I stood in the fourth-floor lounge at Cambridge Innovation Center, my gaze switching back and forth between the innovators—who were drinking their morning coffees and teas—and the Syrian refugees on the large flat-screen TV. While the news watchers seemed sympathetic, I knew they couldn’t begin to understand what was about to happen to those women and men, children and elders.
I was once one of those refugees fleeing the horrors of war. What the images couldn’t show—what I shall never forget, for as long as I breathe—is the colossal void that existed in our minds in the camp.
In 1993, I was fifteen years old and confined with my family in the Utanga refugee camp outside of Mombasa, Kenya. Erected in the middle of nowhere, the camp was surrounded by the half-naked women, men, and children of the indigenous Giriama tribe, who often poked their heads out from bamboo huts in the forest. Sitting in front of our tent, I often saw drunken Kenyan men staggering beyond the barbed wire fence where we, along with thirty thousand other refugees, were penned in–prisoners without a crime. We were in someone else’s backyard, sitting on someone else’s soil, and breathing foreign air. They did not want us around, but we had nowhere else to go because our home, our real home, was no more.
Our three-bedroom house in Mogadishu had been replaced by two tents in the middle of the forest, our bathroom by a forest toilet in the bush, and our kitchen by a leafless acacia tree standing alone in between the tents. The dust field where my childhood friends Hassan and Ali and I used to chase soccer balls under Mogadishu’s magnificent blue sky was replaced by brown sand with swirling dried feces. Those games–along with our pigeons, our hens, and our two goats, Bella and Bilan–were now just memories, which I carried carefully because they were all I possessed. In the camp, nothing belonged to us. The world expected us to start our lives from this nothingness.
Since we had lost our country and we added no apparent value to the world, we were held in a pen. Anyone from the outside world could visit us, but we could not leave. Many years later, I still remember the day I walked out of the camp hoping to see what the city of Mombasa was like, only to return to the tent with three scratches zigzagging from my arm to my upper back. One of the drunken security men had hit me as he told me to get back inside. With all that my mother already had to deal with, I felt bad showing her my wounds.
During my year living in the camp, I saw more women, men, and children dying from such mosquito-borne diseases as malaria and dengue than in my last two years in Somalia’s vicious civil war. In the tent next to ours, a skeletal man in his thirties coughed, wheezed, and spat gray specks of mucus onto the sand. No one would talk to him; he was isolated until his soul departed. Knowing that I, like everyone else, was waiting to die there, I wished to meet God with a pious heart. But praying had never been my thing, so I struggled to do it. We all had difficulty processing our enormous emptiness, abandonment, and isolation; our desperation meant that anyone with a well-crafted narrative could exploit us for their nefarious political ends.
Bearded Middle-Eastern men wearing white ankle-length garments called Thawb with religious textbooks tucked under their armpits came and spoke Arabic to the self-appointed religious camp leaders, all of whom were in their twenties and wore scarves coiled around their heads and necks. My friends and I would walk behind these men who were speaking a language we could not understand because it gave us something to do.
We often saw white people, mostly men wearing black suits, white shirts and red ties, stepping out of the white four-wheel-drive trucks with antenna poking upward and bearing the logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They filled our bellies with grain, oil, powdered milk, and occasional spaghetti. And so, food was no longer an issue for us, but our minds remained as empty as the clear sky. Because we were hungry for any purpose beyond the barbed wire, the tents, the feces, smashed Jerrycans, brown mud, the gazes of women, and the drunken Kenyan men, we welcomed the bearded men who helped us set up religious institutions in the camp.
The white men fed our stomachs with rations, but the Middle-Eastern men fed our minds with purpose, allowing us mental escape. This was how our Somali clan-infighting metastasized into religious ideological war with global reach. Al-Shabaab, a Somali-born militant group now battling the UN-backed government in Somalia, was partly born out of the refugee camp. Similarly, the camps occupied by Iraqis after the 2003 U.S. invasion gave birth to ISIS, and Afghans in Pakistan’s refugee camps produced the Taliban.
One hazy morning, before the sun’s rays had lifted to heat the tent, I woke up to chirping birds. Four of my brothers, three male cousins, and four other males—family friends who had grown up with us in Mogadishu—all lay inside the tent with their heads together. Buck-toothed Omar in his twenties was sleeping next to me on the mattress. He was the only one of us who woke up for Morning Prayer. I saw him sitting crossed-legged as he faced east to Mecca with prayer beads in his left hand. He was talking to himself.
Before coming to the camp, Omar had been a Rambo-like fighter who often wore a red cloth wrapped around his forehead and brandished an AK47. He smoked three packs of cigarettes while dipping tobacco beneath his lower lip. He chewed Qat, a shrub whose leaves contain a compound with effects similar to those of amphetamines. A person chewing it could experience excitement, loss of appetite, and euphoria.
