By Meg St-Esprit McKivigan
As I approach the door to the public housing apartment in Northview Heights, delicious cooking smells mingle with the laughter of small children and adults. Stepping into the home of a local Somali Bantu refugee family, I find myself, for all intents and purposes, transported halfway around the world to Somalia.
The stark concrete walls, ceilings, and linoleum floors of the apartment are covered with beautiful tapestries and warm rugs. Inscriptions in Arabic are written on some tapestries. A little girl runs up to greet me, her beautiful large dark eyes framed by a turquoise hijab. She speaks to me in English, and just as easily turns around to respond to her parents in the language of their country. The room is filled with the laughter and conversation of adults. American children and Somali children race around my feet playing childhood games.
Within a short span of time in the home, I realize that there are many commonalities between the Somali Bantu families and my own. Their love for their children, their hope to see them flourish and their desire to contribute in a meaningful way to American society echo the dreams of parents from all backgrounds.
In recent weeks, however, the Somali Bantu community has had a shadow over their faces and hearts. The murder of Ramadhan Mohammed, who was responsible for teaching the young children religious instruction, has shaken the community to its core. The children of the local Somali Bantu community are grieving the loss of their teacher, and many are unsure of how to process their feelings of fear and worry in this difficult time. Mr. Ramadhan, the father of one toddler with a second child on the way, had dreams for his family.
Local therapists are volunteering time to help the children process their grief, but worry is still evident on their beautiful young faces. City officials have ruled the beating of the taxi driver a homicide and robbery, unrelated to a hate crime at this point. Nevertheless, the community cannot help but feel unease and worry. For their whole lives, they have been on the move seeking security and safety.
There are over 500 Somali Bantu in Pittsburgh, concentrated in the North Side, Carrick and Lawrenceville. Fatuma Muya shares some of the community’s story as we spend time in her home. Like many of the adult refugees, she fled a vicious and bloody war in Somalia in 1991 when she was a small child. After spending 20 years in a refugee camp in Kenya, her family was granted a visa to come to Pittsburgh.
Ms. Muya wants the residents of Pittsburgh to know that members of her community did not come here for violence or terrorism — they came here fleeing extremists and seeking safety. Her face is emotional as she shares the hopes she has for her children: that they receive a good education, find stable work, know English and further themselves more than her generation has been able to. She says that recently, her children and others in the community have been fearful, asking to return to Somalia — a place they do not remember and many have never been to. The children do not understand that they are asking to return to a place that was not safe.
When Ms. Muya arrived here years ago, she says, America welcomed her with open arms, and she finally felt safe. In the last year, however, that has changed. Her children are bullied on the bus and told to go back to their country, even though many of them are American citizens. In stores, the group feels fearful amidst hateful comments and hostile stares. The community feels that the rise in this anti-Islamic/anti-immigrant sentiment is correlated to the campaign rhetoric of President Donald Trump, but Ms. Muya feels it is also rooted in the unknown. People who do not know anyone in the Muslim community have not had a chance to have their fears and prejudices proved unfounded.
“I do not hate the people bullying us,” she says. “I love everyone and am open to everyone. They are our brothers and sisters in this country. We want them to know our story, how we got here and why we left our entire life behind. Maybe they fear us because they don’t know our journey or understand our culture, but we would like the city to get to know us.”
As Ms. Muya shares her heart, it is evident how much she cares for this city and for her Somali Bantu community as well. As a young woman she has survived many things to end up in this place, and her people just want a chance to realize their dreams and change their lives.
“We are here for peace, kindness and love, and want everyone to know that,” she says. “We want everyone to be able to get to know us and what we stand for.”