'A big difference': Somalian refugees find tough times here but also opportunity

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In the four years since Somali Bantu refugees started resettling in Pittsburgh after fleeing civil war and ethnic persecution in their homeland, they've faced segregation in the public schools, discrimination by local residents and major cultural adjustments.

But many say the opportunities to advance their education and careers are helping to ease the transition, and they're trying to make the best of their lives.

"Being here has made a big difference in my life," said Amina Muya, of Lawrenceville, a Somalian refugee who graduated from Schenley High School in June. She came to Pittsburgh after spending 12 years at a refugee camp in Kenya.

"I don't feel like I lost anything coming here, but I know I gained a lot. In the refugee camp, everyone had the same culture. Here, there are so many."

The Pittsburgh Promise, the new Pittsburgh Schools initiative that will help cover the cost of higher education for city graduates, will allow her to attend the Community College of Allegheny County, she says.

Still, the transition has been difficult, and many continue to struggle with the changes.

The 200 Somalis who have come here are among thousands of Somali Muslims the federal government resettled throughout the nation. Most spent time in refugee camps before coming. When they arrived, they had their own expectations about what America would be like, but they were in for a surprise.

For example, the Somalian refugees who entered Schenley High School said they were ridiculed by other students about their dress. The girls observe religious traditions by wearing clothing that covers most of their arms and legs and includes head scarves.

"At school, people told us we were stupid," Ms. Muya said. "It was hot, and the American students thought we were crazy to wear so much clothing."

Other students saw the Somalis as outsiders. "The African-American kids say we don't belong here. They keep telling us to go back to Africa," said Fatuma Muya, another refugee who attended Schenley and is part of Amina's extended family.

Schenley segregated the Somalians into English classes in an area in its basement. The other kids picked on them and beat them up, they said.

In response to their treatment and that of other students, the nonprofit Education Law Center filed a complaint in 2005 with the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education.

The complaint charged that 50 Somali Bantu refugees enrolled in the Pittsburgh Public Schools were unnecessarily segregated and that the district failed to communicate appropriately with the students and their parents. The parties reached a settlement the following year that integrated the Somalians with other students and included other improvements.

Adjusting to American lifestyles -- which has gone beyond their first sight of snow or use of electrical appliances -- also has been difficult.

For one, the refugees had expected American students to respect their teachers. Amina Muya was astonished to see the attitude of high school students to their teachers. The Somalian teenagers have strong family values, with parents arranging marriages and having the final say on education decisions.

"Teenagers here think they know everything," she said. "At home, teachers are like your parents outside of home."

The refugees also were surprised by the revealing clothes Americans wear and the choices of foods.

Initially, they avoided any unfamiliar foods in the schools' cafeterias because they feared they might contain pork, which their religion prohibits them from eating. They did try the baked green apples, Ms. Muya said, which looked like the unripe mangoes they ate during food shortages.

Home life also was foreign to them.

"I expected America to be quiet and even thought the radios would always be turned down," said Mugaza Mugaza, 21. "When we came to Homewood, there was endless loud music, and then the Fourth of July fireworks came. I was already deafened by the explosions of gunshots in Africa, but this was even louder. People would set them off right at our door because they knew it alarmed us."

A Somalian family with seven young children experienced an armed home invasion in Homewood, and when they moved again, their house was pelted with mud. The family, as well as Mr. Mugaza, eventually moved to Lawrenceville, where Amina Muya's family and many other Somalians also have settled.

In addition to the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which has the settlement contract for the Somalian refugees, other organizations and several churches have worked hard to help the Somalians.

Norma Dupire, a volunteer with Pittsburgh Refugee Center, for example, has tutored Hawa Musa, mother of two young sons, to help them learn English. She remembers using association games, money games and pictures from catalogs without any signs of progress.

It became clear that Ms. Musa also needed help getting groceries, making doctor's appointments, paying bills and especially doing laundry.

"She used to take the laundry to the stream for free, and it was a social occasion," Ms. Dupire said. Ms. Musa's three-room apartment at the time didn't have room for laundry machines, so the volunteer took them to a laundromat.

"But she didn't understand how to use the machine and how to put the quarters in," Ms. Dupire said. "She would just give up and say, 'You do.' "

Ms. Musa's son Hassan has had an easier time adjusting. He's on the honor roll at Schenley High School and works for the Student Conservation Association. While he favors the traditional African decorations of printed fabrics for his room, he wants to use his earnings to buy American clothes.

Other Somalian youth also are embracing American culture. "In Africa, I really liked music, but I couldn't work in a studio, said Mohammed Mberwa, 10. "Now, a man in Lawrenceville offered to let me rap in his studio. I go with two of my friends and rap in my native language and in English."

For the most part the change has been easier for the Somalian children than their parents. Many of the older generation have gotten jobs as housekeepers, restaurant dishwashers or translators.

Abdi Muya, Ms. Muya's older brother, believes that the generation educated here will have more opportunities because they know English and understand American culture very well.

"I wish we could go back later and help them with their relationship with America," Mr. Muya said about his homeland. "But they're at war, so I know we can't. I'm glad I'm here."

Alexa Chu, a sophomore at Yale University, was a summer intern at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. First Published September 2, 2008 4:00 AM


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