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Wednesday, December 31, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Preparations under way for Somali refugees

By Emily Heffter
Times Snohomish County bureau

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Snohomish County schools and service agencies are preparing for an influx of a new ethnic group to the county — one with little experience with modern conveniences.

The Somali Bantus will arrive in the United States from Kenyan refugee camps, where they have lived during a civil war in their native country.

The Bantu band is made up of descendents of slaves. In Somalia, they have been discriminated against, said Tom Medina, the administrator of the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Section of the state Department of Social and Health Services.

"They've sort of been treated as second-class citizens," he said.

Those who work with refugees say the Bantu will have to be shown, for example, how to operate a doorknob.

About 280 Bantus are coming to the Puget Sound area this winter, and some may end up in Snohomish County, said Van Dinh-Kuno, the director of the Refugee and Immigrant Forum of Snohomish County.

The arrival of the Bantus would signal a new era for Snohomish County, Dinh-Kuno said. Starting in the 1970s, the county saw an influx of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, she said, and later, people immigrated from Hungary, Romania and the former Soviet Union.

The county will have to change its services to meet the needs of the next wave of immigrants, who have had less access to formal education and few brushes with modern life.

Dinh-Kuno said she already has talked with the community colleges about teaching a more rudimentary English class, and she is approaching school districts about the Bantus' pending arrival.

She is looking for translators who speak Bantu languages and is learning about the Bantu culture.

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Part of the difficulty of preparing for the Bantus is that no one knows how many will resettle in Snohomish County.

State workers are concerned that Bantus who move to Snohomish County will not find as large a Somali population as they would if they move to South King County, Medina said.

But Dinh-Kuno said state officials said the same thing about Somali refugees several years ago, and now there are more than 10 Somali refugee families living in Lynnwood and Edmonds, she said. She thinks refugees will be drawn to Snohomish County because of its welcoming environment and affordable housing.

Emily Heffter: 425-783-0624 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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