Somali tribe displaced

U.S. officials plan to use the research of a Portland State University professor to aid the resettlement of 11,800 Somali Bantus – some possibly to Portland.

More than 10,000 members of the Bantu tribe were originally displaced when civil war broke out in Somalia in the early 1990s.

Daniel Van Lehman of PSU’s Hatfield School of Government has co-written the cultural profile, “The Somali Bantu: Their History and Culture,” with the hopes it will help with this year’s resettlement.

“People need accurate information to take the right course of action,” Van Lehman said. “There’s too much to these people to guess.”

Van Lehman first learned of the Bantu tribe while working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) between 1992 and 1994. He worked at a refugee camp in Kenya, where many of the Bantu escaped to during the peak of the war in Somalia. He later completed his graduate work on the Bantu at Cornell University in 1995. Of the resettlement, Van Lehman said, “It’ll be hard for them here.” However, he believes that the resettlement will be successful if enough of the right resources are used. There are many existing groups to support refugees, such as the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), Lutheran Family Services and Catholic Charities.

Portland is one of 50 cities in the U.S. that officials are considering for resettlement for the Bantu. Other possible cities include Pheonix, Tuscon, L.A., San Fransisco, Denver, Atlanta, Boston and Cleveland.

Van Lehman said the Bantus will most likely be divided between their villages and would be resettled in groups of 100 to 300 individuals. Many will receive federal housing and support until they are able to begin working and bringing in an income on their own.

If they come here, Van Lehman says he is confidant they will receive ample support from organizations such as PSU, which, Van Lehman says, has done work with IRCO, including research on migration and various capstone projects.

“If the refugees do come to Portland we will try to develop some sort of capstones for students to get involved in,” Van Lehman said.

He feels students can learn a lot from these people, especially their culture and their history. He also added the Bantus would appreciate the contact with Americans who want to help them.

Van Lehman is hoping the United States will be able to integrate the Bantus into American agriculture, as they were farmers in Somalia. He mentioned, while they are not very literate, they are highly skilled manual laborers. “I think they would like to go to a place where they can farm,” he added.

The Bantu will face many challenges when they resettle to the United States.

“The two biggest ones are English language and literacy,” Van Lehman said. Some of the children and very few of the adults know any English.

Another challenge the Bantu will face is the change in health-care practices. Much of their medicine comes from local and religious beliefs, which includes both male and female circumcision.

Service reports state, “[The] Bantu are agreeable to giving up the practice” of female circumcision. However, the UNHCR has reported when the Bantu learned such practices are illegal in the United States, they “rushed to circumcise them (their daughters) before departing Kenya.”

Van Lehman says once they have resettled in the United States, it will be more difficult for them to maintain their culture, as much of it is based on their village as a whole. When they resettle, it will be hard to keep the villages together. It will be easier for them, said Van Lehman, if they have those “social support networks” provided by their families, villages and clans.

To learn more about the Somali Bantu, you can read Van Lehman’s profile at or you can e-mail him at [email protected].