Don’t have to live like a refugee (Don’t have to live like a refugee)
(I won’t back down) No, I won’t back down
– Tom Petty
The global refugee crisis has been with us for a while. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there’s been a steady flow of displaced humans from their home nations into statelessness and then on to begrudged statefulness among strangers. According to the agency, there are 4.2 million stateless people right now. Some people are stateless within their own natal nation (Yemen). The number of refugees stayed at about 40 million a year until about 2012, when it began an unbroken rise upward to the 80 million mark today.
Why? The usual understated suspects — war, internal failure of governance, economic catastrophe, climate change. But, also, movement coincides with the rise of ISIS and the Levant, a militant Islamic insurgency created in the aftermath of the illegal 2003 Shock And Awe display in Iraq, which saw militant forces gather and claim a caliphate (a global statehood, in the Levant region, for radical Islam) — a claim rejected by the US “without prejuduce,” and leading to a reign of terror and counter-terror in the region, ending abruptly when Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi allegedly blew himself heavenward clutching two virgins. The mess that’s been made in Syria by the post-Cold War exploits of Russia and America has sent hundreds of thousands of people toward an unwelcome Europe. Covid-19 has exacerbated their plight.
You could argue that statelessness includes the Apart-Hate system that saw The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah come into the world illegally — his journey across the birth canal a kind of fence-jumping — that he recounts in his memoir, Born A Crime. It’s a crazy world. More recently, I reviewed a book by Kurdish refugee from Iran, Behrouz Boochani, who tried to enter Australia by boat (illegal, and making him permanently ineligible for entry) and was sent to a detention camp on Manus Island, where he described conditions so foul and horrific to an advocate in Australia — by way of WhatsApp — that it became a best-selling memoir. Rules for a lucrative national award were changed to make the non-Aussie’s book eligible for consideration and — voila! — he won the $125,000 prize.
Today, thanks to more Aussie prizes, book sales, paid interviews, a gig at the Guardian, and his recent movie deal, Boochani nears millionairehood while he waits, in statelessness, in New Zealand, before, ostensibly, heading to America, where he has previously said he wouldn’t go unless he was allowed to sue Australia for its atrocities and abuses. The kicker is, had he been allowed into Australia after Manus, he’d have been abused for his anti-Australian comments (guaranteed) — probably by some of the same Lefties who championed him. Being a refugee can mean crossing the border into Wonderland.
With Ilhan Omar’s memoir (as told to Rebecca Paley), This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey From Refugee To Congresswoman, the reader returns to a more traditional tale of horrific displacement and resettlement with a happy ending. The book is roughly segmented into three sections corresponding with important phases of her life: early childhood in Somalia, teen to young adult life in Virginia and Minnesota, and the commencement of her political career in Washington, DC. Frankly, the first half of the account is thoroughly engaging, as she provides anecdotes of her trials and tribulations, mostly as a refugee and/or immigrant literally fighting for her physical and psychical liberty; however, her later political doings, despite her unique cultural challenges, drags a bit; and, the closing chapter is essentially a stump speech in sheep’s clothing.
Omar’s tale of growing up in Baidoa, a burb of Mogadishu, where she was born in 1982, only to end up in a burb of Minneapolis, where she was scorned, is compelling, poignant, and frank. As Omar tells Paley, right out of the chute she was a fighter and a social critic. Observing, one day in third-grade class, a boy taunting another aggressively, Omar’s hackles were up, when the bully exclaimed:
“Hooyadawus!” which means “Go fuck your mother” in Somali. I burned in my seat. I always hate it when people use vulgar language, but I get really angry when it involves mothers, who I knew from the beginning were sacred—even if I didn’t have one.
Seven year old Omar told the bully to sit down and shut up, and he replied he’d beat snot out of her after school, and then, later, their battle ended when, “I pulled the boy down and rubbed his face in the sand.” Her brother came along and shouted at her, “Ilhan! What the hell?”
Lesson: You don’t mess with the Ilhan. For letting a girl force his head in the sand, the bully could barely save face and was forever ostrichsized; none of his peers wanted to, um, emulate him after that.
In the mid-80s, growing clan unrest, brought about by aging Somalian president Mohammed Siad Barre’s agitation of the masses and move toward totalitarianism, saw the eruption of a civil war the effects of which continue to this day. Omar recalls, “I remember everything shutting down. School was the first institution to go, but eventually the mosques, the postal service, the television stations, even the market closed down.” Subsistence diets were forced on them:
(To this day, I hate plain rice. It brings back that time when everyone smelled like a bag of rice. It seeped into people’s pores like we had drowned in it.)
Omar relates that her family had to flee the country when she was nine years old, due to its level of violence, much of it aimed at her clan, and ended up in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya for four years.
