Most people in Pittsburgh know very little about the Somali Bantu community residing here. You can catch signs of their culture throughout the city: glimpses of women and children at bus stops in colorful dresses and hijab, the smell of savory samosas drifting out of homes. These are just two of the outward signs denoting their presence. Roughly 550 Somali Bantu live in Pittsburgh, mostly in clusters within Northview Heights, Lawrenceville, Carrick and Mount Oliver.
But what do we really know about Pittsburgh’s Somali Bantu community? My vague memories of the war in Somalia include scattered images of starving children on the nightly news. Yet there is so much more to their stories than media soundbites from two decades ago.
This year, I began working with the Somali Bantu refugee community in Pittsburgh as part of a church-led community effort to help them thrive in this city. What started as the simple task of collecting clothing items or kitchen utensils for families evolved into a deepening understanding of their hopes and their struggles here. As I became acquainted with our neighbors, their complex stories emerged. The flight from their war-torn home country and the hardships endured to build a new life in Pittsburgh show their resilience and strength.
Many people in the Somali Bantu community live in poverty. The majority reside in public housing complexes or below-market rate apartments. Homeownership is a dream of many. For some, it’s becoming a reality. Many of the Somali Bantu families who are working with a realtor are searching for homes around the North Side, Bellevue and the South Side Slopes.
From my conversations, the Somali Bantu people show a deep appreciation and love for Pittsburgh, and it is home to them now. However, this city has not always shown the Somali Bantu love in return. Misconceptions about Muslim refugees abound, and the best way to combat false impressions is to share these stories. I sat down with four families in the Somali Bantu community to listen to their journeys.
PublicSource is running four stories featuring members of the Pittsburgh Somali Bantu community in the month of May.
How Omar builds unity and a safe space for Pittsburgh refugees through soccer
Video by Ryan Loew
June 16, 2017
Standing on the sideline of an indoor sports field in Stanton Heights, soccer coach Omar Muya shouts directions to his players, alternating between English and his native Bantu dialect, Kizigua.
Like most of his team, Muya is Somali Bantu.
By day, 33-year-old Muya works as an electrician at the National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville. But here he is the coach. These practice sessions and games are a way for Somali youth to come together, play soccer and push pause on the outside world.
Muya said the team plays in a league run by the nonprofit organization Pittsburgh Soccer in the Community.
The political climate in the country has been stressful for the Somali Bantu community since the 2016 presidential election, Muya said. And earlier this year, members of Pittsburgh’s Somali Bantu community expressed concern of harassment since the election of President Donald Trump. Somalia is among the countries included in the original and revised versions of Trump’s travel ban, both of which have been blocked by the courts. The 9th Circuit upheld the block of the ban on Monday; however, the Supreme Court is considering requests to review the order.
Muya fled Somalia due to civil war and spent about 12 years in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to Pittsburgh in June 2004. He became a U.S. citizen in December 2009. Muya lives in Penn Hills with his wife and two sons.
Trump’s travel ban was issued Jan. 27. Fatuma Sharif hasn’t heard from her granddaughter since.
May 31, 2017
(This interview was conducted through a translator named Abdulkadir Chirambo, who is the president of the United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh. Quotes are, therefore, how he translated Fatuma’s words to the reporter.)
In the days leading up to Jan. 27, 2017, Fatuma Sharif was anxious yet hopeful. Her granddaughter, whom she had not seen in years, was due to arrive in the United States from the Jijiga-Āwuberē refugee camp in Ethiopia. The scattered pieces of her family puzzle were being put back into place. When she talks about her granddaughter, Fatuma punctuates her sentences with hand gestures to emphasize her point. The emotion speeds up the cadence and urgency in Fatuma’s voice. The translator pauses as he considers how best to translate the outburst.
Fatuma’s teenage granddaughter was at the airport that day preparing for travel. Her mother, Fatuma’s daughter, was with her and recounted what happened. With an arduous two-year vetting process completed, the teenager had her visa in hand. It was the day all refugees wait for and cling to during the long years in the camps. Suddenly, they got word that the flight was canceled. President Donald Trump’s first executive order on immigration had been issued, and the U.S.-bound flight was subject to the ban. Fatuma’s granddaughter could not foresee the legal battles the executive order would face; in that moment she only felt fear for the future. She fled from the airport in distress, so upset at having the hope of America dangled before her and then taken away. No one has heard from Fatuma’s granddaughter since that day in January.
Fatuma’s own journey to Pittsburgh has been long and filled with heartbreak. She arrived to Pittsburgh in January 2016. Her family’s struggle is not over as she continues to fight for her adult children and grandchildren to join her.
