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A Somali woman wearing a purple headscarf answers the phone in an office with American flags and East Africa map on the wall.

Migration

US-based Somali Bantu face deportation to a country they've never known

In the early 2000s, the United States resettled thousands of Somali Bantu, a group of marginalized tribes who have faced years of discrimination. Nearly 20 years later, many of their adult children are facing the unimaginable: deportation to Somalia. 

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Hawa Abo answers a phone call at the Somali Bantu Community Center in Lewiston, Maine, June 1, 2015. 

Credit:

Brian Snyder/Reuters

Omar Ahmed Shongole Suber doesn’t remember much about his early days as a refugee in northern Kenya. The 25-year-old grew up in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp in the early 1990s. 

Suber’s parents arrived there decades ago to escape a deadly civil war in Somalia. They also fled the discrimination and displacement they experienced as Somali Bantu, a group of marginalized tribes that consist mostly of Indigenous farmers and descendants of slaves taken from eastern and southern Africa in the 19th century. 

Related: A family waits for answers as US reviews deadly airstrikes in Somalia

“I don’t have the straight nose that Somalis do. I have a big nose, Black. My hair is nappy. My hair is not curly,” Suber explained. In Somalia, racialized and derogatory terms are used to describe these features.

The United States chose to resettle an estimated 12,000 Somali Bantu refugees in the early 2000s, granting them special status as persecuted minorities. 

Today, many of their children, now adults, face threats of deportation to a country they’ve never known. And while the spike in deportations of Somalis under the Trump administration has been recorded, deportations of Somali Bantu, in particular, have mostly gone unnoticed. As a marginalized group, Somali Bantu deportees face added risk due to their persecuted status and lack of local clan protection in Somalia. 

“They were poor people, so they could only flee to IDP [internally displaced people] camps and in refugee camps” in the region, explained Daniel Van Lehman, an affiliated faculty member at Portland State University who has been working with Somali Bantu refugees since the 1990s. “These Somali Bantu were resettled all over the United States: Michigan, Texas, Arizona. All over the place.”

Suber’s family arrived in the US as refugees in 2004. They settled in Salt Lake City, Utah, eventually becoming legal permanent residents. 

“I was full of wonder,” he recalled. “I was wondrous. Everything was curious to me. Cars, houses, elevators, you name it.”

It’s a familiar story of the American dream. His father eventually found work at a local grocery store chain, and Suber, the oldest child, began attending elementary school. These were some of the happiest days of his life, he told The World. 

Suber’s plan was to join the Marines after high school. 

Suber holds onto these memories when confronted with the downward trajectory that later followed, eventually leading to his deportation to Somalia — a country in which he had never stepped foot. 

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Downward spiral

Suber’s life began to spiral soon after he graduated high school. He had struggled with his mental health since his arrival in the US. 

That, combined with partying and doing drugs, culminated in a felony conviction for illegal discharge of a firearm at a party when he was 19. 

The scared teenager took a plea deal at the advice of his lawyer, which, in retrospect, he regrets. He was given two years of jail time and soon got on the radar of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. As a legal permanent resident, his criminal record opened him up to the possibility of deportation.

“I’m like, what? ICE, who’s that?” Suber recalled of when he was picked up by ICE during a traffic stop and was returned to the county jail. There, authorities told him ICE was waiting for him. 

Related: He's out of prison and has COVID-19. But he's still sheltering from ICE.

As a Black immigrant now in the criminal justice system, Suber was particularly at risk of deportation, according to Alina Das, a professor of clinical law at New York University School of Law and co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic.

She points to a 2016 study she supervised in partnership with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, which found that Black immigrants were disproportionately detained and deported on criminal grounds.

“People who are being placed in the deportation system on the basis of having some contact with the criminal legal system...20% in these circumstances are Black,” Das said. In comparison, Black immigrants make up only 7.2% of the non-citizen population in the US.

“It’s very clear that contact with the criminal legal system is a huge driver of this racially disproportionate outcome,” Das continued.

In other words, the over-policing of Black communities has a trickle-down effect on Black immigrants.

Displaced, again

In 2018, after being shuttled between ICE detention facilities, Suber was deported not to Kenya, where he was born, but to Somalia, where his parents had fled.

Arriving at Mogadishu airport, he watched as other non-Bantu Somali deportees were received by family members. But Suber was stranded there without family — or a phone. 

“When I got off the plane, the officer was like, we don’t even see your name here. Who are you? ...'We don’t want you in our country. We really don’t. We don’t know who you are'"

Omar Ahmed Shongole Suber, Somali Bantu deportee

“When I got off the plane, the officer was like, 'We don’t even see your name here. Who are you?'” Suber said. “'We don’t want you in our country. We really don’t. We don’t know who you are'.” 

Not only did he stand out for his American tattoos, but he was also a Somali Bantu in a country where, according to a 2019 State Department report on human rights in Somalia, they continue to be targeted for rape, murder, torture and kidnapping.

Soon after arriving, Suber himself was kidnapped.

“That’s an experience I can not forget. That’s something I can not forget. I still have a cut from the beatings I got from there, under my left eye,” Suber said. “[The kidnappers] gave us phones to call for ransom.”

He told his family in America not to send money. “I was just telling my parents ‘goodbye.’”

Miraculously, Suber was able to escape, fleeing on foot in the middle of the night. Later, with the help of his family still in the US, he was able to travel to neighboring Kenya, where he now lives.

“These kids get sent back and they don’t really have any family connection there. They don’t speak the language. They’ve never lived in Somalia. ... Most of them, once they land in Mogadishu, are kidnapped and tortured for ransom.”

 Daniel Van Lehman, affiliated faculty member, Portland State University

“These kids get sent back and they don’t really have any family connection there. They don’t speak the language. They’ve never lived in Somalia,” said Van Lehman, who has been tracking dozens of Somali Bantu deportees. “Most of them, once they land in Mogadishu, are kidnapped and tortured for ransom.” 

Last year, he published a paper on Somali Bantu deportations for the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal. It found 55% of deportees were physically tortured at least once, sometimes by police, criminal gangs or the terrorist group al-Shabaab. 

Van Lehman argues the US is violating the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT) by making these deportations. Under Article 3 of the CAT, the United States cannot deport people to another country when there is a danger they will be tortured.

“I’ve testified as an expert witness for other Somali Bantu young men facing deportation,” Van Lehman said. “We’ve won on CAT grounds to not send these people back.”

Still, many Somali Bantu refugees don’t have access to that defense.

The World interviewed several Somali Bantu deportees, and most said they represented themselves during US immigration hearings. Few realized or were able to articulate their status as a persecuted minority in Somalia. 

All but one fled to Kenya after being deported to Somalia, most traveling by foot or car through dangerous al-Shabaab territory. Others have once again returned to Dadaab camp. But life in the camp is precarious. Somali Bantu deportees live undocumented in Kenya, without citizenship, legal residence, or access to humanitarian aid.

“I’ve been staying inside a lot,” said Suber, now in Nairobi. “I don’t want to get stopped outside and be deported back to Somalia.”

Many Somali Bantu deportees expressed similar fears of a second deportation. 

Confined inside, Suber spends his time talking with his family in Utah. They think the criminal case that led to his deportation was mishandled, and hope they can reopen it so Suber can eventually return to the US. 

But the reality of his years of constant displacement hits Suber hard.

“I feel like there’s no end to this limbo,” he sighed. “A limbo that never ends.”

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