SAN DIEGO — Back in the Horn of Africa, ethnic Somalis often treated Hussein Abdi's ethnic group with disdain.
"We just worked for them," Abdi, 28, recalled. "I felt under them.... Sometimes they called us 'slave.' "
Abdi is a Bantu, and Somalis once kept Bantus as slaves.
But as Abdi and other refugees from Somalia continue to settle in San Diego, Bantus and Somalis are recognizing that their similarities matter more than their differences. They share a common language, religion and traditions, and those cultural bonds are helping them build new lives together in their adopted country.
Somalis and Bantus are "all the same," said Isha Mberwa, 25, Abdi's wife. "Here ... there is no difference."
Old country rivalries -- clan politics and competition for water and grazing land -- have been replaced by the everyday challenges of living in America, said Abdi Mohamoud, executive director of the Horn of Africa Community in North America.
"You don't have those same dynamics to deal with here," added Mohamoud, whose San Diego-based organization assists Somali newcomers. "Everyone is just trying to survive."
It's a grimmer reality in Somalia, where the animosity between Bantus and Somalis goes back generations.
Arab-Omani slave traders took the Bantus' ancestors to Somalia in the 1800s from what are today Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. They were forced to labor on farms or to work as servants in private homes.
The word "Bantu" refers to more than 300 ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa who are united by tongues from the same family of languages and in many cases share common customs. Lacking blood ties to mainstream Somali clans and endowed with typically broader features and darker skin than Somalis, Bantus were often ostracized and marginalized.
"The salient, ultimate criteria of integration is whether or not you are allowed to intermarry," said Rutgers University African history professor Said Samatar. Bantus were rarely permitted to marry into Somali families.
Ethnic Somalis typically have angular facial features and soft curly hair and tend to be taller than Bantus. Anthropologically classified as Hamites -- African people of Caucasoid descent -- they believe they descend from two fabled brothers who belonged to the same Arabian ethnic group as the prophet Muhammad.
Slavery in Somalia ended during the Italian colonization of East Africa in the late 19th century. By that time, the Bantus there had converted to Islam and adopted Somali culture and language, but the hostility lingered.
To this day, Somalis in Africa sometimes derisively call Bantus \o7jareer\f7\o7,\f7 which means kinky. Bantus, who tend to have tightly curled hair, question the masculinity of Somali men by calling them \o7jilec\f7\o7,\f7 or soft hair. Having soft hair, Samatar said, denotes femininity.
Ethnic Somalis were the first to arrive in San Diego when Somalia's government collapsed in the early 1990s, after the outbreak of civil war.
An estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Somalis have settled primarily in the City Heights neighborhood, centering on a stretch of University Avenue that many refer to as Little Mogadishu, after Somalia's capital.
Renowned for their business acumen, Somalis quickly opened and obtained franchises for shops and sidewalk cafes, transforming the area into a vibrant African enclave.
Rapturous rhythms and soothing melodies, sung to the tune of the traditional Somali four-stringed guitar-like \o7kaban\f7, drift out of some storefronts.
Women dressed in brightly colored scarves and\o7 jilbabs \f7-- a strip of cloth that covers the head and neck and hangs to the waist -- flutter in and out of the stores while men wearing long skirt-like wraps and box-shaped skullcaps huddle on street corners and at cafes.
In 1999, the U.S. designated Somalia's Bantus a persecuted group and granted about 12,000 the opportunity to move to America.
When Abdi learned that he and his family had won the opportunity to settle in America, he bought and slaughtered a goat to celebrate.
"I was thinking it would be a safe place, a place where I can get an education for my children, a place where I can build my own future," said Abdi, a man of small stature with a shy, boyish grin and cheerful disposition.
Abdi and his wife, who had lived in Kenyan refugee camps for 14 years, were among the 374 Bantus resettled here last year. They are raising four children and, between them, earn about $18 an hour, he as a landscaper at a casino, she in child care.
Adjusting to life in America has not been easy.
Among the rudimentary lessons given to the Bantus during a 10-hour cultural seminar shortly after they arrived in San Diego were tips on how to flush a toilet, how to run a vacuum cleaner and where to buy food. Few can read and write in Somali, and very few speak English.
"Our initial program had to be very hands-on ... from crossing the road to turning on a light switch," said Michael J. McKay, director for refugee and immigrant services at the San Diego branch of Catholic Charities.