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My Family Waited 13 Years to Resettle in the United States. Then Trump Slammed the Door in Our Faces.
Weeks before they expected their visas, my parents learned they are banned under the president’s executive order. The new law will tear our family apart.
The phone chimes. I know who is calling, even without looking at the screen.
“You have heard about it, right? What Trump did…,” Maryan trails off.
“Yes, I read about it on Twitter,” I reply, almost without emotion.
“Why us? Why always our family?” she asks.
“Dear, I don’t know, walaahi” — by God — “please calm down.”
In truth, I don’t know how either of us can be calm right now. The executive order suspending refugee admissions to the United States and blocking entry from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including my parents’ home country of Somalia, means that my family will likely never be reunited in America.
A quarter century after my parents fled to a refugee camp in Kenya, and 13 years after our family applied to be resettled in the United States, the door has finally been slammed shut. My sister lives in Richland, Washington. My parents were in the final stages of the vetting process for a visa; they are scheduled to be interviewed at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in February. And me? I am still caged in the refugee camp where I was born.
It didn’t always feel this hopeless. I remember the excitement of learning that the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) had opened a resettlement case for my family to come to the United States. I was eight and had just started the third grade. It was my first encounter with America, a place the other refugees spoke about the same way they spoke about the hereafter. America was Elysium in their imagination, and my family was among the first to be shortlisted to go there.
My parents stopped sending me to school, assuming I would be in an American classroom in a matter of months. In those days, we were all naive about the resettlement process. People suspended their lives immediately after UNHCR opened their cases — children dropped out of school, families gave away their belongings, and shopkeepers packed up their wares. Couples even stopped making love. A pregnancy, it was said, could delay getting to America.
When my sister Maryan finally got her green card in 2005, my interest in the United States grew. I started reading American romance novels — Nicholas Sparks and Danielle Steel — and the occasional horrors, mostly Stephen King. All paperbacks, old and torn, from the library at my secondary school. Soon I was devouring Morrison, Walker, Fitzgerald, Salinger, among many others.
I dreamed of being a writer, and Maryan gave me hope. In America, she said, you can be anything you want. So I dreamed of doing for Somalia what Khaled Hosseini did for Afghanistan — move beyond the bloody headlines and poignantly tell the stories of my people. Maryan went along with my delusions. She cheered my insanity. She said it was all possible — and I believed her. It was possible for Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiongó, both of whom fled Africa for America. And it was possible for hundreds of immigrant writers who distinguished themselves in the United States: Vladimir Nabokov, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and many others. I was going to be like them.
My parents worried that America would change us if we ever got there, that we would lose our religion, our culture. But they too shared the dream of a better future. They fled Somalia in 1991, when the Siad Barre regime was ousted and the country descended into chaos. My father decided to take his family to a refugee camp in Kenya, where at least it was safe. Many of his close relatives disagreed with his decision. The war, they said, would last only for a couple of months. How could he turn his back on his country? But gradually, those same relatives began to join us in the refugee camp. “By then they had lost family members in the war,” my father remembers. “A son, a daughter, a husband, a wife. I departed early and I don’t regret that.”
Neither he nor my mother expected to stay long in Kenya. Upon her arrival in Dadaab refugee camp, my mother recalls being asked to plant trees to help make the desert settlement more livable. She declined, saying she wouldn’t be there long enough to sit under their shade. Twenty-five years later, she is still there and her resettlement case is still pending. Our family has been through the same required medical examination 17 times. The last time, in January 2016, my 80-year-old father said he was too tired to go. My older brother Ibrahim and I begged him to make one last attempt.
Then in March, Maryan returned to Kenya to say that she had petitioned the U.S. government to allow our parents to join her in the United States (she wasn’t allowed to include her siblings on the petition). The petition was accepted, and my parents were waiting to be interviewed at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi when news of Trump’s executive order swept through the camp. Why always our family?
But it’s not just the United States that doesn’t want us. Last year, the Kenyan government announced that it would close down Dadaab, citing concerns about terrorism. It set a deadline of November (since extended to May), and began sending anyone who would “agree” to leave back to Somalia. It says it won’t force the more than 250,000 remaining refugees out, but it hasn’t said we can stay, either. No one seems to know what will happen to us. Will people like me, who were born in Dadaab, be deported back to Somalia? Kenya won’t say.
Many of my childhood friends have made it to the United States, Britain, or Canada, and I often meet them online. They ask if I am still in Dadaab. They ask where I learned English, as if they have forgotten that we have schools here. They are shocked when they learn that I was published in the Guardian, the New York Times Magazine.
You made it while still in Dadaab, they say!
Hardly. My life would have looked so much different if I had been allowed to come with Maryan to America in 2005. Look at Ilhan Omar, who was recently elected the first Somali lawmaker in the United States. Or Fatah Adan, who emerged atop his class and made it to Harvard. Or Muna Khalif, who was accepted at all eight Ivy League schools.
The words I write may travel all around the world, but I am confined to the refugee camp where I was born. I can’t move freely in Kenya; I need a permit to leave Dadaab. My whole life, it seems, I’ve been living the American dream. I just don’t know how much longer I can bear to live it outside of America.
Image credit: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images