Members of the Somali Bantu community and other local refugee groups will see a monetary boost for their resettlement services this year, thanks to a grant from the state of New York.
The Somali Bantu Community Association received its first payment from an $84,000 grant last month. The New York Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, OTDA, awarded the grant to the association for refugee social services.
The money, to be paid quarterly over three years, is intended to aid the association in providing job training and placement, English-language classes, and ensuring overall long-term community growth for the refugee population.
“If you don’t have someone to advocate for you, then you can’t get what you need,” said Haji Adan, a Somali Bantu refugee who co-founded SBCA and is the literacy program coordinator for the association. Some of the refugees arrive speaking only their native Maay Maay, and cannot read or understand the English they need in order to succeed, Adan said.
Somali Bantus are an ethnic minority group that was sold into slavery in Somalia during the 19th century Arab slave trade. Because of their differing appearance and language, native Somalis have continuously persecuted them, treating the Bantus as an inferior race.
When Bantus arrive in America, they tend to have a greater struggle than other refugee groups as most cannot read or write in their own language, Adan said. “Most of their parents were illiterate and never wanted to send children to schools because of the discrimination,” he explained.
Adan and Abdullahi Ibrahim saw a need to serve and strengthen their community and established the SBCA in 2004. What began as tutoring at the home of an association member has evolved into a full service resettlement center, complete with an office on Syracuse’s South Side, near to Central Village where most of the Somali Bantus reside.
Lul Hassan, a 22-year-old Bantu refugee who spent her entire childhood at a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to the United States in 2004, credits the association with giving her a place to learn and, ultimately, a job as an office assistant.
“I don’t know how some of my friends and family would have found jobs without them either,” Hassan said.
Central New York Community Foundation grants have helped SBCA sustain itself in the past, but they rely on donations of time most heavily. Volunteers from all corners of the community give time to help: some from the city school district, some from local universities and some Somali Bantu parents and community leaders, themselves refugees. The continued support of volunteers and each new grant allow SBCA to develop the program to suit changing demands.
But the SBCA always needs money as the majority of their community members are in the public assistance sector and don’t have money to donate to the programs, said Barbara Gordon, a volunteer ESL teacher for the association. “Haji and Abdullahi have worked nonstop without salaries to support their community,” she added.
Adan supports himself by working for Syracuse City School District as a nationality worker, but he spends more time lending himself to his community. “If you are quiet and your neighbor is suffering, that is no good,” he said.
In 2009, there were roughly 95 Bantu families living in Syracuse, Adan said. Today there are close to 300, which he credits to better services provided by the SBCA.
The goal is to continuously improve the association, Adan said. So far, the grant has enabled SBCA to hire additional bilingual staff who collectively speak Maay Maay, Swahili, and English. In the future, they plan to add staff who speak additional languages so they may reach all refugee groups in the community, not just Somali Bantu, Adan said. With nearly 1,000 refugees arriving in Syracuse each year, there will be many to be helped.
Grant or no grant, money was never going to be a reason to stop operating the office, Adan said. “We feel pride with what we do for the community. The more good things we do for them, the better the community becomes,” he added. “We would have kept going.”