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An Unlikely Refuge: Out of Africa, into a strange new land

An Unlikely Refuge: Out of Africa, into a strange new land

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Open a door at Terrace Apartments, and the first thing to hit you is the smell of simmering rice. A Somali Bantu refugee cooks dinner for her white neighbor, who is baby-sitting a Liberian boy from the next building over.

Walk outside. A young black man, a Roanoke native, fixes a bicycle for a Somali boy while their Albanian friend looks on.

Grab a world map and several foreign-language dictionaries; you’ll need them. More than a dozen languages are spoken at the school bus stop alone.

And marvel at this: Twenty-five years ago, Terrace Apartments didn’t even rent to blacks.

This story begins all over the world, in deserts and mountains and coastal plains. It ends in a Raleigh Court apartment complex that is the most diverse 9-acre spread in Roanoke — a holy jumble of Christians and Muslims, Africans and Eastern Europeans, working-class whites and blacks.

In some ways, theirs is a classic immigrant story: They arrive from far-off lands and come together in a melting pot of cultures.

But when African-born refugees join the mix, the immigrant's tale takes on a new — and more complicated — twist.

No room at the inn

As apartment complexes go, Terrace Apartments were never fancy. Part of the post-World War II building boom, the rental units sheltered some of Roanoke’s returning servicemen and young couples — people who felt right at home amid the cinder-block construction and linoleum floors.

With Evergreen Burial Park behind it and Ghent Park in front, Terrace sits on a hill at the junction of the Wasena and Raleigh Court neighborhoods. The barracks-like compound contains seven clusters of 32 three-story buildings, 225 apartments and upward of 1,000 people.

The brightest adornment — until the colorfully clad Bantu arrived last year — was the laundry hanging from the outside lines.

The surrounding neighbors are overwhelmingly white-collar and white-skinned. So is the church across the street, Ghent Grace Brethren, with its neon rooftop beacon: “JESUS SAVES.”

The first residents at Terrace were likely the children and grandchildren of Roanoke’s original work force, the descendants of Russian tailors, German carpenters and Irish train engineers who once peopled the immigrant-rich young city.

According to longtime residents, if a black family inquired about renting, the answer was standard: There were no apartments available.

Today, a kaleidoscope of color has begun to blur some of the city’s old dividing lines. While the specter of Jim Crow still looms large — study after study ranks Roanoke among the most segregated cities in the nation — the percentage of foreign-born residents has surpassed what it was in Roanoke’s infancy more than a century ago.

Many of the latest arrivals come as refugees, people the U.S. State Department grants asylum to because of political persecution in their homeland. The resettlement door is open widest now to Africans, some of them from countries that were once a trawling ground for American slaves — Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast.

For the first time, more blacks are coming to the United States from Africa than during the slave trade era, both as refugees and as voluntary immigrants. Most of the latter come for better jobs and schooling.

The latest wave

Of the 211 Africans resettled through Roanoke’s Refugee and Immigration Services last year, 182 were Bantu, an ethnic minority from the east African country of Somalia. By all accounts, the Bantu are the least westernized of any prior group to resettle in Roanoke.

While most refugees move into low-rent apartment complexes — Grandin Village and El Ray Apartments in Southwest and Valley View Village and Maple Grove Apartments in Northwest — Terrace is the largest, making it the first home to most.

It’s been that way almost since the Catholic Diocese of Richmond opened the Southeast Roanoke refugee office in 1978 to resettle the 3,000 Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who came to Roanoke over the next decade. Then came the Amerasian children of American servicemen in the Vietnam War. Bosnian refugees began the next major wave in 1994, with minor waves to follow of Iraqis, Haitians, Cubans, Kosovars and Afghans.

Though Terrace is not public housing, a two-bedroom apartment there is cheap ($395 including heat), and refugee-office caseworkers work well with the complex manager, a maternal sort named Suzan Graham who’s been there 20 years.

“The first place I ever went to visit a family was Terrace,” says Barbara Smith, resettlement director since 1988. “I remember thinking, this place looks like an institution.”

Many refugees arrive with scars, and not just on their bodies. Smith has heard so many stories — sick children abandoned in the African bush, a Liberian man forced to carry his wife’s decapitated head through his village — that her daughter can no longer bear to hear her talk about work.

It’s possible to look at a world map of conflicts and civil wars and predict who will move into Terrace next. “There’s an excellent chance that we’ll be resettling people from Darfur in a few years,” Smith says.

Centuries of persecution

A year ago January, when resettlement officials announced that 200 Somali Bantu refugees were coming, Roanokers had two reactions.

People were curious: Just who were these "Bantu"? Most had never heard the word.

More than a few Roanokers were angry: Won’t they be a drain on Roanoke’s social service and school programs?

“I’ve read numerous articles about other towns and cities that have encouraged Somalian immigration, only to be plagued later by increased welfare debts, crime, racial disharmony among residents, etc. Is this really want Roanoke wants?” according to one letter to the editor of The Roanoke Times. The mayor’s office received similar complaints.

Even Graham, the Terrace manager who’d learned to maneuver around the bad blood between the Serb and Muslim ex-Yugoslavs, worried whether the Bantu would fit into the mix.

Unlike the Bosnians — highly westernized, many of them coming from comfortable homes and professional jobs — the Bantu eat out of common pots on the floor, using their hands as utensils.

Showers, light switches, toilets: They’ve never seen any of them before. Muslim by faith, the Bantu have historically practiced polygamy and female circumcision — though they pledged to stop both practices as part of their emigration orientation.