Fatuma delivered 17 children while living in Somalia. Six of those children have passed away, and 11 are still living. Her oldest living son is 33, and the youngest son is 10. She has not seen six of her children in nearly a decade.
When she was at home in Somalia, Fatuma was involved in community events. Having a talent for traditional dancing and hosting teas, she loved it. “Being social was my everything,” she says. Fatuma is outgoing. Her laugh is contagious. A smile crinkles up the corners of her eyes when she remembers happy times back home.
Fatuma’s husband, however, was not happy about his wife drawing so much attention. Muslim culture, which is patriarchal in nature, values modesty and humility. Fatuma’s autonomy and nontraditional role made him angry. He fled with six of their children and filed for divorce on the arbitrary grounds that he declared himself no longer Bantu.
When opportunity came for Fatuma to seek safety with her remaining five children in the Āwuberē refugee camp in Ethiopia, she took it. Knowing that she had no hope of making a claim to her stolen children, she chose to focus on her children who were still with her. The Āwuberē camp is similar to the Kenyan Dadaab camp in many ways, it is also run by UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. There is more ethnic diversity in the Ethiopian camps, with refugees from dozens of countries. Most are from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan.
Refugees are not permitted to work officially, though many run small cafes, barber shops or other businesses in the bustling camp. Fatuma continued hosting teas during the nine years she and her family spent in Ethiopia. Then she was given the chance to come to Pittsburgh with one of her adult daughters and two grandchildren. A second adult child had the chance to settle in Louisville, Kentucky, but the rest are not yet in America. Six of her children are still in Somalia, and three are in Djibouti with their father.
Fatuma desperately wants safety for all of her children in America. Through Facebook, she has been able to reconnect with some of her younger children in Djibouti. That’s how she learned that her ex-husband is ailing. He is not as possessive of the kids, she says. “She sends them money, even if it is $5 a month,” Abdulkadir translates.
Fatuma cannot work due to a back injury, so ensuring financial stability is hard. The journey that Fatuma has taken has had a toll on her body. In Somalia, she says she was a farmer, but it was more than hard work that caused the physical disabilities she has today. She was raped and beaten during the war, she says. She insists that these details are included in the story, that although they are private and painful details, they are her story and the story of a war-torn country. Abdulkadir translates, “That is the purpose. That is why they let me flee to this country.” In addition to these violent acts, she notes that carrying many babies — both during pregnancy and tied to mothers’ backs — puts a lot of physical stress on Somali Bantu women.
Fatuma’s two volunteer ESL teachers, who were connected to Fatuma through a church effort, visit her home every week. They help her read her mail, make appointments and fill out the I-90 forms needed for her children attempting to immigrate. “My life is still working because of my teachers.” The resettlement agency was able to help Fatuma to navigate life in Pittsburgh for the first six months.
Allegra Elson of the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council says for the first three months after a refugee’s arrival, they are involved in “reception and placement.” They go through orientation to the city and receive food and housing. They are introduced to social services, education and health support. Up until six months after arrival, employable adults also receive help in finding employment. For five years after arrival, they can access the Refugee Social Services Program, though many Somali Bantu have found this program not as helpful as the initial support they received.
Over tea and biscuits, a Somali tradition in the community with vestiges of British colonialism and Arab influence, Fatuma reflects on whether Pittsburgh feels like home yet. “Yes, and right now, it is my home. It was worse in Ethiopia. I cannot go back to Somalia right now. They say it is getting better there, but even people working for the government … get shot.” For these reasons, Fatuma is resolved to continue her efforts to bring all of her children to America to join her.
Her toddler grandson runs into the room for a moment, buries his face in her skirt and then scurries back into the kitchen with his mother. Things may be difficult for this newly arrived family in Pittsburgh, but it is their home. While Fatuma has decades of painful memories leading up to this moment, for this young child, he will only remember Pittsburgh.
Somali Bantu couple’s far-flung web of loved ones makes resettlement in Pittsburgh difficult
May 24, 2017
Abdi Abukar, an elder of the Somali Bantu community in Pittsburgh, is sitting in an armchair in North Side home, but his mind is in a place thousands of miles from here. He wants to share the story of his life, and of his people, their struggles and their triumphs — in a dignified way. As one of the oldest members of the community, he has decades of experiences as a refugee to draw from.
Abdi’s teenage daughter interrupts his train of thought when she comes into the room and hands him a smartphone. A smile spreads across Abdi’s face as he takes the phone. On the screen is a woman who bears a resemblance to him. She chatters excitedly in Kizigua, and he laughs as he responds to her. His wife, Dahabo Ali, whispers that it is Abdi’s sister. She is nearly 8,000 miles away in Somalia, and they have not seen each other face to face in 25 years. Live video chatting is miraculous to both of them as they catch up. His sister asks Abdi for advice on decisions about her day-to-day life in Somalia. Questions about her children’s education or about employment fall to her brother. Since their eldest brother died recently, Abdi is now the head of their family.
