The striking difference between travel and escape

I never know what to bring Madina. The gifts I come up with—a bag of apples, a homemade peach and blueberry tart, a box of sweaters—all seem superfluous when I place them in her hands. She greets me the same way every time I visit, whether or not I have a gift. She pulls me close, the gauzy layers of her head scarf brushing against my cheek, then holds me at arm's length to study my face. We grin at each other a little foolishly, neither of us sure what to say next, with no common language to bridge the distance.

This afternoon I have brought a peach tart still warm from the oven, and my husband and two sons, ages four and one. Madina takes the pastry from my hands and places it in the refrigerator. I wonder if she even likes peaches. I should have brought something more reminiscent of her African homeland—dates, perhaps, or mangoes.

She is doing laundry when we arrive and only has time to tell her youngest son, Mohammed, to wash some mugs and prepare us a jug of coffee before she ducks behind a gold-colored curtain, a bundle of batik dresses in her arms.

A few minutes later, her son, Ali, stumbles in from the next room, bleary-eyed and grinning as soon as he sees my two boys. He towers over us like a gentle bear, having grown a full six inches since I last saw him two years ago.

“This is Ali,” I explain to my suddenly shy four-year-old. “He knew you when you were a tiny baby. He used to rock you and make you smile.”

He hides his head behind my shoulder and peers out at Ali.

I first met Madina and her four sons at the Portland airport five years ago, before my four-year-old was born. It was past midnight, and they had just completed an unimaginable journey, having left behind the refugee camp in Kenya where they'd spent the past twelve years and flown through London and New York with several dozen other Somali Bantu families, only to end up at a half-empty airport terminal, greeted by strangers.

We had been placed together by a volunteer coordinator from Catholic Charities, one of the three Portland agencies that sponsored the refugee families. Madina and I became friends simply by virtue of the hours we spent together that first year: waiting in doctors' offices for health records so the boys could start school, deciphering bus maps, struggling through her English language workbooks. Madina, in her forties, was illiterate. As a Bantu woman, she had not been allowed to attend school in Somalia. When, in an ESL class, she finally learned to write her own name, she couldn't stop smiling. It was as if, by virtue of those few jagged pen strokes, she had attained a new kind of freedom.

Five years later, certain things have become commonplace. Madina now takes several buses from her home in Southeast Portland to an apartment complex in Beaverton, where she babysits the four small children of another Somali Bantu family during the week. On weekends, she returns to her own apartment to check up on her boys. Muse, her oldest son, now has a wife and child of his own. Ali is about to start classes at Portland Community College; several framed photos show him in a green graduation gown, clutching a hard-earned high school diploma. Hassan, who was only twelve when they arrived, will be a senior this year. And Mohammed, still the feistiest of the bunch, is a forward on his high school soccer team.

Two years after Madina settled in Portland, my husband accepted a two-year job transfer to London. We excitedly found renters for our house, renewed our passports, and said our goodbyes. We saw Madina once, on a two-week trip back to Portland to see friends and family, but we've been home for over a year now, and this is my first visit to Madina's house.

Our reception, as always, is gracious. While Madina finishes her chores, Mohammed places a low table in front of us and fills two mugs with steaming ginger coffee. Ali fills us in on all the news.

As we talk, my one-year-old, who hadn't met Madina before this afternoon, devours her homemade sugar cookies and greedily gulps the bright orange Hawaiian Punch she pours him. He pauses every once in a while to give his delighted hostess a high five, then gets back to his juice.

My older son nibbles his cookie in silence, studying the people who wander in and out of the room.

“Mommy,” he finally asks me, “where is the daddy of this house?”

It's not an easy question to answer. Where should I start, with the Somali civil war? With what it means to be a refugee?

“He's dead,” I finally whisper, after a pause.

“Why did he die?” he asks, loudly.

“It's a very sad story,” I tell him, quietly. “Let's talk about it later, okay?”

Then Madina, who had disappeared again behind the gold curtain, brings out an old photograph. It is from December 2005 when Madina and her family visited us at our downtown condo to watch the Christmas ships float down the Willamette River. Afterward, I'd raided my sweater drawer for anything to keep them warm on their MAX trip home—it was one of their first winters in Oregon, and their thin, gauzy dresses seemed so ineffectual against the bitter east wind.

My son is delighted by the photo. He's always amazed when he meets people who knew him when he was a baby. And when Ali puts on a video of Peter Pan, his loyalty to this family is sealed. For several minutes, we all sit mesmerized by the antics of the irate, bumbling father as he stumbles his way across the nursery, scattering blocks and shouting epithets—until the one-year-old manages to find the power button and turns off the screen. While Mohammed fiddles with the controls, the baby wanders outside toward the playground in the courtyard. I follow, leaving the older boy happily ensconced on the couch with his dad, a plate of sugar cookies, Hawaiian Punch, and a video. Pure happiness, American style.

The apartment complex where Madina now lives is an experiment in globalization in the heart of Southeast Portland. It was built by Catholic Charities in 2005 to provide affordable housing for low-income families, and its roughly 250 residents, more than half of whom are refugees, represent seven different language groups and hail from four continents. Almost all, like Madina, have experienced immeasurable loss.

