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Refugee family to resettle in St. Petersburg

Published Aug. 27, 2005

Their home has been a canvas tent in a sandy refugee camp in Kenya.

They're accustomed to cooking their food over open fires and digging their own latrines. They have no written language and have lived their lives as social outcasts and victims of oppression.

The universe will soon change for a Somali Bantu family that will be settling in St. Petersburg. They were to arrive late Tuesday night.

Soon they will be learning about microwaves, refrigerators, indoor plumbing and all the other modern conveniences Americans take for granted.

"The transition is going to be huge for them," said Jessica Cabness, coordinator of the Refugee Mentors Ministry of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.

The Bantu family, made up of a couple and their five children, ages 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9, is being resettled in a home in the city's Midtown area. They are among the first of the estimated 300 Bantu refugees slated to come to the Tampa Bay area this year and next as part of 12,000 Bantus being relocated to 50 cities across the United States. Local volunteers have been rushing around in the past few days renting a house, buying food, moving furniture _ and wondering how they'll communicate with the family.

Officials at Catholic Charities still haven't located a caseworker who can speak Swahili, one of three African languages the family may speak.

"In the beginning, we may just communicate with hand signals and pointing," said Mary Ann Smelter, a member of the refugee ministry who plans to spend this morning with the family.

Mentors from St. Joseph's will visit the Bantu family twice every day for about a month to help them settle into their new home and learn English.

The Bantus are descendants of East African tribes traded as slaves by Arab sultans in the 1800s. Though slavery ended in 1930, the Bantus continued to be treated as second-class citizens in Somalia, a country on the eastern horn of Africa, because they are culturally, linguistically and physically different from dominant-clan Somalis.

In 1991 and 1992, during the civil war in Somalia, many Bantus were killed, robbed or raped, according to international news reports. Many fled to northern Kenyan refugee camps, where they have been waiting to be resettled.

Tampa Bay was chosen as a resettlement area because it has many agencies that can address refugees' needs, said Jose Fernandez, director of immigration and refugee services at Catholic Charities in St. Petersburg. Catholic Charities has resettled refugees from Vietnam, Cuba, Russia and the former Yugoslavia, and will resettle 202 Somali Bantus. Staff members of Catholic Charities will link the Bantus to various social services, medical care, employment and schools in the area.

Members of the refugee ministry at St. Joseph's have collected furniture and household items for the family, located a resettlement home and arranged to provide transportation and food for the Bantu family. They also will help the Bantu family learn the basics necessary to navigate everyday life in St. Petersburg, Smelter said.

She and the other refugee mentors will teach the family such things as how to shop for groceries and how to use the city bus system. The Somali Bantus are unlike other refugees because they do not have a written language.

"It's a real concern that the Somali Bantu refugees may be preliterate," Cabness said.

But the lack of a written language will not keep the Bantus from learning to speak English. The Pinellas County school system is preparing to help the Bantu children in programs for non-English speakers. Various social agencies are ready to help the adults learn English, Cabness said.

Locally, the resettlement coordinators at St. Joseph's came together out of a shared concern for immigrants, said Cabness, the group's coordinator.

When she was in college, Cabness traveled to Africa with Operation Crossroads Africa, a forerunner of the Peace Corps.

"The issue of immigration resonates with me," said Cabness, a gerontologist and social work professor at USF St. Petersburg.

"I've lived abroad _ and have been to West Africa, so I know the conditions that people live in in developing countries. I know what it's like to be a foreigner in a strange land. And most of all, I've always experienced the kindness of strangers in other countries."

Smelter, of the St. Joseph's refugee ministry, said she is used to working with the poor and that she has visited very poor nations, particularly in South America.

The St. Joseph's ministry plans to assist Catholic Charities in helping the Bantu family for six months to a year, depending on the family's needs, Cabness said. "We will try to help them become self-sufficient beginning in the fourth month," she said.

_ Kristie A. Martinez reported this story for the Neighborhood News Bureau, a program of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.