Omar describes her early relationship with her father, Baba, by whom, along with an aunt, she was principally raised (she doesn’t remember her mother, who died when she was in preschool). Her father, she says, suspended Somali tradition in raising her, treating her not as a second class girl, but as a social equal. She says,
Baba continued to invest a lot of time and energy in the girls of the family…He was extremely close to us and did not adopt the traditional patriarchal role of the protector that Somali men usually fall into with the opposite sex. He treated us as equals.
As we discover later in the narrative, this is an important point: It helps explain to the still-patriarchal Somali community in Minneapolis her gender-breaking ambition to run for public office, and to lead, rather follow, steps behind the man, any man.
Another important influence early on is Omar’s habaryar (aunt) Fos, who showered her with maternal affection and dignity. “She was a super human, but one who didn’t need her powers to be recognized or celebrated,” relates Omar. “I could get in trouble with just about anybody. But I couldn’t get in trouble with her. ‘This is my sister’s baby,’ she would say.” And, during the flight from Somalia, amidst militia battles, Fos contracted malaria, and she “grew sicker and sicker until she could no longer get out of bed.” This event became not only a devastating personal loss but a key moment in her education:
I don’t think I’ve known greater devastation and sorrow than when Fos died…My aunt’s death meant in very real terms that there was no such thing as escape in this life…Nothing is permanent, and that fact made me really angry.
Omar shows over and over again an ability to channel her anger for constructive purposes.
Once in the refugee camp in Kenya, she describes conditions that would make Boochani blush with overstatement. In Dadaab, temporarily ‘resettled’ in a virtual wasteland under the sun’s tormenting eye, she describes ailments. A lucky refugee, she caught “only” chicken pox,
Without any kind of remedy or medicine, my skin burned under the scorching heat. I could literally hear the blisters popping.
A la Nietzsche’s famous now pop-songed quip, That which does not kill me makes me stronger, she adds, “Despite the physical agony I was experiencing, I knew chicken pox wasn’t going to kill me.” She notes the look of others, “For the first year and a half in the camp, my grandfather and dad walked around like zombies. All the adults were like shells of humans.” It’s a common refugee experience.
She describes long lines:
There were watering stations throughout the camp where people lined up with plastic jugs to fill…The other line known for its battles was the one for the bathroom…I also stood in line for our food, such as rice, beans, flour, or oil.
She observes Kenyan resentment at their numbers — 334,000 — and needs.
After four years in the camp, Omar and her family are relocated to America. They’ve been prepped: pep talks and videos conjure up visions of wealth, good will, and opportunity. She remembers how refugees were dressed on the way to America:
A man handing his boarding pass to a flight attendant wore a suit that was at least two sizes too big for him. Two little girls, testing out the tables that popped out from the seats in front of them, were in Easter Sunday dresses as if they were about to attend a holiday party.
Before the flight, some of them had gone on a spending spree at secondhand clothing shops to arrive in a dignified fashion.
It’s a festive, yet apprehensive atmosphere on the plane, folks all joy-juiced up on the expectations lent them by US refugee agencies:
There was an unspoken fantasy that when we came to America we would be greeted by its citizens, whom we needed to impress in order to fit in, so that we could land a good job, go to the right school, and move into one of those beautiful homes with the white picket fences we had seen in the orientation video.
Woe — even Marquis de Sade would have blushed at such straw-manning.
But, when they arrive at JFK, hop in a cab on their way to a hotel for the night, young Omar sees from her seat homelessness, squalor, and she is dismayed:
Through the window of the taxi I watched the darkened highways become city streets—and I was appalled by what I saw. Trash everywhere…Large pyramids, some even taller than I was, of black trash bags lined the streets—as if New Yorkers were preparing for a levee to break.
The scene is something she will later draw on in her political career to message that there is a considerable difference between what America advertizes about itself and the product you get handed — but that, working together, we can all make the Dream happen, bring the Ad to life.
When the narrative switches to Arlington, Virginia, and then Minneapolis, we are returned to Omar the Streetfighting Girl. Very entertaining bully-bashing, and no doubt true, if my memory of such moments is accurate anymore. She subtly knocks the US educational system by noting that her Somalian fourth grade education placed her in sixth grade in America. She describes middle school years that conjure up the Levant, a school environment she finds herself in, almost daily, that is part barroom fight and part ice hockey brawl. She tells us she got in fights over “looks” and one day,
I stared back, and if they said something, which of course I couldn’t understand, I usually decided to hit them first, assuming they were going to hit me. I wasn’t afraid, and I wanted people to know it.
Uh-oh, is Omar a unilateralist? ( Maybe we could set up a bout between Boochani and Omar, I’m thinking.)
When she gets to the topic of integument she notes bravely that Somalis have no word for Causcasian. And the American idea of white is, well, odd, and maybe even wyrd. She says,
[M]y conception of white was very different from the American construct. There is no Somali translation for the word Caucasian. The word we use describes an actual skin tone, the way you appear.