In the camp, Omar often got up and ate two slices of dough with a cup of tea before he walked to the hut to play poker with other men. He smoked cigarette butts he picked up from the ground. He asked other men for a tobacco dip. He scavenged for Qat stems lying in the sand and chewed them. At night, I often saw Omar sneaking out of our tent to go to the hut located down in the dark alley beneath two trees where he would watch porn movies on a battery-powered, nineteen-inch Magnavox television. Two Giriama men ran the camp movie theater where they showed Hollywood and Bollywood movies by day, but skin flicks at night.
One night, I sneaked out of the tent and followed him to the theater. Peeking in through the cracks, I saw men’s faces in the flashing light from the television as they sat on the sand grunting, whimpering, and squealing in the dark. Unable to buy cigarettes or chew tobacco or Qat, Omar grew quieter, like most of the young men in the camp. In the face of the great void, his dignity withered like a lone dying tree in the forest.
One day, Omar met a Somali man his age, one of those who wore a Muslim handkerchief coiled around his head. I saw them stroll together in the camp, drink tea, and walk to the hut that served in our section of the camp as a mosque. Within a week, Omar had quit all his bad habits and grown a beard. He carried a twig to brush his teeth five times a day. He cut his pants above his ankles. He lowered his gaze whenever a woman walked nearby. Suddenly, he started to preach against watching indecent Western movies, gambling, smoking cigarettes, and chewing tobacco. Omar was a changed man, and as he walked, the elders sitting outside of the tents, whose heads were bowed and whose hands held sharp stones for removing fleas hidden beneath their toenails, would respectfully greet him, “Salaam.” (Removing fleas was a chore that none of us liked, but in the camp, opening your skin with sharp glass or stone to get out the fleas living beneath your toenails was as routine as brushing your teeth).
Beyond the quarrels of the men sitting in their huts, the gazes of boys and girls orphaned and mothers widowed by the civil war, Omar found his escape in the worship of God; but he was not knowledgeable about the scriptures.
One hazy morning, as I saw him talking to himself, I wiggled my body closer and tilted my head toward him to listen. To my teenage mind, Omar—as a fighter, a Qat-chewer, a pornography-watcher, a smoker, and now a pious Muslim—was the epitome of what it meant to be a man.
“If these men kill my father, I will kill one hundred men to avenge his murder,” he said speaking to God. “And if you want to, you can throw me into the fangs of hell.” Oblivious to my stare, he continued counting prayer beads. “My father is a ninety-year-old innocent man.” He paused and murmured, “I will return to Somalia and kill men.”
His father was still in Somalia where clan conflict was at its peak, as women, men, and children died for their clan affiliations. His father, along with other elders, had been captured by the enemy clan and his current whereabouts were unknown. As Omar spoke to God regarding his plan to murder a hundred men, he was not after the would-be killer or killers of his father but he wanted to fill the nothingness of his pathetic life in the camp, meaning that what Omar was really after was purpose, value and history—or perhaps a group to belong to. The nothingness of our lives was our number-one enemy.
One morning in the camp, I fetched a bucket of water from a large yellow Jerrycan, sat in front of the tent, and washed my hands. I brushed my teeth with a twig I snapped from a tree. From where she sat behind the stove cooking, steam billowing from her tea kettle, my mother handed me two slices of dough in a white ceramic plate and poured me a cup of tea. As I ate, I counted the trees and watched the sun climb behind the trees and move into the sky. Midday, as the internal nothingness grew heavy in my mind, as all sense of purpose seemed cleaved from my head forever, I got up, put on my rubber flip-flops on, picked up a Jerrycan, and then walked out to the camp center where the main water-tap was. Carrying that goddamned yellow Jerrycan to collect water for my family was the most exciting and meaningful part of my day.
Once I was there, I picked a fight with a boy. As my fist flew against his torso, he ducked and hit me back in my face. Despite the blows I received, my predominate feeling was one of hope–albeit a false hope of subduing my boredom and dispersing the nothingness. If I was not fighting a boy, I would be watching other boys brawling over nothing. We all felt the same way. We would have done anything—we would have burned the world; we would have killed every last soul in it—if it meant we could fill that void that claimed us all.
When I came to New England from that filthy refugee camp in Kenya, I was excited about coming to America, but I felt very little hope about people. It was the two legged-creatures of Bedford High School who first showered their mercies on me. Whether buying for me my first winter jacket and white converse shoes, paying for my education, or even their simple gesture of showing their teeth in welcoming smiles, they showed me that humanity was still intact and that I was part of something larger and more compelling than my experience of war. It is because of their combined efforts that I am now a writer, a speaker and an educator.
War removes mercy. It orbits around the globe like the sun and, God forbid, it might one day hover over this land, too. Empathy builds bonds of mercy. Be kind to the refugee. We are all the same species. In your time of hardship and need, others will return your kindness.
Image: “Watching Sepak Takraw” by Joey Marasek, licensed under CC BY 2.0