Catholic Sentinel photo by Kim Nguyen
A Somali mother in Portland holds her child.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Kim Nguyen
A Somali mother in Portland holds her child.
In the courtyard of Catholic Charities’ Kateri Park on a sunny day, women in colorful hand-sewn dresses sit flat on cement porches for a moment with their toddlers. Older children play soccer on the grass.

They are members of the Somali Bantu tribe getting a rest from cooking and cleaning. The women are happy to have left their war-torn homeland 9,000 miles away on the Horn of Africa. But life is hard, even in America.  

Their husbands are out driving cabs or looking for work — unemployment among refugees living at Kateri Park is about 50 percent.

The housing complex, off Powell Boulevard, is home to almost 80 Bantus, who are by far the largest ethnic group in the 50-unit development.

The about 1,200 local Bantus call Kateri Park “Little Jilib” after the area in Somalia  the tribe once inhabited.

Most of the Bantu families at Kateri Park have been in Oregon for five or six years.
When civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, the Bantu suffered greatly. Their lands were raided by warlords, villages burned, men killed, women raped. Bantu fled to Kenya by the tens of thousands, dodging sniper fire and ambushes. They settled in massive Kenyan refugee camps, which later bulged with more people from Sudan and Burundi and became hunting grounds for wandering criminal bands.

The Clinton administration decided to welcome 12,000 Somali Bantu. The families began arriving in 2004, just before Catholic Charities opened Kateri Park.

New refugees get a lot of government aid, but after eight months, they must do more on their own. Catholic Charities offers workshops on stimulating learning in children, on preventing crime and on handling garbage and recycling. Bantu take courses in English and in U.S. cultural expectations.  

Elisabeth Gern is resident services coordinator at Kateri Park and adjacent Esperanza Court. The Bantu seek her out for help with matters like paying bills, making an appointment with the doctor, and figuring out algebra homework. Gern heads a large corps of volunteer tutors and mentors, including students from St. Mary’s Academy and Central Catholic.

“It’s really very tough for the Bantu,” Gern says. “Without English and in this economy, who can find a job? It’s not easy. It’s not paradise.”

The Bantu face one large disadvantage in U.S. education. Their language, MaayMaay, is not written. They are new to cities, having been the great farming tribe of their nation. The Somali Bantu are Muslims who’ve landed in a Northwest culture that is mostly Christian, if there is any faith at all.  

Youths, like 19-year-old Ismail Abdikadir, find a rare quiet corner to study inside Kateri Park, hoping for a bright future. Abdikadir, who prefers math and science, wants to be a comic actor living in California. If that does not happen, he’ll be a house builder. He plans to graduate from Cleveland next spring and then attend college.

Many Bantu teens like Abdikadir are struggling to learn English and read in a school system lacking resources.

But he knows all about overcoming adversity.

When he was about three months old, his mother walked into a Somali forest to gather wood, with young Ismail on her back. Armed bandits confronted her and she ran. One man threw a knife  — it missed the mother, but cut young Ismail’s forehead, leaving a curved, three-inch scar he bears to this day.  

Abdikadir grew up in refugee camps. His father died in Africa and his mother brought him to the U.S. in 2004. But she died recently and now he lives with his brother’s family, 11 in all, packed into a four-bedroom Kateri Park apartment.

For fun, he plays soccer and basketball with friends who hail from Nepal and Mexico.

He’s looking for work, but has come up with nothing.  

“I thought it would be easy,” Abdikadir says of the life he imagined in America. “But sometimes things get hard here, too.”