By María José Durán
Somali Bantu Association of America guides immigrants through their first steps in the U.S.
Madina Hussein arrived in San Diego from Ethiopia in 1995 with her mom and 12 siblings. Not one of them spoke English or knew anything about American culture.
“We got lost the first day that we came here. I remembered the tall building, which is on Estrella Avenue, and we followed that building until we got home,” Hussein said. Her family didn’t know how to read the signs or ask for directions, much less what bus to take.
Their lack of cultural understanding caused the Hussein family to do things that were against their religion. “We didn’t know what the food tasted like. When we went to school, we ate a lot of pork. My sisters, they didn’t know beer, so they were working at a casino serving beer,” Hussein said.
Hussein is now 28 and she is more than fluent in English. She conciliates being a mother of three children (and a fourth one is on the way) with having her own child-care business and attending Cuyamaca Community College. She wants to major in women’s studies and transfer to San Diego State University to complete a psychology degree.
This Ethiopian woman doesn’t fit the traditional role for her gender in Africa. “My sisters say that I’m crazy. I’m very different than my sisters. I’m very open-minded, very outgoing and very adaptive,” Hussein said.
Hussein wears a colorful veil and an eye-catching long dress with brocades. She has challenged many traditions of her culture. She hung out with African- Americans in high school, divorced her first husband, and built her own business. However, the challenges that she has faced are not different from the ones of other girls that come to America as refugees.
“We slept on a floor for a couple of months when we first came and we were without a lot of hygiene products because we didn’t know what to buy. We didn’t have the resources or guidance that the newcomers are getting,” Hussein said.
About 50,000 African refugees live in San Diego, 30,000 of them from Somalia.
The Somali Bantu Association Of America helps African refugees to settle down in their new country. When they arrive, the organization sends a volunteer to their apartment for a cultural tour in their first language.
“There was a lot of families that whenever they went to the bathroom and flushed, they thought that there was somebody there and they run away scared,” said Said Abiyou, founder and CEO of the association. “They weren’t expecting all that. So families couldn’t go to the bathroom; they were peeing themselves or going outside to pee.”
Many Somali refugees never had electricity, a fridge or a stovetop. If no one guides them through the most simple aspects of everyday life, they are completely lost or overwhelmed.
The newcomer families face challenges with their health, housing and employment. However, their biggest trial is the language. The association has partnered with Learning Upgrade, a software that helps struggling students advance in English and math by using music and video games.
Refugees can learn the basics of speaking, reading and writing in 120 hours. Vinid Lobo, founder and CEO of Learning Upgrade, was delighted to see the success of this program.
“I was almost brought to tears when Said invited me to the lab and these guys were saying ‘three months ago I didn’t know how to say a word and now I’m speaking,’” Lobo said. His company has donated unlimited licenses of the learning software to the association.
The association’s headquarters consist of four rooms in a City Heights apartment. African refugees find there a space to gather, use the computers, make phone calls, or attend training and counseling sessions. One of their clients is Hussein.
“I don’t have a computer or printer at home and I have to do my essays for school. So I can come here and print it for free,” Hussein said.
Abiyou founded the association five years ago. He arrived to San Diego in 2005 after fleeing the civil war in Somalia. Abiyou’s mother emigrated with her three remaining children after she had seen 12 of her sons get killed in front of her. Abiyou and his family can’t imagine going back to war-torn Somalia.
“If we go back, we are going to get killed. Here we have freedom of speech. I never in my life expected to drive a beautiful car, dress like this or have this office,” Abiyou said. Back in Somalia, he was enslaved.
The Somali Bantu Association Of America is Abiyou’s way to give back to his community. The nonprofit, which basically runs via donations, needs volunteer attorneys, instructors and counselors. To donate or come forward, visit sbaoa.org.
—María José Durán is a freelance writer from San Diego. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.