The First Friend

On a busy downtown street, at the intersection of several bus routes, there was a little store that was hardly noticeable from the outside—the first Somali grocery story in our city. Inside the run-down building, a couple of aisles held items that were considered necessities to the East African immigrants and refugees that frequented it: dates and cookies, exotic spices and perfumes, special sticks that served as toothbrushes. On the other side of a partition hung a few brightly patterned, flowing skirts for sale. Behind a counter, halal meat could be purchased.

Eventually, a restaurant opened next door. The dining area was clean and white, but sparse. The large windows across the front provided diners with an unobstructed view of the street. There was no “ambiance” to speak of, save the poster of the menu that hung on the wall. Orders were placed at the small window beside it that opened into the kitchen, where a couple of men were busy grilling meat, cooking rice, and slicing bananas. The restaurant had moderate success during the week, but business really picked up on Friday afternoons, as men returned from the mosque hungry.

One July afternoon, DA and I sat at a table, waiting for our food and watching the traffic pass. A younger man wearing a white jellabiya with a koofiyad upon his head brought our plates out to us. We had never seen him in the restaurant before, so we struck up a conversation with him. It turned out that the man, Hussein, and his family had only been in the United States for about a week. As we continued to probe, he described his journey to America. He was part of the Bantu or Maay Maay people who were beginning to be brought to our city.

Hussein had been born in Somalia where he grew up on a farm, surrounded by mango trees, and monkeys, and a crocodile his uncle had supposedly placed a curse on. A civil war was raging in Somalia, so it wasn’t surprising that other Somalis frequently attacked the farm. Hussein’s family was a large one, with many brothers and sisters. His father had married multiple wives which was allowed by Islamic tradition. After his parents were brutally killed, the rest of the family felt so threatened that they fled their farm, the mangos, the monkeys, and that confounded crocodile. They walked many miles to the Kenyan border. Along the way, some died of exhaustion, starvation, or from animal attacks. They were relieved when they finally reached Dadaab, a refugee camp in the desert of Eastern Kenya.

Their relief would be short-lived. Dadaab, is the largest refugee camp in the world and is severely overcrowded. Built to house only 90,000 people, it currently contains about half a million. Refugees are not allowed to leave the camp and enter the rest of Kenya, leaving them with little hope of a future beyond the camp boundaries. They are wholly dependent upon handouts. By 2003, it was not unusual for refugees who were beginning to be resettled in America to have lived in a refugee camp for ten to fifteen years. Many of the other young adults who currently reside in Dadaab, (because they still wait for the opportunity to be resettled in a host country), have never set foot inside of Somalia, but have lived their entire lives in a Kenyan refugee camp.

After being chosen for resettlement in America, Hussein’s family was moved to Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern, Kenya, where the average daytime temperature is 104 degrees (Fahrenheit). Here, they learned some basic lessons about what to expect in America. Unfortunately, this education did not adequately prepare them for their new home.

Their new home, which they had moved into only a week prior to our meeting, was an apartment complex past its prime in a diverse area of town. This particular building has provided fresh starts for refugees from Vietnam, Cuba, Iraq, Bosnia, Nepal, and Burundi over the years, offering a lower rent rate with multiple bedrooms for larger families, and it provides easy access to the city’s bus system. A local refugee organization was charged with helping prepare the refugees’ new place, which included providing hand-me-down furniture and clothing. The refugees were expected to pay back the cost of their flight over the next several years. They were encouraged to go to English classes that were offered around the city, and they were expected to find jobs within three months of arriving. If a church or another organization decided to sponsor a particular refugee family, a small stipend would be provided each month. It could use to buy things like work boots, for example, as one Karen friend of ours did after he found a factory job. Most, however, were never sponsored.  Food stamps would begin eventually, but that process, of course, takes time.

Hussein’s family had not yet received their food stamps, he told us. He was filling in at the restaurant to earn a bit of money and to hopefully take home a plate of leftovers at the end of the day. His story broke our hearts and we wondered what we could do. When he returned to check on our table, we awkwardly asked if we could take some groceries to his wife and children. Hussein readily agreed, blessing us for our offer to help. In careful print, he wrote out the address on a scrap piece of paper: 154 Global Arms Apartments, Apartment 2.

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