Sometimes compared to India’s Untouchables caste, the Bantu have endured centuries of persecution. In the 1800s, their ancestors were kidnapped from Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi by slave traders who took them to Somalia in chains.

Even today, some lighter-skinned Somalis deride them for their kinky hair and dark skin, calling them habash, which translates to “slave.”

In Somalia, a Bantu could not go to school, could not hold a permanent job, could not marry people from the dominant Somali clans. Forced to live off subsistence farms in the Juba River Valley, they labored in a system that placed them somewhere between sharecroppers and slaves.

When the Somali civil war broke out in 1991, bandits and militias targeted the Bantu because they had stores of food. They stole their food, killed the men and raped their wives. Those who managed to escape fled on foot, some of them walking weeks to reach the relative safety of Dadaab, a Kenyan refugee camp.

Terrace resident Binto Mohammed, 22, no longer remembers her Juba River Valley home, only her parents’ recollections of it. In her dimly lit apartment — she is still unaccustomed to electric lights — the story of her family’s exodus tumbles out matter-of-factly:

“They take the food. They take the clothes off your back. They leave nothing. They rape my mother; they beat my father, put a knife in his stomach.”

For 13 days, then-7-year-old Mohammed and her family walked to Dadaab. Her mother carried the baby while her injured father carried one child on his shoulders and another on his back.

The Bantu at Terrace all have a version of this story: At Dadaab, women were routinely raped when they went out for firewood.

“The men would say, ‘If we go out, we’ll be killed,’ ” explains Dan Van Lehman, deputy director of the National Somali Bantu Project and a former United Nations field officer at Dadaab. “So for a woman, it was ‘Today is Wednesday, my turn to get firewood. Today I might be raped.’ ”

Mohammed recalls being so tired at school that she routinely fell asleep on her desk. “During the day, the soldiers just look at you,” she says. “But at night you cannot sleep; you are scared all the time because if they come to your house with guns and they see you alone, they have sex with you.”

The U.N. provided a single bag of rice, a small portion of maize and cooking oil — one family’s ration for 15 days. Like most of the young-adult Bantu, Mohammed spent her formative years in Dadaab before transferring in 2003 to another camp called Kakuma, where she and 13,000 others awaited clearance to come to the United States.

Mohammed recalls flying into New York with her husband and two young daughters — their first encounter with a toilet was at JFK International Airport. Like the others, she arrived in clothes imprinted with the U.S. Refugee Program acronym repeated from her headdress to her skirt.

She was luckier than most of the women Bantu arrivals, many of whom are widows with multiple children, their husbands killed in the Somali civil war or by disease in the camps. Only a few Bantu speak English when they arrive.

In America, most African refugees are told, you will work hard, but life will be easier. In America, they’re told, you’ll get to work in an office, sit at a computer and press buttons all day long.

A light-bulb moment

The moment they arrive at Terrace, the Bantu are stunned: For the first time in their lives, there is a refrigerator and there is food. There is a bed for every child.

They have never seen such a thing as a living room with a couch; they are used to one-room mud huts.

There are no soldiers.

At first, many are scared to leave their apartments. When they do venture outside, confused by all the identical buildings, some are easily lost, forgetting which apartment is theirs.

There’s no mistaking who they are, though. In their Muslim headdresses and bright garb, they carry cases of Orange Fanta on their heads. When they talk to each other outdoors, they squat instead of stand.

Soda machines and ATMs dumbfound them (“There is a person inside that machine!”), as do cars, women who drive cars, and snow (“How does it get to the ground? Oh, it is like rain.”).

Caseworkers start the families out with bread and bananas because they’ve never operated a stove. One family, unfamiliar with packaged items, stored cooking oil in the bathroom, chicken in the cupboards and toilet paper in the fridge.

Graham, the apartment manager, knew the Bantu would be different. In her 20 years on the job, she has cured ethnic Romas from Kosovo of Dumpster-diving. She’s learned — the hard way — not to place Serbs and Bosnians on the same hallway. She’s marveled at the industriousness of the Vietnamese families, at least one of which has progressed from Terrace to posh Hunting Hills.

Graham had never had to teach someone how to change a light bulb, though.

Not long ago, she looked out her front door to discover several recently arrived Bantu just standing there outside the office: They didn’t know how to open the screen door.

Graham wondered whether some of the long-term tenants would accept these Africans. She worried about older residents such as Linda Camden, who’d had few friendships with black Americans, let alone blacks from a culture where people ate from a single pot on the floor.

Welcoming a newcomer

When a young mother arrived with her two young children last July, Camden was sitting in the courtyard with longtime tenant Rawhia Azim, a 70-year-old Egyptian immigrant known to many in the complex as “Mama.” The two take turns feeding a pair of stray cats. They drink coffee and discuss the latest reruns of “Bonanza.”

The older women welcomed the newcomer, who nodded and gave them the customary double-hug greeting, then giggled nervously. The young woman felt self-conscious about her milk-colored eye, blind from an untreated childhood infection. Though she had some relatives the next building over, she was lonely and scared. She feared that if she used her stove and lights, she might burn the building down.

That night, Camden took her some peach lotion. The young mother’s name was Ahado, but Camden claimed it was too hard to pronounce and called her “Heather” instead; she renamed her little girl “Sissy.”

The next week, Graham drove past their building and couldn’t believe her eyes.

“Sissy” was outside, asleep on Camden’s lap.

Whether the rest of Roanoke would accept these new Africans as readily was anybody’s guess.

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When refugee Rehema Mdame arrived at Terrace Apartments, she had no English, no husband, not even a pair of shoes. She didn't want anything to do with Linda Malone, the volunteer who refused to go away.

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