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Chasing the Mirage, from Nairobi to New York City

Khadija Farah
Dadaab, Kenya, January 30, 2016; Ifo 2 camp is one of four camps that make up Dadaab refugee complex. It was established during the 2011 famine to decongest Ifo and Dagahley camps and, at the time this photo was taken, was home to over 50,000 refugees.

I was born in Ifo, one of four refugee camps in Dadaab, eastern Kenya, about two hundred miles northeast of Nairobi. My family moved from place to place for generations in search of water and pasture, roaming the Greater Somalia region, oblivious of the European maps that cast them in different territories. I recently discovered my parents met for the first time in a refugee camp in Somalia in the 1970s after fleeing war in Ethiopia, and just as they’d finally established new lives, war came once again and they fled to Kenya. They settled briefly in another refugee camp, in Mandera, on the border between Kenya and Ethiopia, which disbanded after only two years. Eventually they moved to Ifo, where they’ve lived, reluctantly, for longer than anywhere else.

In my hometown, if you climbed a tree or one of the anthills in the desert, the whole city stretched before your eyes. If you stared in the distance long enough, you saw pools of water. This was a mirage, my mother told me as a child. A trick of the eyes. From above, the town’s sections looked like trash carelessly tossed across the desert. The residents—refugees—avoided anything recalling the past, so the streets and sections, called Blocks, were named with letters and numbers. Letters and numbers evoked no memories. Our Block was called A4. From a distance, the streets seemed still with water all year round; in reality, they were dusty and flooded only when it rained. It rarely rained. 

There were no mysteries in my hometown, to my eyes at least. It was carefully measured and portioned, and because I was free to explore it, every inch of it became known to me—except the parts of it that were locked to the residents, enclosed by barbed wire. The concrete buildings housing the aid agencies credited with saving our lives were locked to us, and we could only lean against the walls and peer in, imagining what was going on inside. Foreign journalists frequented those buildings and the stories they filed, which I read online, referenced as experts on our lives the NGO workers living inside those gated walls, in luxury we refugees couldn’t fathom. When those stories featured our perspectives they left out our names, and I wondered if they were just quotes invented by the journalists. 

The walls were impenetrable and threatening outside Dadaab. Our hometown, located about fifty miles from the border between Kenya and Somalia, was in limbo. Our highway, heaps of sacks filled with clay, allowed trucks to bring us food during floods; when the highway submerged, helicopters dropped food and medicine, and I remember the disappointment of families when they ended up with sacks of medicine instead of food. When a bus left for Kenya proper, as we called the rest of the country, it passed twenty checkpoints (I counted once). At each, the refugees were asked to get out and prove they belonged, and when they couldn’t, they were detained and had to buy their freedom. If a truck left for Somalia, it also passed checkpoints manned by al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group controlling every aspect of people’s lives in the country, including clothing, hairstyles, food, music. We were contained in our small world. 

Small as it was, I still loved Dadaab. It was supposed to be hell, and even as kids we knew how the world saw it. All we had was dust and heat. To outsiders there was nothing of interest there. We had fun like kids anywhere do. Celebrities visited Dadaab, although we only heard about it on the radio. We felt the pity visitors felt for us, and hated it. To the world, Dadaab was a garden where people, mostly white, came to plant trees and watch crowds of us squash each other in line for porridge.

My father was the muezzin at the mosque, and every morning I woke up to his call to prayer. My mother promised she would kill me with her own two hands if my photo ever appeared on the pamphlets passed around the refugee camp to remind us of our own destitution. As long as I avoided the opportunistic photojournalists, she said, I could do what I wanted. The prospect of such freedom delighted me and I vowed to stay away from any group where my photo might be taken. My whole childhood was spent between the library in our city’s only secondary school, the nearby pool table, and the shop at the marketplace where my friend filled in for his mother on the weekends.

Khadija Farah
Dadaab, Kenya, October 29, 2015; Hamza Ali shows off his skills before a sunset soccer game in Dadaab’s Ifo 2 refugee camp.

Nairobi beckoned. I read the Kenyan novelist Meja Mwangi’s chronicles of the city. Kill Me Quick (1973) painted a portrait of a city where the young could reinvent themselves; Nairobi either built or destroyed you—some found wealth, others fell into crime. After primary school, I decided I was old enough to leave home for the first time to visit Nairobi. My sister, who had resettled in the US in 2005, sent me the fare and I got on a bus the next day, against my mother’s warning. I needed to see the outside world, a world I had encountered only in books. But in Nairobi I was illegal. Kenya has what is called an “encampment policy,” which restricts refugees to the camps where they reside. I was supposed to be confined to Ifo. I grew up speaking Maay, one of Somalia’s official languages, and at the time I didn’t even know Swahili, Kenya’s national language. My friends lent me a phrase, badu sijafika, which loosely meant “I am not yet an adult,” and I repeated it over and over on the bus, my heart pounding.

