International Rescue Committee (IRC)

North Star Program: Helping Somali Bantu Mothers Become Self Sufficient

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that 80% of refugees are women and children, and the refugees being resettled by the International Rescue Committee in Boston reflect those statistics exactly. Newly arrived refugee mothers face particular challenges. Their lack of English language skills makes routine tasks from shopping for groceries and diapers to communicating with a doctor very difficult. Because moms must stay at home with their young children, they are essentially left behind in the resettlement process, making it harder to find jobs or take classes. This can lead to frustration, isolation and even depression.

To help meet the needs of these mothers and their children, the IRC launched Project North Star in Boston in 2002, as a 16-week pilot program providing mothers with classroom English instruction while their children attended day-care on site. Today, North Star has evolved into a home-based life-skills and literacy instruction program, to meet the unique needs of IRC Boston’s newest group of refugee mothers – the Somali Bantu.

Somali Bantu families began arriving in Boston in early 2004 as part of a nationwide resettlement program initiated by the U.S. government. In Somalia, most of these families survived as subsistence farmers before fleeing violence during the civil war in the early 1990s. Typically, Somali Bantu families have spent more than ten years in refugee camps before coming to the United States, and have had little, if any, exposure to modern conveniences such as electricity, plumbing or running water.

As soon as the families began to arrive, the IRC brought together a team of skilled mentors to help orient Somali Bantu moms to their new apartments and neighborhoods, public transportation, the Massachusetts health care system, and a host of other crucial yet basic services. Brenda Bednar, an Americorps*VISTA volunteer and program coordinator, and Kaftun Ahmed, an IRC cultural outreach worker and a former Somali Bantu refugee herself, work with the moms to help them gain independence.

Since the Somali Bantu moms live near each other, they meet at each other’s apartments. On days when Brenda and Kaftun visit, they help the moms become familiar with their community as well as gain the skills and confidence necessary to advocate for themselves and their children. They also teach the moms language skills that cover basics such as telling time, giving their telephone number and calling 911 in an emergency. Each woman has a binder with practice worksheets and homework. When they gather in each other’s homes, they practice speaking English and help each other figure out daily life tasks, with support from the IRC team.

Brenda and Kaftun also conduct workshops on topics such as healthy parenting and how to dress warmly for winter. They have trained a team of family mentors and literacy volunteers, and forged numerous partnerships with local services, orienting them about the Somali Bantu, their history and needs.

Success Stories
Despite the upheavals in their lives and challenges ahead, Somali Bantu moms in Boston are making strong strides towards self-sufficiency, and thriving as their community grows. After a year of intensive work, these Somali Bantu moms have already adjusted to the US lifestyle. "While it's easy to focus on all the work that needs to be done in the community, I'm constantly reminded about how well the families are doing,” says Brenda.  The mothers are so motivated to learn, and the other day, at one of our client's houses, the children erupted into songs in both Somali and English - these are kids who didn't speak a word of English before they arrived. I'm also inspired by how hard the mothers are working -- especially the women who are working at night and watching their kids all day."

Arbay, a mother of two, is one of the very few Somali Bantu women who arrived in Boston knowing some English.  After a few months of intensive in-home tutoring, Arbay now speaks English confidently enough to advocate for herself. During a literacy session, Brenda wrote down "What kind of job do you want?" Arbay replied "I would like to translate for Bantu woman. They are our family.  I want to help and to go everywhere they like, like Boston and everywhere else.” Now, seven months after arriving in the United States, she is working full time on the overnight shift at a local box factory and will be training other women to work at the same company as soon as their English improves.