Somali refugee celebrates long road to citizenship
Omar Muya, the first Somali living in Pittsburgh to become a U.S. citizen, received a miniature American flag at the end of the naturalization citizenship ceremony at the Federal Courthouse, Downtown.
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He sat quietly in the back row of Room 8A in the Federal Courthouse, Downtown, yesterday, as U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster described President Theodore Roosevelt's first requisite for being a good citizen -- "to be able or willing to pull one's own weight."
At 140 pounds on a 5-foot, 6-inch frame, Omar Muya doesn't have all that much weight to pull -- but he has more than met Roosevelt's criterion for U.S. citizenship, which he received yesterday along with 48 other people in a 20-minute ceremony punctuated with laughter and applause.
In the five years since Mr. Muya, his family and more than 200 other Somali Bantus arrived in Pittsburgh from a refugee camp in Kenya, the 25-year-old Lawrenceville resident has served as the group's translator, ombudsman, courier, mediator, advocate, dance teacherand all-around go-to-guy, while going to school and holding down a job.
Yesterday, though, Mr. Muya was actually sitting still -- with a big grin on his face.
"This is amazing," he said.
Mr. Muya is the first, but by no means the last, in this group of Somalian refugees to become an American citizen. They have had a long journey, which began in 1992 when they fled civil war and ethnic persecution in Somalia and then lived in camps in Kenya for years before coming to the United States.
"When I think about the fact that they walked weeks across countries to leave their homeland and spend 15 years in a refugee camp, hungry, sick, denied the most basic of human rights and here they are sitting in this courtroom, is just unimaginable and thrilling," said Kristen Tsapis, who has volunteered as a community liaison for the Somali refugees since 2004.
Mr. Muya's own memories of Somalia are sparse: He remembers foraging for mangoes and papayas on the banks of the Juba River, and he remembers his family's thatched-roof hut near the farm where his father, Mugaza Mugaza, worked as a supervisor. But mostly, he remembers the refugee camp in Kenya, where he learned some English -- which later would make him the de facto go-between for his fellow Somali Bantu refugees and social service agencies in the U.S.
Mr. Muya was 20 when he came to Pittsburgh, and was told he was too old to go to school. Officials at Catholic Charities, which helped resettle the Somali Bantu families here, told him he needed to find a job.
Government refugee polices focus on the goal of self-sufficiency above all else, which "isn't easy," said Claire Kushma, director of marketing and public relations at Catholic Charities.
Because only limited resources are available to the refugees upon their arrival, "they must obtain a job quickly to provide for basic needs like food, shelter and clothing," she said, noting that Catholic Charities will be launching an expanded program in 2010 to provide work force and English language skills to refugee who have found jobs.
Mr. Muya wanted to become an engineer -- but 21/2 years at Schenley High School didn't help him, since at the time ESL (English as a Second Language) classes didn't count toward a high school diploma. They do now, notes Tim McKay, director of the expanded Pittsburgh Public Schools ESL program, adding that between 80 and 90 Somali Bantus are enrolled in ESL classes at Pittsburgh Arsenal in Lawrenceville and Pittsburgh Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill.
But when Mr. Muya met Nancy Hubley, an attorney with the Education Law Center, a public interest law firm, at a local Unitarian Church, she told him she would help him.
And she did -- not only persuading officials at Community College of Allegheny County to let him take classes, but, along with Holly Maurer-Klein, a Squirrel Hill-based management consultant, also found him work in general services at the National Robotics Engineering Center, part of Carnegie Mellon University, which agreed to subsidize part of his education.
So, today, Mr. Muya attends CCAC while also working full time, making $21,000 a year, which, along with his father's job at a candy store in the Strip District, helps support his family of four brothers, two sisters and assorted nieces and nephews.
And while his new citizenship may symbolize how far this group has come, an estimated dozen families living in Lawrenceville are still enduring tough challenges, said Ms. Tsapis, a grant-writer and strategic planner for Magee Womencare International, a humanitarian outreach arm of Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC.
While the children, who make up most of the 250-plus community of Somali Bantus, have picked up English easily, they still encounter hostility during the schools days. All are Muslim and they're teased for the turbans and heavy robed clothing that many wear, their accents and their customs, she said.
The biggest problems? The language and cultural barriers, and "safe affordable housing with decent landlords," Ms. Tsapis answered, noting that the families have experienced vandalism and assaults in their homes and on the streets.
"Most don't feel safe in their homes, have uncooperative landlords or housing that just isn't affordable."
While praising the good intentions of resettlement programs, she said no one organization keeps track of this group or other resettled refugees or of the services that are being provided.
"Nobody's talking to anyone else," she said.
"Too often the Somali Bantu families -- the men, women and children -- are seen as a colorful addition to the landscape of Lawrenceville, but not as individuals with hopes and dreams and not-so-different immigrant challenges and struggles to make it in America," added Ms. Hubley.
Yesterday, though, such tribulations were put aside as Mr. Muya stood and promised to renounce "all allegiance and fidelity to foreign princes and potentates," as the oath quaintly and elaborately puts it, in a ceremony straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Sitting in another part of the courtroom were Abdulkadir Mkomwa, 27, and Halima Abdalla, 22, two other Somali Bantus who have recently passed their citizenship tests. And there are others studying for it -- and trying to save up the necessary $700 in attorneys fees and paperwork.
They will follow him, but Mr. Muya paved the way.
"He was always exhausted, but he did everything for this community without ever blinking an eye," Ms. Hubley said. "He is awesome."
First Published December 19, 2009 12:00 am