From loneliness to microwave popcorn, a Somalian refugee takes in America

It's been sitting in her apartment for 20 days, staring at her with small, unblinking eyes: a porcelain owl. Rahma Mohamud Gure is a Muslim, so the animal icon is taboo. But everything in her one-bedroom apartment here has been donated, so she doesn't feel comfortable complaining.

It's one of the most important cultural lessons that this Somali Bantu refugee will have to learn: speak up. Not only is the concept foreign - it can seem treacherous to people who've been persecuted for speaking their minds.

Ms. Gure is one of the 12,000 Bantus who were driven from their homeland and are now being resettled in 50 US cities. It's America's most ambitious effort of this type since 1975, when 135,000 Vietnamese arrived after the fall of Saigon. And it's the largest resettlement ever of a particular African ethnic group.

It also points up America's growing involvement in Africa. As the flood of refugees from communist countries has ebbed since the cold war, State Department officials have focused, in part, on this war-torn continent. Today, some 30 percent of refugees allowed to resettle in the US come from African countries, compared with less than 3 percent in 1990, jaccording to State Department statistics.

But refugee-resettlement experts say this newest group is unique in that it's the most untouched by western life. For the most part, Somalian Bantus are subsistence farmers who live in mud huts and sleep on straw mats. They've never used stoves, flicked light switches, seen paved roads, ridden elevators, or used flush toilets. Some, stories go, don't even know how to open doors before they arrive in America, having never seen doorknobs.

Car culture, singing, familiar names

What Gure found most surprising on landing in Houston was the mass of congested freeways and skyscrapers jutting into the heavens. "Houston is such a large city and the freeways are filled with so many cars. But I couldn't see one person crossing the street," she says through an interpreter.

It was a crash course in American car culture. But while there are far more differences between the two cultures, even more surprising to Gure were the similarities - specifically the love of singing, dancing, and religion.

In contrast to the recent resettlement of the "Lost Boys" - some 4,000 Sudanese teenagers whose parents were killed in that country's civil war - the Bantus are generally older, and refugee experts expect their integration into American society to take longer.

"Three years later, the Sudanese Lost Boys are turning 18. They are driving and dating and doing all the things teenagers do," says Aaron Tate, Gure's caseworker at the Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston. "The Bantus are going to have a harder time adapting."

But Gure is already - happily - proving them wrong. After three weeks in the US, she has been to the grocery store on her own and handled money. She has learned to use a microwave and has fallen in love with its popcorn. She can even read simple English sentences, such as, "New trees are planted in the spring" - even if she doesn't understand all the words.

Her biggest challenge is loneliness. So far, she is the only Bantu in Houston. More are expected, but the process is slow - especially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks slowed immigration procedures. So until she learns better English, she's communicating her needs with help from Somalis who've learned her particular dialect.

Knowing how desperate she is for company, Mr. Tate shows her the list of three Bantu families that have been approved for resettlement here. She smiles widely upon seeing a familiar name - though none of them are family.

'If you like, you take'

After Gure's father was killed in the civil war a decade ago, she fled the country with her uncle and cousins. They are still in a refugee camp in Kenya, waiting to be resettled. Her mother and two younger siblings remain in Somalia. Gure's biggest fear is for their safety.

The Bantu were taken forcibly from Tanzania and Mozambique in the late 19th century by Arab slave traders. And while they are no longer slaves, they have remained a persecuted minority, excluded from good jobs, education, and politics.

When Gure found out she was headed to America, she says she jumped up and down and hugged all her refugee-hopeful friends. On the plane, she began dreaming of a new future, one that included an education and perhaps a career in the medical field.

But first, she must figure out how to ride the bus, open a bank account, and use the phone. Even more important are the cultural lessons - ideas of equality, self-sufficiency, and punctuality that are so important to Americans.

But Gure is a quick study, and will be able to help other Bantus who will arrive in the coming months. For instance, when Tate finally asks her if she likes the decorative owl on her countertop, she instantly says no in English."I don't like. If you like, you take," she says.

Already, she is learning how to be an American.

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