in Tanzania in 1992.


Lexie Fields, sociology major at Portland State, is tutoring three Bantu youth at Fir Grove elementary school in Beaverton. One of her pupils, a Bantu kindergartener, is having trouble fitting in, wrote Fields in her class’s online journal: “His teacher noted to me that he was beginning to have trouble with other students because of his physical nature – touching, poking – so I told her I would watch for that and try to teach him that was not OK. However, after observing him and two other boys play trains, I couldn’t help but feel that even though the other kids seemed to like him, they used him as a scapegoat when things went wrong because he was different.”


Bantu children tend to connect with peers in a more physical manner than most children in the United States, said Jamal Haji, a Somali Bantu and academic achievement specialist at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization. When U.S. students are bothered by a Bantu youth’s physicality, Haji may step in and inform the students and their parents about the cultural practice of touching in Bantu culture.


“Jamal understands education, he understands what the roles of parents are, and he can help tie it all together, the concepts of education, U.S. education, for the parents and students,” said Dan Van Lehman, co-director of the National Somali Bantu Project. “That’s good. They all go to him for that.”

Van Lehman said that the National Somali Bantu Project works with Somali Bantu resettlement throughout the United States, and “help to translate linguistically and culturally between the Somali Bantu and the service providers.”


Service providers, such as teachers, sometimes observe that relations between Bantu children and their classmates are not always friendly, Haji said. Children get frustrated when their ability to communicate and play with their peers at school is blocked. Sometimes this leads to fighting, he said.


Access to education is limited in rural villages where most of the Bantu are from. “Some parents never hold a pen in their lives,” said Omar Eno, co-director of the National Somali Bantu Project. “Not that they didn’t want to learn but the Somali system did not give them the opportunity.”


“If there was a school nearby then it was taught in a language that the Bantu didn’t understand,” Van Lehman said. “Or if they got there the teachers and the other students would belittle the Bantu and so they would say, ‘I don’t want to put up with this. I just won’t go to school.’ They were discriminated against because Bantu are a lower caste. Why should a kid go to school and get abused all day?”

Farming is the way of life for most Bantu in Somalia, said Eno, who grew up in Somalia.


About 90 percent of the adults who settled in Portland were farmers in Somalia.


The first senior capstone working with the Bantu last fall attempted to engage the Bantu in community gardening, but ultimately there was a lack of interest, Gioia said. Dupre. Maybe it didn’t work because the Bantu were forced to farm for other people in Somalia, Gioia said.


“In Portland for some reason they haven’t really gotten into [agriculture], and in other places they have,” Van Lehman said.


“It’s really where the leader wants to take them,” Lehman said. “If the leader says, ‘Oh, let’s get city jobs,’ then they kind of tend towards that. But if the leader says ‘lets have a community garden and have the people who don’t speak English or the elderly who can’t find jobs. Maybe this is a strategy for them to make a little bit of money and have a better diet, better access to good food,’ then some places have done that, but Portland is not one of them, for some reason. We tried but maybe we tried too hard.”


For more information about the National Somali Bantu Project visit the web site: