WINOOSKI, Vt. (AP) – Twelve pint-sized children, six anxious parents, five city councilors, two languages, one translator: recipe for chaos at City Hall.

With big smiles, mutual unintelligibility and pizza, Winooski offered an official welcome to three newly arrived refugee families, Bantus from Somalia.

“We want to welcome our newest citizens,” Mayor Clement Bissonnette started to address the council chamber, crowded with the 19 Bantu immigrants, refugee workers and Winooski residents.

“Aaaaay,” said Kassim Ibrahim, 4. His parents called out in AfMaay, the language of the Somali Bantu. Kassim had an urgent need.

The official proceedings fell silent while translator Nimo Girreh escorted Kassim to the City Hall restroom.

When the greeting resumed, city officials said their hellos and told the families about city services. The families are the first of up to 200 Bantu refugees expected to resettle in the Burlington area this year and next.

They are the descendants of slaves and became vulnerable targets in Somalia’s civil war in the 1990s.

The drab council chamber glowed with the vivid reds and yellows of the head shawls worn by Asha Abdille, Muslimo Jafar and Abai Ibrahim, the three mothers.

“We want you to know we are your friends,” Bissonnette said. “We want you to know the police are your friends.”

Ibrahim Jafar said thank you on behalf of the Bantus. With Girreh translating, he said, “We knew only that we were going to a strange land, to a place we never heard of, a city we never heard of.

“Already it seems like home. I go here, there, everywhere and all we see are people smiling,” he said.

The formalities quickly adjourned for a light American meal – pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken, pretzels and Coca-Cola.

“They make us a stronger community,” Bissonnette said in the hallway, as he watched the squadron of children load their plates. Fardowsa Ibrahim, 8, grinned and said she liked fried chicken. She hasn’t yet acquired a taste for pizza.

Two newly arrived Dinka refugee youths, members of the group once known as the “lost boys of Sudan,” also were welcomed.

About 40 of the young men arrived in Vermont in 2001. Gabriel Chiengkuach Mabil and Michael Majok Dau waited an extra two years in a Kenyan refugee camp after the Sept. 11 attacks slammed the door on refugee immigration.

“This welcome is something we never dreamed of,” Mabil told the City Council. “I have never seen my parents since the 1980s. Now there are people here treating me like their child.

“God bless you.”

AP-ES-09-30-03 1052EDT

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