Originally created 03/15/04

No pressure: Bible Belt families welcome Muslim refugees



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Sponsor Francie Markham wanted to take her Somali Bantu refugee family to a local mosque for services, so the Methodist woman veiled her head and visited the Islamic Center of Columbia.

She wanted her church's refugee family - having finally escaped ethnic persecution in their homeland - to worship freely and she wanted to be able to take them herself.

The federal government is helping 120 Somali Bantu refugees resettle in the Columbia area. Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups will greet them at the airport and become their new companions, paying for the families' living expenses for six months.

Their new life in the Bible Belt - far from Kenyan mud houses where there's no electricity and refugees sleep in fear - will be full of change. Some locals are making sure one of those changes won't be a religious one.

Markham says she now feels comfortable taking a Bantu mother to prayer at the mosque.

"Because I went there and learned, she will know that I am not trying to proselytize her," Markham said. "I look forward to the day when I will be her guest at the mosque. We need to be connected through our love of God and Allah."

While Lutheran Family Services, the organization that helps resettle the Bantu, is supported by eight Christian denominations, its agreement with the U.S. State Department is that resettlement is not about conversion.

"Our intent is not conversion to, or away from, any particular religion," according to the agency's proselytizing statement.

Still, church leaders acknowledge that some members have voiced a desire to witness.

Abdulkadir H. Mohamed, Columbia's first Somali Bantu refugee who arrived last month, says it's important to him to keep his Muslim faith. He recently attend services at the local mosque, his first time to pray in an establishment here.

The Rev. John Trump of St. Andrew's Lutheran Church tells members that Mohamed can stay exactly as he is.

"He's a Muslim, and you're going to get to know him," Trump said. "It's the right thing to do - it doesn't matter if he's a Muslim, Christian or Jew."

The Bantu were forced to flee Somalia after being brutalized and victimized because they were not part of a Somali clan. The Bantu were robbed, raped and murdered. Bantu history includes centuries of persecution and enslavement.

They fled to Kenya but were not allowed to stay long-term; no other African countries will accept them. Thousands of Bantu will resettle in the United States this year.

Mohamed, 22, said he is learning to sleep peacefully without fear of being beaten or worse.

The tall, thin African speaks English well and said he has no problem with a Lutheran church helping him while he adjusts. "My religion says to take care of people," he says. "That is what they are doing for me."

Mohamed was joined by 16 more refugees who arrived Thursday.

Lutheran Family Services welcomed the new families with a dinner of lamb, chicken and rice with mixed vegetables, fruit and banana pudding. Markham said all items can be eaten with their hands, which is the Bantu custom. The pudding gave them an opportunity to try using a spoon.

Markham is helping church members select foods for the Bantu that are in line with their cultural and religious traditions. She reminds churches not to invite Muslim refugees into the sanctuary. Mohamed said he feels comfortable in Christian churches as long as he is not in the room of worship.

Muslims who are helping the Somali Bantus hope to show refugee women that they can remain modest and cover their head in this culture.

As an English as a second language teacher, Hajja Hafsa Ayyuba doesn't want Bantu children to remove their scarves or native dress like some of her students have. She wants them to know that Muslims only need to explain that they do certain things because of their religion.

"I just say to people that in my religion, men and women don't shake hands. People accept that comfortably if you explain it to them," she said.

Refugees are often scrutinized and the Bantus' Muslim faith makes it difficult to assimilate into a Judeo-Christian society, said Heather Lindkvist, a lecturer in anthropology at Bates College in Maine.

While residents in Lewiston, Maine, had a few raised eyebrows when Somalis began migrating to the predominantly white community, Lindkvist said locals there have adapted and even learned Muslim customs.

"There has been a re-education process: What is Ramadan? What is the Hajj? When are the five prayers? How do they pray? Why don't they eat pork?" she said.

Columbia had some resistance of its own last year.

Half of the Bantus were scheduled to live in suburban Cayce until city officials and residents bristled. They said the refugees would strain the city and the school district. Residents circulated fliers that called the Bantu a "primitive, tribal people."

In October, the State Department withdrew its approval of Cayce as a resettlement site. Now, all the Bantu will live in Columbia in an apartment complex.

At his reception at the airport, Mohamud Ali Tumbo offered his Baptist and Methodist supporters a blessing through an interpreter: "May God give you all you need, and may God welcome you the way you have welcomed us."