I somehow managed to get past the first three checkpoints. Once we reached Modikarey, a hamlet on the outskirts of the nearest city, Garissa, all the passengers were asked to get off the bus to be frisked. I was put in a patrol car and driven into the city, where I was detained and spent what might have been three days in a cell so dark, day and night merged. My sister contacted an old friend in the city and sent him money for my release. She implored me to return home, but I wouldn’t listen. I learned that trucks carrying luggage were an easy ride for stowaways, and I found one heading to Nairobi. I just had to see the city.

In Nairobi, I tried to disguise myself as a Kenyan. I picked up Sheng, a hybrid of English and Swahili spoken in the city; I learned the intricate routes of the matatu, the city’s minibus public transport, and I kept up with the country’s politics. My Somali appearance betrayed me and I was regularly stopped by the police. I would try to talk my way out of presenting an ID. I said I was still a student and too young to obtain one, but they wouldn’t hear it. “Maybe you are a terrorist,” they would say. Terrified, I would confess I was a refugee. I was detained and asked for kitu kidogo, a bribe for my release. I paid them off when I could, but I was often broke. Those nights, I accompanied the officers in their patrol car as they made their rounds. This was how I truly learned the city, one night at a time. 

Perhaps because I was not allowed to be in Nairobi, I grew attached to the city. I have mixed memories of it. In 2016, when Kenya threatened to shut down Dadaab, my sister filed a case for my parents to join her in Seattle, Washington. When they were scheduled for an interview at the embassy in Nairobi, I moved there with them, and my previous experience with the police came in handy. My parents were also regularly accosted in the streets. Because they didn’t speak Swahili, I’d bargain with the police on their behalf. This only reinforced my conviction that my family would never belong in Kenya. Also in Nairobi, I sat for the SAT when my parents left for the US, three years after my graduation from high school. I applied to eight universities in America. In Nairobi, I received my acceptance letter to Princeton.

Khadija Farah
Moi Avenue, one of the oldest roads in the Central Business District, Nairobi, Kenya, March 17, 2020

Looking back, those first nights I spent touring the city by police car are more vivid than anything else about Nairobi. Uhuru Highway. Haile Selassie. Ngara Road. We crisscrossed the city center. The illegals who joined me in the back of the patrol car included Muslims, sex workers, thieves, and vagrants. I’d heard of young Somalis suddenly disappearing; although I tried to conceal it, I was afraid of what the police might do to me and was glad to have company. But the other detainees usually broke too soon, an hour or two after their arrest. They made their bribes, or called family members to send money. And I would be left with the officers alone. Many times, I stayed with them all night.

In the morning, they would finally let me go. Some were concerned and asked me about myself. Was I crazy? Did I have no family? Others insisted on buying me breakfast before we parted ways. Only on three occasions did other detainees stay with us all night. They were all women, sex workers from the city’s brothels. In my conversations with them, I discovered who else was illegal in Kenya.

*

When I first came to the United States, in 2018, I wrestled with how to introduce myself. I always thought I knew myself, but now I was seized by a desire to know where I was from and what brought me here. It felt wrong to claim I was from Kenya.

In Dadaab, the dirty, naked African children in the posters on the walls of the aid agencies defined what a refugee looked like; I did not want to be one of them. Many of us believed we would grow up to rebuild what the generation before us had destroyed. Some of my friends in Dadaab still talk passionately about change. Looking back, I recognize this ambition as an insistence on the dignity the grotesque reflection in the posters denied us.

While I was running away from those images, Princeton students defined themselves in relation to the ones on the hallowed university’s walls. These paintings and photographs displayed the school’s alumni, who were also some of the students’ relatives. These parents wanted their children to contribute to their accomplishments, or at least to maintain them. They were terrified of their children falling short. At Princeton, I discovered I was black and poor. I loathed the pity I saw in people’s eyes when I introduced myself.

An oddity among students, I was noticed even without trying. Bookish as I was, I was asked whether I played basketball. When I said I didn’t, I was encouraged to consider it. I was mistaken for an actor and once for a police officer. In the dining halls and lavatories, I was taken for an employee and asked for help. At night, walking to my dorm from the library, I noticed other students change directions so frequently I came to expect it. I was frightening. In classes where I was the only black student, self-consciousness drove me to stammer. I was too visible. 

I have always wanted to escape Dadaab, and once I was out, its memory agitated me. I was angry. Why had we spent so much time there? When I introduced myself to people in America, I was inundated with questions. Where was I from? And more importantly, when was I going back? I had no answers. Where every other international student clutched a passport—burgundy, blue, gold, with the name of their country engraved—I carried a flimsy booklet marked Travel Document in small letters, as if shyly doubtful of its own validity. Inside, my details were inscribed by hand, in hurried penmanship. Even my photo, glued by hand, looked hesitant. Where others simply displayed a document, I stepped aside and ended up telling my life story.

In Kenya, I’d distanced myself from being a refugee because it was criminal to be one; in America, I readily admitted to being a refugee even when others didn’t understand what it meant. I quickly noticed the consequences were not as dire as in Kenya—in my case, at least. This made me only angrier. Why was it easier for me to catch a bus in a country where I was a stranger and not in the one where I was born?

