COLUMBIA — The New York Times called them Africa’s Lost Tribe. They are the most oppressed people on the planet. Ever since their ancestors were stolen from their homes and enslaved, they have been abused, beaten and downtrodden. They cannot read or write and don’t know English; they have few job skills. They are literally dirt poor.
They are the Somali Bantu — and they’re coming to South Carolina.
Recognizing their plight, the federal government of this country accepted about 12,000 of these Bantu for permanent resettlement in the United States. Officials began the process of admitting them in 1999 and have just this spring begun the final step in resettlement. They will live in various parts of the country, so that no one section will be overburdened. Lutherans in South Carolina have initiated an ecumenical effort to find homes for some of them.
“When the Somali Bantu were finally approved by the Department of State (for resettlement), we submitted a proposal and were accepted. We’re one of 50 sites in the country,” said Richard F. Robinson, the manager of the refugee resettlement in South Carolina for Lutheran Family Services (LFS). “Our biggest need now is for a church to sponsor each family.”
Catholic Charities is hoping that some of those churches will be Catholic. Tracy Kroll, regional coordinator in the Midlands, doesn’t downplay the challenge to help. It will take money, she said, and a lot of time.
“They will have a plethora of needs,” Kroll said.
Those needs include learning English, transportation, documentation, education and getting children enrolled in school. Before American and United Nations refugee officials began preparing the fortunate 12,000 Bantu for resettlement in the United States a few weeks ago, they had never even seen a refrigerator or an indoor bathroom. None can drive or use basic machinery including the telephone.
“It will be a challenge, but it should be rewarding,” Kroll said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to do what we’re called to do as Catholics, especially during Lent.” Robinson said that nationally the Bantu resettlement program operates under the aegis of the Migration and Refugee Service of the U.S. Catholic Conference.
“This will be a good chance for our churches to get together,” the refugee manager said.
Catholics have already shown a willingness to take on such a difficult project, according to Peggy Sookikian, a case manager and a Catholic.
“I sent a supply list for refugees to Christ Our King (in Mt. Pleasant),” Sookikian said. “Mark Dickson (parish pastoral associate) is one of those people who make you proud to be Catholic. He sent a message back saying, ‘We’ll take care of this and if you need more, let us know.’”
Volunteers as well as supplies are needed now, according to Robinson, because the Bantu will begin arriving in late spring or early summer. A total of 120 will resettle in the Columbia area; many will be young.
“We were told to expect quite a few children and mothers who are children themselves. In the Bantu culture, girls marry young, at 13 or 14. Most of the refugees will be in family groups of four to six people,” he said.
To sponsor a family, a parish can anticipate spending a total of $2,000 to $3,000 in addition to hundreds of hours of volunteer time. Robinson hopes smaller parishes will join together to co-sponsor a family. The time commitment could be as long as six months.
Individuals can also help. The Somali Bantu will need dental and medical care so dentists and physicians are being sought as volunteers.
The families will need clothing, bicycles, furniture, toiletries. They will arrive will little but the clothes they wear, so their needs will be great. Financial donations would also be welcome, Robinson said.
Call LFS at (803) 750-9917, or write to Lutheran Family Services in the Carolinas, P.O. Box 21728, Columbia 29221.