Abdi has lived in the United States for 13 years. He has called the North Side of Pittsburgh home since 2004, aside from three years spent in Columbus helping his extended family become settled there.. His wife, Dahabo, came with him in 2004. They do not remember when they got married, but chuckle as they say, “A very long time.”
Abdi and Dahabo have nine children together. Abdi also has children from two previous marriages. A few of his adult sons in Pittsburgh are looking for work but struggling to find it. They have experience in hospitality, management and sales, but Abdi thinks the job hunt has been complicated by the opinions and popularity of President Donald Trump and Islamophobia.
Several more of Abdi’s adult children are in Idaho, and he has more adult children who remain in Africa. At least four are in the refugee camps in Kenya, hopeful for resettlement in the United States. The remaining children are in Somalia. He gestures with his hands to denote many grandchildren all over the globe, most of whom he has never met. Abdi laughs as he tries to name all of his children and where they are located in the world. He has lived a long life, and has not seen many of them in a long time.
For most people, this far-flung web of loved ones would be unfathomable. But for Abdi and Dahabo, it is the reality of life at the mercy of refugee resettlement agencies and a home country without a stable government. Through thousands of miles, different U.S. cities and across an ocean, Abdi maintains his role as the patriarch of his family. The latest presidential executive order, despite being tied up in court, has drastically slowed the resettlement process for Somali refugees in Kenya and Ethiopia. Their children will not be able to join them in the U.S. in the near future. Abdulkadir Chirambo, president of the United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh, said he does not know of any new Somali Bantu families, including those with approved visas, who have arrived in Pittsburgh since the second executive order was issued.
Family and intergenerational living are the backbone of Somali Bantu culture. The civil war and instability in Somalia have destroyed that vital piece of Bantu life for Abdi and Dahabo. From the accounts of many local Somali Bantu families, many younger refugee families are able to stay together during the resettlement process because their children are minors, but adult children are not given special consideration.
For now, all Abdi and Dahabo have is technology to keep their family connected. Abdi has found safety in America but he has grandchildren he is unlikely to ever meet. They are far away, in Kenya and Somalia, and he naturally worries about his kin.
In 2004, Abdi and Dahabo were settled in Pittsburgh after years in a Kenyan refugee camp. They were here until 2007, when they moved to Columbus to help extended family settle there. Columbus, which is home to the second largest Somali resettlement in the United States, is where much of their extended family resides. In 2010, the couple moved back to Pittsburgh and put down roots. Abdi has not been able to work since 2007 due to a spine injury. He is now past retirement age for most Americans, but the turmoil of their life afforded them no way to save for this stage of life.
Dahabo shares her struggle to help provide for her family. When she struggles with a word or concept, her teenage daughter steps in from the kitchen to help. “My hours have been cut at my supermarket job, but my rent is based on my old paychecks, so it is very high,” she said. “We just try to have enough to survive.” Sometimes Abdi drives Dahabo to her job, only for her to be sent back home two hours later because the supermarket is not busy.
The unpredictable income is hard on them, yet they still share with their family overseas. “When I find $100 spare dollars, I send it to my mother in Somalia,” Dahabo said. Everyone there thinks we are rich because we are in America. If we send $100, it [feels like] one billion in money back there. They don’t understand that we are not rich. They don’t know we struggle so much.”
To their family in Somalia, everyone in America is rich by comparison to the conditions they face. Drought and famine are making life in Somalia difficult. An unstable government struggles to support its citizens in crisis. And the government can come and take your land at any time.
Dahabo’s face hardens as she reflects on current events in the United States. “I am thankful for the government. They help my kids. They give us medical and help with food. But…” Her thoughts trail off. Dahabo has been in the United States through several presidents. “Bush is good. Obama is good. Trump, he is bad. All the people were happy before Trump. Now no one is happy.”
Like many in the Somali Bantu community, Dahabo has fears about the travel ban. Rumors abound in the community. Many worry that they will be deported despite having valid documents. Dahabo is also concerned. All of her children who are in the United States and her husband are citizens. Dahabo, however, has not been able to obtain her citizenship.
She has taken the test twice so far. One can take the test as many times as needed, but Dahabo says she needs to learn how to write better; that’s the part she keeps failing. Somali Bantu culture educates through oral tradition and rote memorization, so writing was not part of her schooling. Every time she is asked to write a sentence that is read out loud during the exam.
