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U.S. Proves Bewildering for Somali Refugees

August 10, 2003|Angie Wagner | Associated Press Writer

PHOENIX — Milk must be stored in the refrigerator. Deodorant belongs in the bathroom, not next to the cereal boxes. After showering, use a towel to dry off. To leave the apartment, unlock the door.

These are now the complicated facts of life for Hassan Lamungu. Only two months ago, he lived in a mud hut with no running water, no stove, no toilet. He spent his days carrying passengers on the back of a bicycle.

Food rations were provided by the refugee camp in Kenya where he and his sizable family lived.

Now, he and his 14-year-old daughter, Arbai Hassan Muse, push a grocery cart in awe at a big, gleaming supermarket.

The trip is as bewildering as it is exciting.

Arbai pauses at the overwhelming display of desserts -- the Little Debbie Snack Center. She passes it up, deciding instead to look for soda pop, something she never tasted before coming to the United States in May.

"I like Coke," she says in her unsteady English, staring at the red-and-white box.

But her father, squinting at the foreign words, picks up a 12-pack of orange soda and puts it in the cart. Mango juice is what they really want, but they can only find it in small cans instead of a large jug.


Lamungu, 42, and eight family members have been transplanted under a 1999 government agreement to relocate uprooted Somalis. This family is among 12,000 Somali Bantu -- a persecuted minority in their own country -- who will be resettled in several U.S. cities over the next two years.

The State Department is providing money to 10 national agencies helping in the resettlement. In Phoenix, Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest, an affiliate of Church World Services, helps with Social Security cards and vaccination schedules. The agency teaches families to budget their money -- about $3,600 for Lamungu's clan in the first three months. After that, they are expected to bring in their own income.

Lamungu, his wife and mother are taking English classes; four of the six children will begin school in the fall. Two children are too young.

Case workers are working with Lamungu on job-interview skills: what questions to ask, the importance of eye contact and shaking an interviewer's hand. The agency will try to get him an entry-level job at a bagel shop wiping down tables or as a hotel housekeeper.

Clothing and their apartment's furnishings -- sofas, pots, lamps, television -- have been donated by a local mosque, a church and the Somali Assn. of Arizona. Within five years, the family must pay back more than $5,300 to the International Organization for Migration for their airfare to Phoenix.

In their three-bedroom home in a working-class neighborhood, Lamungu, his wife, mother and six children are learning the most rudimentary basics of American life. How to use mouthwash. Toothpaste. Deodorant. They have been taught, but frequently get the items confused: A stick of deodorant is placed next to cereal boxes in the kitchen; mouthwash is hard to distinguish from dish soap.

One day, they thought they were locked in their apartment because they forgot how to unlock the door. A car trip means passing out bags to the children because they get sick from the new motion. The family had to be told to take their own garbage out; they saw their neighbor's trash bag and decided to add their trash to it.

Simple, modern conveniences intrigue them most -- a kitchen stove, a mop, a toilet that seemed too clean to use. Lamungu mentions the shower, where water comes out "like rain over your head." Once bathing simply meant pouring a container of water over their heads. There were no towels.

Now, he explains, "You take a shower, you have to use a towel."

Lamungu's wife, Nurto Talaso, straightens up her kitchen, marveling at how a sponge and mop easily clean up the mess from the morning meal. "I've never experienced this kind of life," she says with a grin.

But adjusting will take time. This day, they have forgotten to put the milk in the refrigerator and, despite Arizona's summer heat, haven't turned on the air conditioning or fans. In Somalia, this was not an issue; there was no refrigerator, air conditioner or fan.

With years of memories of the dangers of his war-torn homeland, Lamungu wakes early every morning and looks around to make sure nothing has been stolen. At night, his children cling to their beds, thinking they are still on the airplane that brought them to Phoenix. The slightest noises awaken them, and they rush in to ask their father about the sound.

Halima Hassan Muse, 16, wants to know if there are robberies in America.

The volunteers helping the family have no doubt they will embrace American society.

"Refugees are survivors," says Erol Kekic, associate director of Church World Services Immigration and Refugee Programs. "They will make it here. They've seen the other side of things. They know what needs to happen in order for them to succeed."

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