Arbai Barre Abdi and family at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya.
After more than a decade in a refugee camp in Kenya, to which they had fled to escape the civil wars tearing apart the Horn of Africa, two Somali Bantu families are stunned to learn in early 2004 that they will finally be allowed to immigrate to America. The resettlement plan began under Clinton in 1999, was interrupted by September 11th, and began again late in 2003. The families are, in a Somali Bantu expression, grateful recipients of bish-bish, which translates literally as “splash-splash,” indicating the first rains after a long drought (Rain in a Dry Land) and, by extension, resettlement in America. In a world teeming with desperate refugees, where barren camps like the U.N.-supported Kakuma in Kenya become permanent rather than temporary fixtures on troubled borders, a ticket to the United States may be the ultimate bish-bish.
Rain in a Dry Land chronicles, in their own poetic words, the first 18 months of the American lives of Arbai Barre Abdi and her children and Aden Edow and Madina Ali Yunye and their children. Beginning with “cultural orientation” classes in Kenya, where they are introduced to such novelties as electric appliances and the prospect of living in high-rise apartment buildings, the film follows the Muslim families on divergent yet parallel paths as they learn that the streets in America are definitely not paved with gold, especially for poor immigrants. The families’ sponsors—Jewish Family Services in Springfield, Massachusetts, and World Relief in Atlanta, have pledged six months of support, which gives the families a daunting learning curve to take themselves from the 19th century to the 21st.
The film measures the distance from an African refugee camp to an American city and asks what it means to be a refugee in today’s “global village,” providing answers in the stories of two families whose response to 21st-century culture shock presents an uncommon portrait of human persistence in the face of social disorder and change.
The journeys of these Bantu families actually began two centuries ago, when their ancestors arrived in Somalia as slaves. African rather than Arab, Somali Bantus lived among the Somalis as a despised minority. They were relegated to the meanest labor, while being excluded from education, politics and mixing with the dominant Somali clans. When civil war broke out in 1991, various armed factions mercilessly attacked the largely agricultural—and largely defenseless—Bantu. Madina Yunye, for one, saw her mother gunned down before she herself was gang raped in front of her children. She and thousands of others fled to Kenya, where history might have finally orphaned them.
Then, in 1999, the United States announced that it would resettle the 12,000 Somali Bantu refugees who had escaped over the border into refugee camps in Kenya eight years before. After nearly 13 years in camps, and five years after this announcement, Madina anticipates her new life in America with the poetry that is one of the delights of “Rain in a Dry Land.” “If God permits me to get to America peacefully,” she says, “and my eyes and ears arrive in a place where the breeze is blowing, I will learn how to live there…”
Yet even walking up and down flights of stairs takes some getting used to for these families. Their strong bonds and devout Muslim faith have seen them through terrors and misery, but their culture and life experiences are essentially those of illiterate subsistence farmers in village societies. Whatever the strangeness of America’s material culture, far more critical challenges lay ahead. How are they going to adapt—and in quick order—to an urban America devoted to individualism and novelty, haunted by racism and its legacies, and offering these foreigners few economic opportunities? How will they write in a new language when they were never allowed to learn to write in their own?
The film’s first view of Aden Edow and Madina Yunye and their seven children—Ali, Warsame, Aday, Abdulkadir, Hassan, Hindi and Hussein—in America, shivering in the winter cold of Springfield, marks the family’s dramatic shift in reality. They are quickly facing other challenges as well. Crash courses in English have ill-prepared them to get along in America. And although the kids progress quickly at school, they are placed in regular classrooms too soon, without access to translations. They fall behind, growing demoralized. The adults struggle even more with translating the skills of pre-industrial farmers to the U.S. job market. The family is soon facing the end of their six months of support—and the prospect of losing the roof over their heads.
In Atlanta, meanwhile, Arbai Barre Abdi and her children Khadija, Sahara, Mainun and Said face a less severe climate but similar social challenges, including America’s brand of racism. Though hardly alien to social bigotry—between Arab and African and Muslim and non-Muslim—which contributes to the disorders in their homeland, the families must decipher an American code that makes them triple minorities: immigrant, black and Muslim.
One response to these social confusions and barriers is to fall back more heavily on family and tradition, which Arbai struggles to do. But another response is embodied by Arbai’s daughter, Sahara, who—with breathtaking rapidity—gravitates to the streets and pop culture, and is soon talking like a typical teenager with no use for her elders’ opinions or authority.
Yet, through it all, the Bantu immigrants in Rain in a Dry Land reveal a remarkable buoyancy and determination in dealing with the demands of a journey whose speed and distance—both psychological and geographic—are astounding. That Rain in a Dry Land shows them to be people who will likely forge a way does not disguise the fact that, for all the generosity accorded them, immigrants such as these are not given longer-term support for the radical transitions demanded of them. The film raises the question of whether such relocation programs, for all their good intents, are the best way to deal with the world’s mounting refugee crises.
“The years of making Rain in a Dry Land were transformative ones for me as well as for the Somali Bantus I got to know,” says director Anne Makepeace. “As I followed them through their difficult changes, their story went from one about strangers in a strange land to a tale of incredible strength and resilience.”
Rain in a Dry Land is a co-production of Anne Makepeace Productions, Inc., and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), in association with American Documentary | POV and the Center for Independent Documentary.