Dahabo says she knows she’s safe because her green card status is not affected by the disputed executive order, but she is determined to become an American citizen. “So, I will try a third time,” she says.
Abdulkadir Chirambo helps to clear the way for Somali Bantu refugees who came to Pittsburgh for safety and for change
May 19, 2017
Laughter flows out the double doors of the Northview Heights community center as dozens of Somali Bantu children chase balloons around the room while others color beautiful designs on paper. Volunteers guide them through group activities to bond with the children. The president of the United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh, Abdulkadir Chirambo, records the scene on his phone with a smile on his face. His joyful, resounding laugh is heard above the crowd. He gives a directive to one child and asks another group of kids to pose for a photo. The children of his community are his main focus. He devotes much of his time and energy to their schooling, their security and their ability to thrive in Pittsburgh. For him, it’s personal.
The last time Abdulkadir was in his homeland of Somalia, he was a 9-month-old infant tied to his mother’s back as his family fled the bloody civil war. He has no memory of the land of his birth, but it is as much a part of what has shaped him as any place he has lived. Abdulkadir is Somali Bantu. He is an American citizen. He is a Pittsburgher who now lives in McKees Rocks. As president of the community group, he said he helps to navigate dozens of situations every day for the more than 500 Somali Bantu in the Pittsburgh area.
New families arrive every week as the scattered members of the ethnic group try to find each other across this U.S. Families have been split and resettled thousands of miles apart. Abdulkadir is busy this Monday morning in April helping his sister-in-law get settled into her new apartment in Brighton Heights. His nieces and nephews, recently arrived from Massachusetts and not yet enrolled in school, run around the townhouse with the same spring fever common to all children in Pittsburgh in early April. They chatter about their new school and their new home, while Abdulkadir’s low, even voice tells his story over their giggles.
Arriving in Kenya at the Dadaab refugee camp in 1993 was his parents’ goal, but it did not bring immediate safety. “There was not killing in Dadaab, but for the first five years we were there, there was still so much raping and robbery,” he said. “There was no medication, and the clinic was so small with no nurses. Malaria was running rampant through the camp.”
Things slowly improved in the camp thanks to humanitarian organizations. Still Abdulkadir’s parents sought the permanency of a true home for their young family. While waiting for resettlement, Abdulkadir’s father obtained a job setting up food supplies for UNHCR, which allowed Abdulkadir to focus on his education. After eight hours of public school and two hours of religious school each day, Abdulkadir would then, in the late evenings, attend private school. “I never had free time, but if I had a short break I would play soccer. That was my life in the camp.”
In June 2004, Abdulkadir and his family finally had the chance to leave the camp and settle in Erie, Pennsylvania. Their guide in New York City, however, left them at the airport with no idea how to get to Erie. Abdulkadir, then 14, wandered around showing people his ticket, saying “I need help,” as strangers pointed his family to the right gate. After eight hours in the airport with no money and no food, sitting at the gate, the flight was canceled.
The family finally made their way to their new home after much confusion and a night in a hotel. “It was so hard when we got there. I had never had a break before. Always schooling, never just sitting. But we got there on summer break and I was supposed to just sit.” Eventually, Abdulkadir was enrolled in high school in Erie, where he says he excelled in every subject. Despite viewing himself as a college-level student, he was placed in ninth grade.
As one of the earlier Somali Bantu refugee families in the district, he feels he played an instrumental role in helping to pave the path for new kids arriving. When then-Gov. Ed Rendell visited the Erie School District in April 2007, Abdulkadir was able to share his story with the top state official. He felt heard and that it made an impact.
“Before, our students were struggling and falling behind,” he said. Abdulkadir believes that, “Now in Erie, no Somali kids are left behind. They are all on track.”
In 2008, Abdulkadir moved to Pittsburgh to attend college at the Pittsburgh Technical Institute. While working two jobs as a security guard and in a chemistry lab, he finished a two-year criminal justice program in 15 months. Abdulkadir noticed, however, that other students in his Somali Bantu community were not having the same success. He began to advocate for his community by talking to teachers and working with Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] for the benefit of the community.
His family has set down roots in Pittsburgh, but he remains concerned for Somali Bantu people living here. “We have been told that this city is No. 1 in racism,” he said, referencing casual talk among peers. “And they send all of our kids to Brashear, Allderdice or Arsenal. No matter where they live in the city, they will be on long bus rides because PPS only wants to hire a few [English Second Language] teachers. They cannot go to their neighborhood school, so we end up segregated.”