When tribal warfare broke out in Somalia in 1991, the Somali Bantu, who traditionally worked the land and represented the lowest class of agricultural workers, were specifically targeted, both for their land and because of their despised status. Madina's husband was killed, as well as her sister, her sister's husband, and countless others from her village. The widowed Madina walked more than three hundred miles with her two small sons across the border into Kenya. She was pregnant at the time. She gave birth to Hassan just after she arrived at the Kakuma refugee camp.

But even in Kakuma, the future was uncertain and far from hopeful—the name itself comes from a Swahili word for “nowhere.” Protein was scarce, and raids from marauding paramilitary groups were commonplace. For ten years, while neighboring African countries refused to grant them citizenship, Madina and her sons waited. Mohammed, the youngest of Madina's sons, lost his father in the refugee camps. It was only when the U.S. government declared the Somali Bantu eligible for refugee status that hope no longer seemed a luxury item, something beyond the grasp of those barely struggling to survive.

Moving to the United States was a decision that Madina and her sons made without hesitation, but it hasn't always been an easy adjustment. She worries that her sons will become defiant and ungrounded, abandoning their culture for reckless American autonomy. The boys are unequivocal in their desire to be American. They still speak Af Maay, interspersed with English phrases, and their wives and female cousins dress modestly, but they have no desire to return to the country that scattered their families and destroyed their homes.

In the courtyard, I watch a Southeast Asian man walk between two young girls learning to balance on pink bicycles. He's wearing a t-shirt that announces, “Proud to be an American.” It reads like a love song to this strange new country that is slowly becoming home.

When we finally wander back inside Madina's living room, the video is still playing. It has been years since I last watched Peter Pan, and I had forgotten most of it.
“Oh look, it's Big Ben. Do you remember London?” I ask him.

Madina and the boys know most of the words to the songs, even if they don't always understand what they mean.

When Peter Pan scratches his head, trying to figure out why none of the Darling children can fly, and declares, “This won't do. What's the matter with you? All it takes is faith and trust. Oh! And something I forgot …” a fourteen-year-old Somali Bantu boy, visiting from next door, shouts out, “Dust!”

My son laughs out loud, but I can't help thinking of alternate meanings of “dust”—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—and of the dusty miles that Madina walked, with a son hanging on each arm and another one in her belly, to get to where she is now. Travel, for her, was not a flight of fancy or a pleasure cruise into the unknown. It was harsh necessity. For her, this American life is a hard-earned privilege.

With pixie dust and images of Neverland dancing across the screen behind us, Madina sits on the couch to talk to me about her most pressing concern. With Ali as her translator, she tells me, “Every day I cry for my daughter and her four children who are still in Somalia. How can I bring them here? Can you help me?”

When Madina first moved to the United States, five years ago, she asked me the same question. At the time, the Catholic Charities volunteer coordinator explained that because Madina's daughter was in Somalia instead of a refugee camp, she was ineligible for refugee status. Madina herself is not yet a U.S. citizen, and when she asks what she must do to become one, I realize that I have no idea.

I tell Madina, through Ali, that I don't know how the process works, that I would have to do some research. She nods and looks down at her hands. I don't know what to say. If one of my own children lived an ocean away, in a war-torn country, to what lengths would I go in order to bring him home? I feel overwhelmed by boundaries that I cannot cross. My two years in London earned me half a dozen new stamps in my passport; Madina's exile to Portland has cost her a daughter.

As we get up to go, Madina disappears again behind the gold curtain. I'm afraid that I've disappointed her. I help Mohammed transfer the now-cold tart to a plate and wash out the baking dish.

“I will eat it tonight,” he says. “The others are fasting.”

“Fasting?” I repeat, suddenly feeling foolish. “Is it Ramadan?”

Mohammed smiles at me indulgently, as one would smile at a child. “You didn't notice they don't eat anything?”

“Oh, Mohammed, I'm so sorry. I feel terrible,” I tell him.

“It's okay. It's no problem,” he reassures me, an amused grin on his face.

When Madina returns to the living room a few moments later, she has two crisp dollar bills in her hands, which she crumples into my sons' sticky hands. For me, she has found a toffee-colored scarf with gold sequins, which she places over my head, covering my hair. Some part of me wants to wallow in the familiar guilt—this sense of shame that I, who can flit so easily between countries for little reason other than my own pleasure, can do so little to help a friend's daughter escape a war-torn country. But if Madina expected more from me than I was able to give, she has already forgiven me. A visiting cousin snaps a photo of us on my camera before we leave.

Madina smiles approvingly when I turn the camera over to show her the miniature image of our faces. “The whole family,” she announces, giving my younger son's cheeks one last kiss before we say goodbye.


Belonging, Place, Global and Local


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Also in this Issue

Seeking and Finding

The Guilty Traveler


The Crossing

Far from Home

Here, Not There

Distance as an Illusion

Irreconcilable Dissonance