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New Beginning in U.S. Comes at Agonizing Cost

Some Bantu refugees say they had no choice but to leave behind relatives unfairly barred.

January 03, 2006|Edmund Sanders and David Zucchino | Times Staff Writers

KAKUMA REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya — Hussein Isak Ahmed is too young to remember his family's escape from war-torn Somalia in 1992. But he can't stop thinking about the day more than a year ago when he, his brothers and parents boarded a plane for what they thought would be a new life in the United States, far from the disease and desperation of this crowded refugee camp in northern Kenya.

"That was the last time I saw them," the teenager recalled. With immigration papers in hand, the family had packed its belongings, expecting never to return to Kakuma. Hussein's father sold their mud hut.

But the family was unexpectedly stopped at a transit center in Nairobi, the capital, where it was split up by U.S. immigration officials and asked a series of questions.

When the interviews were over, Hussein, then 14, found himself sitting alone in a room, shaking and teary-eyed. A few hours later, a stranger approached the boy.

"The others have gone," the stranger said. "Their plane has left. You are going back to Kakuma."

Hussein is one of scores of Somali Bantu refugees who say their dreams of relocating to the United States were shattered when immigration officials broke up their families, sending some to America and others back to Kakuma. Husbands have been separated from wives, children from parents, brothers from sisters.

The United States established the refugee program six years ago to rescue about 12,000 Somali Bantus from persecution in their homeland and resettle them.

But members of broken families, some here and some in the U.S., say they have been punished unfairly by overzealous immigration officers. In interviews in St. Louis, where 106 Somali Bantu families comprising about 500 people have been resettled, more than a dozen refugees said they were given little or no opportunity to vouch for relatives separated from them and sent back to the camp.

A spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a Department of Homeland Security agency, said those sent back had failed to "reconcile discrepancies to the [immigration] officer's satisfaction."

So-called infiltration-detection interviews were instituted in Nairobi in August 2004 in response to widespread fraud and intimidation at Kakuma, said Bill Strassberger, an immigration service spokesman. Though resettlement was offered only to Bantus, a minority group in Somalia, hundreds of non-Bantu Somalis with criminal gangs in the camp were assuming identities through bribery or intimidation, he said.

From August 2004 to last October, 5,407 applicants were interviewed in Nairobi, Strassberger said. Of those, 305 were sent back to Kakuma. In 103 cases, other family members chose to continue on to the United States. In 96 cases, those approved for resettlement decided to return to Kakuma with relatives who had been denied resettlement.

There is no guaranteed appeal process, but the immigration agency says it considers any written appeal filed in Nairobi within 90 days. For a rejection order to be overturned, the agency must receive either "a detailed account explaining how a significant error was made by the adjudicating officer" or "new information that would merit a change in the determination."

Nearly everyone involved with the Somali Bantu resettlement program agrees that it is rife with impostors who have stolen or bought the identity cards of dead or missing refugees.

Non-Bantu Somalis are bitter about being excluded from the U.S. program. Bantus have long been despised and oppressed in their homeland, where historically they were used as slaves.

Now some Bantu families say that the resettlement program intended to rescue them has instead added to their pain. They say legitimate Bantu refugees, such as Hussein Ahmed, have been sent back without an opportunity to plead their case.

"They separated my son from me and never told me why," Hussein's mother, Saman Qasay Mohammed, 37, said during a tearful interview in St. Louis, where she lives with her husband and two other sons. "They said the situation would be solved when we got to America, but I never saw him again."

Part of the Bantus' problem appears to be self-inflicted. The resettlement program has been disrupted by a power struggle between two Bantu factions.

The factions accuse each other of demanding bribes and selling slots in the resettlement program. And each side has attempted to torpedo the other's chances for relocation.

"About a year ago, we started getting all these letters saying this person is not related to that person, this child is not the son of that man," said Gilbert Peters Ngetich, assistant manager of the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, office in Kakuma. "It's been hard for us to figure out. We didn't want to get into community politics."

"The whole resettlement program has been turned into a battlefield, a power struggle by those with ill feelings toward one another," said Abdullahi Ali Ahmed, 29, secretary-general of one of the Bantu factions.

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