The Danger—and Hope—of a First Year in America
Boyah J. Farah on Making the Immigrant Adjustment to Bedford, Massachusetts
When I was eleven, my father died of untreated lung cancer, and a few months later, civil war broke out and carried us away from Somalia as the wind carries drifting clouds. Now we were refugees—my mother, my older sister, my five younger siblings, and myself—running from violence, running to save our lives from certain death. Our lives seemed destined for despair and destitution.
For almost two years, we ran. Finally we made it to Utanga, a squalid, disease-infested refugee camp located right on the edge of the ancient city of Mombasa in Kenya. Sipping tea and eating white bread day after day, watching the sun rise and waiting for it to set in late afternoon—these were my only memories. Life was dead. Democracy was dead. In Utanga, there was nothing for me except the obligation to lift a shovel and follow the other male refugees as we buried yet another neighbor dead from malaria or dengue fever.
We spent two years in that camp before finally, four years after we were forced into exile by the civil war, we found a sponsor and escaped. I was fifteen when we left the refugee camp. Destiny directed us to Bedford, Massachusetts, a city outside Boston with a population of 13,000. There, all that was inside me expanded.
I can see myself stepping out of the house and walking to the library, counting the silent houses with dogs peeking out the windows. That certainly is strange, I think. These people live in beautiful houses with big backyards. And the dogs live in the house with them.
This is new to me. I can’t figure out why Americans allow dogs to live indoors along with the family. In Somalia, animals stay outside. Inside is only for people. I’m afraid of dogs anyway. And forget about bringing them into the house!
In America, I see no goats, cows, or chickens. Instead, I pass endless front yards with manicured grass and trees swaying slowly in the clean air. All is nestled in a forest of green, a stark contrast with the semidesert landscape of Somalia. No longer in that rotten refugee camp, here I am walking on an American sidewalk with grass on each side, trimmed to perfection.
Since I do not see anyone cut the grass, I imagine that God sends invisible angels to cut the grass at night while the people of Bedford sleep. And God does this because America is a country where democracy lives, and no one is threatened or harmed.This kind old woman is the America of my imagination, new and fascinating. And dangerous.
As I walk, I stoop to run my palms over the grass and enjoy how it feels.
I can look at the sky, clear and blue. I can feel the air.
I can walk on paved roads and grass without sand drifting into my eyes, my food, my hair. I can eat pizza. I can stroll to the supermarket and glance at the different soft drinks, the many types of sausages on display, the endless rows of bright cartons of fresh milk in the store’s enormous refrigerator.
Studying the lips of the white people shopping around me, I marvel at the sounds they make, using their strange language. My desire to learn is intense.
I want to talk to them exactly the way they do to each other. As I walk around the town with my thoughts and dreams, I am conscious of my good fortune in America, ready to undertake what destiny has in store for me.
“Be a doctor,” I tell myself aloud. “Yes, you can, Boyah! Or be an engineer!”
My thoughts are my invisible friends, since I have none in this town.
Nor do I see any possibility of these white people becoming friends: nothing about them belongs to me. I do not even meet many people walking. Just an occasional mother pushing her baby in a stroller and sometimes a white couple jogging along the sidewalk.
I am tall and skinny and noticeable in this white suburban town.
I can feel the gaze of the white neighbors, wondering who I am and whether or not I speak their language or eat their food or like their music. I am not one of them, but I am eager to become one of them. As I pass by them, they smile. I keep their smiles as a gesture of goodwill.
They like me, I tell myself hopefully. I wish they could know that I like them too.
Anytime I see someone walking or jogging or sitting on the grass, my lips eagerly form smile after smile. I am thinking that they might be able to grasp the meaning of my many smiles, these strange white people gawking at me with pimpled, freckled faces.
My family and I are the tallest and the blackest in this all-white town. As I become more aware of this new reality, I sometimes wish I could touch their pale skin and run my fingers through their blond or red hair.
Mama, wearing a long dress with red, blue, and white patterns, walks around the neighborhood sometimes. Because she has no English, she only grins when someone greets her. The white people cannot get to know her as a person, and she cannot express who she is as a fellow human being, so we stand out as those strange refugees who never stop smiling.
Our neighbors never invite us to the neighborhood block party, nor do they stop by for a chat or a brief visit, or spend any length of time with us. But once they figure out that we are not going to cause any trouble and that we are grateful even to be alive in this new land, they begin to interact with us a little. Someone random, an older white man, says to me one day,
“Aren’t you from that family on Roberts Drive?” “Yes,” I answer politely. “I’m sorry.”
