Sunday, May 04, 2003

Columbia reaches out to 'lost tribe'
More than 100 Somali Bantu to relocate from Africa to city
SOUTH CAROLINA, 4 MAY 2003 (The State)--About 120 members of an African tribe enslaved and persecuted for more than two centuries soon will make their home in Columbia, part of one of the largest U.S. refugee resettlements in recent history.

The first wave of Somali Bantu likely will arrive sometime this summer, said the Rev. Richard Robinson, coordinator of the Lutheran Family Services Refugee Resettlement Program.

The resettlement of the Bantu is the agency's most ambitious -- and perhaps most risky -- undertaking. But Robinson said he believes when Midlands residents learn the story of the Somali Bantu, they will be moved to help the new transplants.

"When we heard about the plight of the Somali Bantu, we felt very passionate about bringing them here," said Robinson, an ordained Baptist minister.

"The fact that they had no place to go ... the intense suffering they have gone through. Those things really resonated with my minister's heart, my human heart."

The Somali Bantu are unique in that their suffering has extended back centuries, first at the hands of slave traders, then at the hands of masters. A rural, agricultural people used to hard labor and little reward, they have been denied education.


The resettlement of this "lost tribe" of Africa will end a pilgrimage that began in the 1800s when the Bantu's ancestors were taken by Arab slave traders from the East Africa region that is now home to the nations of Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi.

They were sold on the Zanzibar slave market and dispersed throughout the Middle East and Africa. Those who ended up in Somalia became known as the Somali Bantu, where they were persecuted as slaves and as free men and women.

Although they practiced traditional African animist religion, most converted to Islam while in Somalia because the Quran forbids Muslims from holding fellow Muslims in captivity. "It was a ticket out of slavery," Robinson said.

Even after slavery was outlawed in 1930, their situation barely improved. They occupied the lowest rungs of society, received little formal education and performed the most menial jobs.

"Someone has said, and rightly so, that the treatment of Somali Bantu in Somalia was almost identical to that of African-Americans prior to the civil rights movement here," Robinson said. MORE

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