More than anger, though, I was gripped by resounding guilt. Suddenly cast into a newfound world of privilege, I felt compelled to share it with those back home, yet I didn’t know how to go about it. When I looked back at my old life, it was clear to me that I was indebted to everyone in my hometown—the guard who let me into the library as a child, the neighbors who bought me notebooks, the students who studied alongside me. What could I do to give back? I reached out to the service office at Princeton and told them I needed to return home—perhaps I could buy textbooks for students, I proposed. But I was confronted by the nature of my status: I was designated stateless, but I still had Somalia as my country of origin and this meant that I would not be re-admitted into the country due to the travel ban. Could I risk losing everything?

I stayed. Following my freshman year, I took up an internship in New York last summer. I worked during the day and explored the city at night. At the school where I volunteered, students traveled in from all boroughs and returned home in the evenings, the subway a bridge between worlds. The students were, like me, all recent arrivals, immigrants and refugees from around the world. Thirsty, they too were driven by the possibilities America promised, a mirage. They wrestled with English and were determined to do better in school. Some worked summer jobs to send money back home.

They were on the same journey I’d taken and I instantly understood. I avoided asking probing questions that risked revealing the mirage for what it was. I appreciated the drive the delusion instilled in the students, the sense of direction it provided. I only aided in the journey—I was careful not to burden them with my own story as a refugee, or my disappointment in discovering the disparity between the America I’d imagined and the one I found. I never asked where home was or what brought them here. Instead I focused on the array of interests they pursued—soccer, film, music, language, the gym.

Just like Dadaab, every street and corner of New York was known, marked with precision, traveled every single day. My friends in Kenya sent me suggestions, places from movies I should visit. The Statue of Liberty. Brooklyn Bridge. The Met. These tourist destinations seemed to me too dull, but I was reluctant to admit it. With no coursework to occupy me, the urgency to know more about where I was from only deepened. I gathered all the books about Somalia I could find from Princeton’s library, and devoured them in Harlem. But I couldn’t recognize myself in the books I read. The stories were unfamiliar and disconnected from the experience I’d lived; they were filled with tragedies meant to elicit pity, genealogy as intricate as the streets of Manhattan, and terrifying accounts of piracy and kidnappings. I realized the books were written for a Western audience and often relied on tropes about my country of origin mined by lazy journalists and explorers supported by the colonial governments in Somalia.

Jamel Shabazz
Cooling Out, Harlem, New York City, 2014

At night, on the stoop of my Harlem apartment building, young black men gathered to talk. As I stepped out to take my walks, I would run into them. After a week, I began to recognize some of their faces. I was careful not to engage. In America, strangers remained strangers. But with time, some of the men began asking me for a cigarette. I said I didn’t smoke. But when the requests persisted, I bought a pack as my initiation into the neighborhood.

The faces soon became names, single-letter nicknames, and my new friends began sharing stories with me. The police featured prominently. In Nairobi, the arrests were unofficial and temporary, but here in New York they were permanent. J. could not find a job after being arrested only once, and K. was kicked out of school. The police loomed large in the background of the men’s lives. But unlike the police in Nairobi, the NYPD officers seemed indifferent to me.

Meanwhile, I also began to make sense of the layout of my neighborhood. If you walked downtown, the streets were clean and the pedestrians were mostly white. There were only a few police patrol cars. If you walked further uptown, litter filled the streets and the pedestrians were mostly black. The number of police patrol cars increased. In my mind, the city split: there was New York City proper, where tourists thronged, and then there was Harlem, where many Americans, mostly black, lived in poverty, in constant negotiation with the police. Stop-and-frisk, habitual for me in Nairobi, also existed in New York, and my new friends told me they endured it with frustration. 

Riding the C train, I read Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights; in Central Park, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, which I felt obligated to read again in Harlem. I’d first read about Baldwin’s Harlem when I was in Kenya, and I’d identified with his alienation, his terror of the police, the intensity of his unbelonging. But I realized, while living in Harlem, that I’d read my world into his story. Looking back, I now see I did not understand Baldwin’s world—I only understood his rage. Though I’d read about it, I had willfully ignored America’s racism. In my imagination, America was a place I could escape to and finally belong.

But for my friends in Harlem, American racism was painfully present. It threatened to push them out of their homes, it blocked them from jobs. And yet, to me New York City paid no attention, and I was carefree. Sometimes, I would imagine screaming in the middle of the street—I saw others do it and the city ignored them. For me, this possibility was freeing.

As the summer neared its end, accounts of ICE raids across the country reached us. We began to teach the students about Miranda rights. The carefree nature of the city dissipated and the terror of the police came back to me. I was not yet home.

When I was a child, my mother told me I could never reach the mirage. That if you stare in the distance in the desert, you will always see pools of water. “It’s in your eyes,” she would say. Last summer, I found that America was not what I’d imagined it to be. What I’d been searching for—a sense of home, freedom, belonging—was always just in my eyes.