To address these persistent issues, Abdulkadir works with many local organizations, such as the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh and the City of Asylum bookstore. “We came here for safety and for change,” he said. “We are not trying to feel like we are still in Somalia. And these associations, they are working with us.
“…The last month though, as we start to meet more neighbors and get more connected, we are realizing people want…a good connection with us. That way we can all work together, to fix things in this city for us and for everyone else.”
Overcoming tragedy and harassment, Fatuma Muya builds a new life in Pittsburgh
May 11, 2017
About a dozen Somali women and children were forced into a hut, staring at the barrel of a machine gun whirling around on a tripod. Mothers and children, cousins and neighbors, watched their way of life crumble around them when their villages were attacked. The invaders — the Darood and Hawiye rebel clans — told them that whoever moved would be shot and killed on the spot. Fatuma Muya believed them. She was around 10 years old. She had witnessed these clans slay six of her brothers during the bloody civil war that began in Somalia in 1991. She sat still, trembling with fear. Her mother could not sit still.
Contractions. She was going into labor with the child she was carrying. The timing of her child choosing to arrive at this moment threatened her very life. The men warned her. “Stop moving,” they said as they laughed at her claims of pregnancy. They accused her of stuffing money up her dress. When she writhed in pain once more, one of the soldiers smacked her in the stomach with the butt of his machine gun. Her water broke immediately, and her youngest child was stillborn. Fatuma lost another sibling that day before she ever had a chance to know them.
Sorrow and tragedy are part of what has shaped her life. Yet she chooses to not let it define her as she builds a new foundation in Pittsburgh 26 years after these events. Now, a mother herself, Fatuma loves and appreciates Pittsburgh, especially after several years at a refugee camp in Kenya and slow-moving resettlement process. However, she has noticed a shift in the city she has lived in for over a decade. With the beginning of Donald Trump’s campaign, her family has felt animosity rise. One incident in particular remains etched in her memory.
“On Donald Trump’s inauguration day, we were at the bus stop by Family Dollar on Brighton Road. I had my children all with me because my car was broken. We saw an older respectable man. He pointed his middle finger to us and yelled, ‘Go back! We don’t need you here. We don’t need Muslims in this country.’
Everyone around us was uncomfortable, but no one stood up for us. I did not stand up for us because I had my children and I did not know if he had a gun or wanted to hurt us. We were just shocked. But I try to just put my heart towards God.”
Some of the younger members of the Somali Bantu community have asked the older members if they should alter their Muslim dress to avoid persecution. “I tell them, ‘No.’ I cannot change me just because someone wants to hate me. I cannot give into that.”
Fatuma’s road to Pittsburgh was long. Having escaped the fate of her siblings in her native Somalia, she arrived to relative safety in Kenya at Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. It was 1997. The next six years in the camp were spent preparing for hopeful resettlement somewhere in the world. Fatuma often spent the money she received from relief groups for food on English classes instead. Fatuma met Dadiri Malambo as a child, and they were together in the camps. Their friendship grew into love, but they avoided marrying in the camps. “We did not want to have our babies in those camps,” she said. “What would their life be? They would be trying to survive just like us. No.” Finally, in 2003, she was able to begin the process of immigrating to the United States.
After the long vetting process, Fatuma and her mother were settled in Charlotte, North Carolina. Because they had chosen to wait to marry, no effort was made to keep Dadiri and Fatuma together. Upon arrival in the United States, Fatuma and Dadiri spent weeks calling around the country to other refugee resettlements, desperately trying to find each other. Six months after their arrival in this country, Fatuma located Dadiri in Pittsburgh. Fatuma moved north, and they were finally married. Thirteen years after arriving in Pittsburgh, they are raising their eight American-born children in this city that they have grown to love. Dadiri has been employed as a maintenance worker at the William Penn Omni Hotel for all this time.
While their home city and Dadiri’s employment have been relatively constant, they have still encountered instability here. For awhile, they lived in public housing in the Hill District. It was razed for market-rate condos, forcing them to find a new home. For a year, an autoimmune disease affected Dadiri’s health and, therefore, their income. Fatuma said she has found work as a court translator and in a variety of service roles, but her days are filled at this point advocating for her community. “I am down at the elementary school almost daily sometimes, trying to stand up for our kids. I am trying to find jobs for our members, trying to find them furniture or clothes,” she said.
Both Fatuma and Dadiri have been U.S. citizens since 2012 and 2015, respectively.
Currently living in a Housing Authority townhouse in the North Side, her family is in the process of buying their first home. “None of us want to be in public housing,” she said.
“We are trying. It is hard. Our entire way of life is different here. We were farmers in our country… Now we are trying to find work and earn a living so that we can have our dreams come true. If our country was safe, we would not be here.”
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