Years after emigrating to SC, Somali refugees are thriving - - Columbia, South Carolina |

Years after emigrating to SC, Somali refugees are thriving

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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - It was one of the biggest stories of 2003 and well into 2004 -- controversial, sometimes divisive and often inspiring. That story revolved around the effort to bring thousands of east African refugees to America. At least 120 eventually arrived in the Midlands, and you might have wondered whatever happened to them.

In the place their parents came from, there are no rainbow-colored jungle gyms and few if any reasons for a child or family to feel good about the future. That place is the Horn of Africa, in particular Somalia and Kenya.

For years, war, drought and famine there have wiped out hundreds of thousands of lives and left millions more threatened. Many of them Somali Bantu, forced into the grim existence of Kenyan refugee camps.

In 2003, the U.S. State Department took steps to relieve some of the suffering with a program to bring more than 12,000 refugees to the U.S., re-settling them all over the country. "I think they're happy to be in America," said then-Mayor Bob Coble. "I think they want to work. I think they want to contribute."

About 30 families ended up in the Midlands, where church volunteers like Francie Markham provided food, housing and the basics needed to help the Bantu adapt to an entirely new way of life.

"It was amazing," said Markham. "Sleeping in beds, locking doors. I mean it was just things that we had never really anticipated. We just sort of thought we could do it sort of quickly but it ended up being a lengthy process."

More than seven years later, many of the Bantu have moved on to other states, sometimes to join with family members and sometimes for better jobs. Some have stayed, and have become part of the fabric of this community. They have also learned that while America and South Carolina offer great opportunities, even here, some things don't come easy.

Dr. Garane Garane played a key role in the resettlement plan. We met with him at the apartment of Abdiaziz Mabruk, his wife Halima Mahina and their now five children.

"They love this country," said Garane. "They want to be good Americans. They're hard-working people. They do not want to live on the state. And so they contribute. They pay taxes like everybody else. They have kids at school."

True to their nomadic culture, many Bantus have been on the move since arriving at Columbia Metro Airport. Abdiaziz took his family to Nebraska for a year, then returned to Columbia.

He's now struggling to find a job, is concerned about a shortage of housing and talks about going back to the Midwest while Halima continues to work at a hotel here.

"'I like Columbia,' she says," translated Garane. "'There's no citizenship. They don't give you citizenship here.'"

Garane also introduced us to another family led by former refugee Hamido Mohamed, whose three children illustrate some of the successes of the re-settlement program. Here only since 2005, all three speak excellent English.

"It wasn't easy learning the language, but then we take English as a second language where they teach you the language and the reading of it," said daughter Khadija Awes. "This is how we learned it."

"It was pretty cool when we were first learning about it and stuff, because at first we didn't know anything about the United States or South Carolina," said daughter Ikra Mohamed.

And like his older sisters, 11-year-old Mohamud wants to be a doctor and return to Kenya to help their country. "Because some of them are dying of hunger and they aren't feeling that good, and I could help them end diseases," said Osman.

Markham says thoughts like that help validate the enormous effort behind the re-settlement. "I was very proud of the city of Columbia and the school district and the politicians and the churches and the synagogues and the mosques and so on, for rising up and realizing that these people were worthy," said Markham.

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