This cracked me up, as I pictured the Might Whitey as a black-and-white stick figure, in contrast to the colored folk. And I also thought, more seriously, about Kate Chopin’s story, “Desiree’s Baby,” where the mother is seen as white by her Southern community until, one day, while nursing, someone, I forget who, notices the negroid aureoles of her breasts and the shit hits the fan: Now, she’s Black, and on her way to suicide — just like that. Wyrd.
In Minneapolis, she fell in love with Johnny Depp in his Bollywood-like role in Cry Baby. At Edison middle school, she joined up with dozens of other Somali students, relieved, after three years of relative isolation in Arlington, to be “surrounded by people who understood things about my existence without my having to explain.” But, the fights continue, often over her wearing a hijab. She ended up spending long hours in detention, but “given the long hours of studying in detention, I had become a very good student.” Again, Omar and her silver linings.
But there’s more — more fights, and more life lessons leading to activist leanings and development. She describes the crazy chaos of school days filled with endless dysfunction:
Like Minneapolis itself, Edison’s mainstream classes were very diverse. Unfortunately, the differences among the student population proved more divisive than anything else. There were a lot of fights: everyone fought everyone. African Americans and African immigrants fought over who was blacker. Muslim kids and white ones fought over U.S. policy in the Middle East. Latinos against African Americans, Africans against Native Americans, and on and on.
Diversive/Divisive. Omar saw a thing, and corralled some like-minded pals and formed a coalition they called Unity in Diversity. “We recruited everyone with the express purpose of understanding the triggers of our racially charged environment and bridging the harmful divides,” she said.
Like Barack Obama’s political career, she starts out as a community organizer of sorts, and goes from there. It also is a part of the narrative where she and Paley deftly weave in the influences of her private life, marriage/divorce (Ahmed), kids and miscarriage, the patriarchal influences of the large Somali community of Minneapolis, raising kids and running for office, finishing her education, working on local political campaigns. etc. This is all meet and appropriate, routine and reassuring. She’s a normal American girl overcoming any number of obstacles, a ‘rugged individualist’ who won’t be cowed or bullied by the rest of humankine.
She provides an excellent response to the elephantine question in the room: What’s with the hijab? This is America. Omar explains elegantly and cogently,
The hijab wasn’t about a piece of cloth or the battle against objectification. Instead it was really a symbol of the purity of my presence in the world. It makes sense to me that I need to cover pieces of myself to preserve who I am and feel whole. I’m centered by the hijab, because it connects me to a whole set of internally held beliefs.
This most excellent answer pre-rebuffs any notion of seeing her hiding terrorist thoughts behind the head gear. Now that everyone in America has to wear masks, and have even taken to stylin’ them, maybe they can catch the vibe she’s expressing.
The latter part of the book contains some interesting bits and pieces on her irrepressible rise in politics — it almost seems like an inevitability: As her buddies say, “It’s Ilhan Time.” There’s also a nice moment she shares of her time sitting next to Speaker of the House Pelosi on an overseas trip together, the elderly stateswoman giving her some pom-pom tips on keeping her spirits up during the certain attacks on her character (Omar describes the many that have come her way since running for office, including from members of the Somali community angry that a girl would deem to lead).
And after being elected to the House in 2016, there’s the return trip to visit Somalia, and Mogadishu, her birthplace, where she is deeply disappointed:
When I arrived in Mogadishu, it was not the city in which I had lived.
No monument was fully intact. Familiar roads were blockaded. Both my great-grandmother’s house and my childhood home were inaccessible.
Grief-stricken, I went back to the hotel and fell asleep—for sixteen hours!
An elderly restaurant worker she talks with says that her sleep indicates she’s finally cut her “umbilical” connection to Mama Somalia. This leads to a kind of epiphany during which, she says,
I felt obligated to return and speak about my refugee experience for the first time and to advocate for empathetic policies that take into account real human suffering.
She means it. She’s a young politician. And I’ll be sending her campaign a tax-deductible contribution.
In the memoir’s final chapter, “The World Belongs To Those Who Show Up,” the reader is treated with a stump speech; you know, hopey dopey, rah rah rah, Unity Diversity, e pluribus unum. This is all good stuff, rousing really, even for an old cynic; you like to see the kids working off the previous generation’s karma with audacious enthusiasm, rekindling ideals that get muddled in our pre-Alzheimer days (Did I really believe that once? I’m thinking. Good for me.) And it’s nice to hear her going on about the evil influence that led to George Floyd being murdered by cops (let’s not forget that a couple of them watched Chauvin get up to his knee in neck, while Floyd begged for help, and did nothing to stop it, a crime). And it’s good to know, in a way, that Omar’s political ambitions already contain a built-in governor: She will never be running for president.
But with any luck, she and her feminist buddies in The Squad will push some old privileged face into the sand and get some People shit done for a change.