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Book Review: America Here I Come: A Somali Refugee's Quest for Hope

by Abdi Gutale
Sunday, November 30, 2014

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Hamse Warfa’s memoir, American Here I come: A Somali Refugee’s Quest for Hope, is a symbol of human triumph against odds. As you begin to read the introduction, you get the sense that you are in for a wild ride. Warfa takes you on a journey like a roller coaster ride with emotional contours. As I read, I experienced memories I held deep down in compartments - feeling sad, lost, afraid, determined, and hopeful.  The story is heart wrenching, and then you muster all your strength as you learn how Hamse and his family prove human beings may defy the odds with will power and determination.

The vivid sequence of Hamse's events captivates the reader's mind.  In his book, the suspense builds as the story progresses and dispels doubts about the relationship between parts of the book.

This book covers five parts that could easily be made a separate set of books. In this review, we will present only two parts.  The chapter one begins with a brief Somali history that sets the scene for the harrowing experience that befalls Hamse and his family. That chapter as well revisits his “Childhood in Mogadishu” when he was living in an affluent suburb of Medina District in Mogadishu, Somalia.  The next three chapters take you through a journey of hell testing limits of human tolerance and challenging any optimism one held about the nature of human beings.

It is not that easy that one gives a brief history of Somalia’s turbulent past in one book, but Hamse provides a mental map that guides the reader by piecemeal. He also gives a general context of power struggle, clan fault lines, and a brief democracy marred by twenty-one years of dictatorship and subsequent years of clan conflict. Subtly recounting telltale signs of impending conflict, author’s stories took me back to the few days before the civil war. It was as if we were hearing the same rumors and half-truths, although we lived several parts in Mogadishu. This serves as a hook for me as a reader and builds a rapport for the rest of the book.

In Chapter one, the author vividly captures his early experience in a peaceful Mogadishu. He reminisces of nostalgic memories as he saunters in busy Mogadishu streets hustling and bustling with business and teashops, men playing dominos or cards. At night, live plays, stand-up, musicals, theatrical shows and bubbly nightlife those are tantamount to that of the Western's. Author gives you a clear snapshot of life back in two generations that most of people are either unaware or oblivious.  As a kid growing up in Hodan District, I envy the past good times that I did not experience. I wonder what could have been. 

Chapter two is hard to read. It is heart-wrenching narrative as normalcy ends. Calmness gives away to chaos. The cost of conflict becomes all too clear as Hamse’s friends Kamal, Yusuf, and little Ifrah whose life lives were cut short. As adults mull over on what to do next, Hamse and his friends decide to march peacefully to convince generals to stop the conflict. As these young kids march on hitherto busy Mogadishu streets just a few pages earlier, defining quietness sends chills on their spines as they near town center.  Little they know the same soldier they passed just a little while back where setting them up to be sandwiched between two groups to be slaughtered. As bullets fly and braveness gives a way to survive, Hamse trusts his legs to take him to safety. While running amok, his leg was sprained.  He sums up the courage that forces him to wave for a ride back home. As the war progresses near their home, his family leaves Mogadishu. While fleeing for safety, he remembers dusty, risky roads between Mogadishu and Afgoye that are filled with danger as troops, opposition rebels, and road bandits. The story keeps your heart pumping and adrenaline running high. Reaching to Afgoye is a temporary relief from Mogadishu fight; the family erects a makeshift tent along the dusty road with dwindling food supplies.  Trouble seems to follow this family as the war closes in on Afgoye. They pack up and hit on the road to Kismayo. As they are walking less than 50 miles, they encounter a brutal fighting in Shalaanbood. As they hide in the deep woods, Hamse’s aunt goes into labor. However, the joy of birth soon followed by the death of several passengers in their convoy toward Baraawe in rout to Kismayo. A lull of peace in the city is again disrupted as the cloud of menacing war is in the air. Because of his ailing father, Hamse notes his older brother, Wali, taking over the family leadership. The family prepares one more strenuous trek to cross border from Somalia into Kenya. 

The “Gateway to Kenya” begins with a humiliating search at the border. This is just a tip of the iceberg. Often refugee life comes with many new challenges. The camp, Dadaab, was congested with numerous refugees, and life conditions were horrifying.  The author takes you behind the scenes of life in a refugee camp that would later become the largest campsite in the world. Facing a multitude of difficulties in the camp, the family is transferred to another camp, Otanga. The disappointments are never-ending event in the new camp and scarce resources and daily necessitates drive people into the limits of human tolerance and dignity.

Although conditions improve a little bit, the local Kenyans hate the refugees and accuse them of wasting their land and resources. To cap it all, the police round up undocumented refugees at night and demand cash for their release. At times, the local people attack the refugee makeshift homes and set them on fire as screams of kids and confusion of families everywhere. In one incident, angry mob brandishing machetes forces Hamse's family lock themselves in their home. The gang leaves the family when their older brother's Kenyan friend comes to their rescue. The man stands guard at their door until officials from refugee agencies arrive to evacuate the family to a safer location.

Coming back to the main camp, they become “second class refugees”. The hatred towards refugees is everywhere as their father is ailing until he is transferred to Nairobi, Kenya.

The two chapters in part two catalog the next part of the roller coaster story vividly depicting pre-migration process, journey to America, and settling in the new land. As they prepare for interview process to resettle America, recalling experiences, events of birthdays and all stories revolving around their flight haunt their pain moment and are hard to piece them together at that time.

The time has come that their despair gives to hope and tragedy to opportunity as the family prepares for the flight to the land of opportunity. Hamse’s young mind is now preoccupied not by survival, but by curiosity about what feels like a magnificent airplane carries them all for more than nine hours up in the air. Arriving Netherlands, the family experiences a new life and luxury as they wait for a flight to New York in route to their destination – Denver, Colorado.

Coming to America as well has some challenges for Hamse. Navigating the new land is tantamount to a path dotted with thorns. Hamse takes us to the plight and tribulations that many new immigrants face at school. The following chapter, he deals with securing his first job, cultural and language barrier. Hamse who has witnessed harrowing experience back home now is witnessing some hurdles in the way as the family discovers insurmountable challenges of poverty to gang violence and class gap in America cities.

For those who witnessed the experience of the Somali civil war as a child, the book will evoke long lost memories as if they have transpired yesterday. Those who were born in peaceful lands far away from Somalia will undoubtedly have a front line seat of the theater watching tragedy that they have never experienced. The arduous struggle this child and his family faced is a testimony to resiliency, patience and perseverance. This book will be awe-inspiring for researchers and casual readers. Second part of the memoir will follow soon.



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