Thousands of Somalis who fled persecution and civil war in the Horn of Africa nation have benefited from resettlement programs in third countries such as the United States.
Mohieldin Liba is one of them. He told UN News how he set up the Somali Bantu Community Association in Lewiston, Maine, to preserve the Somali Bantu culture and help former refugees integrate into the American way of life.
I fled my home in the Juba Valley in southern Somalia in 1991, when my community was attacked. Many people were killed, some starved, women were raped, our lands and property were looted by the various parties fighting in the country’s civil war.
I am a Somali Bantu and my people are the descendants of African slaves who were brought to Somalia generations ago. We have always felt oppressed by ethnic Somalis.
I crossed the border without my family and ended up in Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya. I was only 15 and didn’t go to school and only knew how to farm.
If I had stayed in Somalia, I think I would have been killed at some point as there were a lot of young boys with guns.
A child from the United Nations
I spent 10 years in Dadaab and life was tough. It was dry, sandy and very hot, very different from my home in the Juba Valley, which is very green in winter.
We couldn’t do much in Dadaab, so it was like an open prison, although I started studying thanks to the schools set up by the United Nations. The children had the opportunity to go to school instead of carrying a gun, and I am very grateful for that. The UN also provided food and water rations, so I am really a UN child.
As Bantus Somalis, we used to live much safer in Kenya, but we were still targeted by other Somalis, so the UN moved us to another camp in Kenya called Kakuma where I spent two years before being resettled in the United States.
In Kenya, we were heavily dependent on the United Nations, so my dream in the United States was to create a self-sufficient community of farmers. The Somali Bantu Community Association is a way to empower my people, many of whom cannot speak English.
We recently acquired a long-term tenure of our land here in Lewiston, Maine so we have entered a new phase where we know we can build a future here. We call our liberation farms a sign of our newfound freedom.
220 of our family farmers, three quarters of whom are women, each with one tenth of an acre to plant, practice traditional farming which involves growing different plants and vegetables and often putting multiple seeds into one hole at a time. They grow what I call culturally appropriate crops such as mallow (Egyptian spinach), amaranth, eggplant, various beans as well as African maize.
They are also learning new American techniques including drip irrigation and row planting. They are growing crops such as beets, broccolini and fennel for the first time.
All of the food they produce is organic, providing income and food security for many families who may receive support in the form of food vouchers.
From birth to death, the land is closely linked to our culture, and therefore agriculture is the focus of the association. We also run other community advocacy programs including conflict resolution, health advice and youth groups.
There are 7,000 Somalis in Lewiston and its twin city Auburn, of whom 3,000 are Somali Bantus. The integration of our society into American life has been slow, blamed on a lack of English but also on ignorance of people who come from abroad who are different. Agriculture will help to integrate because food is a universal language. It will bring our communities together and we already see it when we sell our products at local farmers markets.
I think from the next generation with our young people graduating from school, we will be fully integrated.
We want to preserve our way of life as much as we can but at the same time adapt to life here, preserving the best parts of the Somali Bantu and American culture, so that we can nurture children who are of high quality and can thrive in this environment. “