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Home away from home

The Baltimore Sun

Iftin Iftin dodges through the crowded halls of Patterson High School.

In low-slung khaki pants and black-and-white sneakers, a backpack thrown over his shoulder, the slight senior blends in as students pass by him, slapping his hand.

"Iftin, wassup?" says one student.

The 21-year-old flashes a smile, nodding his head in recognition.

"What's up?" the Somali Bantu refugee responds, his strong African accent belying his appearance.

A small black pin reading "Amini" is on his powder-blue shirt. "That means 'believe' in Swahili," he explains.

"Believe," he repeats.

Three years ago, Iftin came to Baltimore a shy teenager, barely able to hold a conversation in English. He was one of about 300 Somali refugees to be placed in the city during Somalia's civil war. He had never used a computer, laying eyes on one only once, in a refugee camp in Kenya.

Now Iftin, confident and assimilated, is poised to become the second in his family to graduate from high school, and the first from a school in the United States, more aware of his identity and roots than ever.

He will go back one day, he vows. He will return to Somalia.

August 26, 2004 was a special day for me. That was the day my family and I arrived in the United States from Kenya. (School essay, fall 2007)

Like many Somali Bantus, Iftin's family fled Somalia in the early 1990s. His parents were farmers and members of a long-persecuted minority in the East African country.

When civil war broke out, thousands of Bantu families fled to refugee camps in Kenya.

Iftin's recollections from the time are a mesh of the stories he's heard and flashes from a 3-year-old's memories. He remembers walking a long distance with his mother and her carrying him on his back. He remembers a bus that eventually picked them up and took them to a camp in Kenya where they lived in a tent.

He's read about the atrocities that occurred in Somalia. He knows his father's eldest son was killed. He knows relatives were left behind. But when pressed on that part of his past, the normally talkative young man quiets.

"Every time I think about it, it gives me a headache," he says.

I was only three years when the civil war started in 1990. The people ... ruined our city, took our possessions, raped our women, killed the men and the kids become orphans. My family and I ran out of the country and didn't know where to go.

The United Nations heard that a civil war started in Somalia ... They came and gave us food, tent and took us to Kenya. I lived in the refugee camp for almost thirteen years. That is how we became refugees.

(Personal essay, fall 2007)

After living in a tent for several years, Iftin's family built a house. There was no electricity or running water or television.

"You know Africa, most parts, it's hot and hard, too," said Iftin. "We had food but it wasn't enough. We had to go to the store and line up and get food, like you usually see on TV."

The U.S. government authorized resettlement of more than 12,000 Bantus after other African countries rejected them. Bantu families began trickling into the U.S. in 2003.

"There were no prospects for them to integrate locally in Kenya, and due to their persecution claims, they were unable to return to Somalia," said Christine Petrie, deputy vice president for resettlement at the International Rescue Committee in New York, a nonprofit organization.

Bantus were resettled in cities and towns across the country. The challenges were myriad, IRC officials say. They ranged from teaching refugees English when most were illiterate and fluent in a native tongue with no written language, to dealing with a culture where men have multiple wives.

Iftin's family - including his parents and siblings - was placed in a rowhouse in West Baltimore. He enrolled in Northwestern High School; he and a friend were the only Somali Bantus in the school.

The students were making fun of my English and my traditional dress in school and on the bus. I went to school the next day and tried my best to explain to my ESL (English Second Language) teacher that it was hard for me to say what I had to say. I felt sorry for myself; I felt that if I could speak the language better nobody would say anything about how I was dressing.

(Personal essay, The Patterson Press newspaper, Dec. 20, 2007)

Valerie Dubin, a teacher of English for Speakers of Other Languages at Northwestern, remembers Iftin's first few months. "He really didn't speak any English when he came," she said. "It was so hard for him."

Most difficult for him, she said, was the fact that there was no dictionary in his native tongue, Mai Mai.

A friend of Dubin's found a dictionary online and gave to him. Iftin was thrilled, she remembers.

Iftin recalled that the dictionary was in a different Somali dialect, but one with which he was familiar. "With Iftin, it was difficult for him, but he overcame every obstacle," said Dubin.

Communication problems extended beyond being unable to respond to the taunts of classmates.

While walking to school one day, Iftin said, he was confronted by a policeman but didn't realize it and therefore didn't stop. The police were investigating a stolen-car incident and mistook him for the culprit, he said.

He was placed in handcuffs, and when police checked his pockets they found a student bus ticket, his house key and his school ID. They quickly realized their mistake, apologized to him and gave him a ride to school.

After Northwestern, Iftin attended two other schools - looking for a good fit - before ending up at Patterson his sophomore year. With his language skills improved, he found it easier to fit in at Patterson, which has the largest ESL and refugee population in the city.

On a recent day, Iftin sits at a circular table in the school's noisy lunch room.

"He's from Yemen," says Iftin, pointing at one student. As he points at others, he continues: "He's from Sudan, Congo, Ethiopia." "This table and this table are African tables," Iftin says.

My mother and my elder brother are the only people working in the family. She has told me to go to school, get a good job and stay out of trouble. She was right. I'm going to improve my English and my education, so I can make her dream and mine come true.

(Personal essay published in The Patterson Press newspaper, Dec. 20, 2007)

It is a Friday afternoon after school. Iftin sits with his cousin Bali Ahmed, 20, in the bedroom of the Highlandtown rowhouse where his family now lives.

He puts a CD in the player, and a background beat emanates from the speakers.

Iftin hands Ahmed a microphone.

"One, one, two," Iftin raps into the microphone.

"Sha Sha, Shambara Boyz," Ahmed raps back.

"Ki Waayi," Ahmed sings, in Mai Mai.

The two fall into a rhythm, half-rap, half-R&B;, in a romantic song they say translates into "When I miss you, I get confused."

Shambara Boyz is the name of their band. Shambara is a word that they say translates into something like ancestors.

Once composed of five Somali Bantus, the band is now just the two of them. They've written about 20 songs, recorded three and are hoping to put out a CD. Already they have uploaded some songs on a page on the social networking Web site myspace.com.

Iftin raps, his cousin sings.

One song is called "Somalia Kanagida." It means "Let's Go Back to Somalia."

The song talks about not belonging, coming to America for an education and then returning to "home sweet home."

"Everybody's gotta go back to their sweet home when they reach their goal," says Iftin.

When peace returns to Somalia, and he completes his education, he wants to go back and help his country.

"I want to see the nature of my country," he says. "I want to go and share with other people what my country is like. All I can tell them now is I'm from Somalia. Civil war is the reason I'm here. That's all I can say."

He looks away, a young man rapping in low-slung jeans, dreaming of the day he can return home not a refugee, to a country he never really knew but one that he belongs to, his home sweet home.

"Somalia Kanagida," he repeats to himself. "Somalia Kanagida."


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