Even though I have not broken any law, I always apologize. I understand his question. Saying sorry is a survival tactic, a way to protect myself.
“How are your folks?” he says. “How many of you live in that house?”
“Uh” is all I say. Then I nod my head. “I’m sorry.”
Almost all the houses near us are one-family structures. To the right of us is a house with a husband and wife, two cars, and two dogs. To the left is a big house with a husband and wife, a child, and two dogs. Big backyards with trimmed grass surrounded by metal fences.
In our small house, we are ten people, living on the second floor in a three-bedroom apartment. Along with me and my mother are my three younger brothers and two younger sisters.
My older sister, with the husband she married in the refugee camp, is also there, raising their year-old child. We have to line up and take turns to use the bathroom, but we have no inkling that we are missing anything. We are not yet Americans.
In our small apartment house live different people: white, black, and Asian individuals who come and go. All we know about them is that they are Americans and speak English. Hearing them talk in the hallway, I wish I could learn to speak English like them.
Some representatives of the International Rescue Committee help us by dropping off used clothes, winter jackets and shoes, and a beat-up used bicycle. Everything in the apartment comes from the IRC or from the secondhand shop Mama visits twice a week, sometime three times a week. Our living room is outfitted with a sofa, a love seat, a gray carpet, an old mini television with two tiny speakers, a small coffee table for the tea thermos and three ceramic cups, and an old grandfather clock hanging above the floor lamp. Even our cordless telephone comes from the used-furniture store.
We are the newly arrived, the poor and black living in America.I want to say something, but I figure no one will understand me.
Sitting in the living room watching America’s Most Wanted with John Walsh, Mama always draws us around her and reminds us to keep the front door closed. She does not want the constant commotion coming from the first-floor apartment to disturb the calmness in our apartment. Those people on the first floor are Americans, and Mama is aware we are lucky to be here and asks us to respect our host country and respect our American neighbors.
We are happy and appreciative. As I walk to the library, I notice the clear blue sky turning to gray, the air becoming thicker, and the trees beginning to lose their leaves. Slowly, those trees are becoming skeletons, as if they were getting naked for the coming of snow, like couples getting ready to conceive their first child.
The man on the Weather Channel tells me what day and time the snow will fall, but I have trouble believing his prediction. I do not think God communicates directly with human beings, let alone with a white man in a black suit who gets drunk with forbidden liquor and who may not even believe in God. Coming as I am from a place of human catastrophe, my singular worldview has yet to be exposed to the diversity of human beliefs and cultures. Yes, it is late in the afternoon, the daylight is growing shorter, and the sky is becoming grayer, but how does that white man dressed in a suit on television know exactly when the snow will come?
Does the silent sky communicate with him? What kind of relationship can they have?
I want to say something, but I figure no one will understand me.
In my shadowy bedroom, the light is on, and I am reciting to myself a list of English words to memorize. I am on a mission to master the English language and make it my own when suddenly, at precisely the time the weatherman predicted, clumps of snow begin to beat against the glass window of my room. With that, I come to believe in the magic of America.
When I see the snow, my heart seems to skip a beat. I jump up from the couch and quickly run outdoors. Standing on the doorstep, I look up at the gray sky, and my eyes follow the snowflakes pouring down onto the earth and covering everything below in white. The driving snow keeps coming and coming, covering the grass and the sidewalks and the driveway and the paved streets—everything, including the green grass. In front of our neighbor’s house next door, children are wearing jackets, gloves, sweaters, and rubber boots as they play in the snow. One has a shovel, another a spoon, and yet another is sitting on a toboggan.
As I watch them, I am feeling cold, but something in me is keeping my body warm. I breathe, and mists of fog escape my mouth. I love everything I see. I am overwhelmed. Stretching out my hands and opening my mouth to the sky, I begin to collect snowflakes. I see my younger siblings come running outside and reaching out for the snow, giggling and making all kinds of noises with their tongues. I too attempt to catch the snow falling through the air, but the flakes melt into the palm of my hand, slippery and invisible, but wet. At one time, all of us children are out in the open, and all of us have our mouths tilted up and open in the air to collect the falling snow. My mouth is agape, my teeth chattering. I want to pray to God for a pair of rubber boots and gloves. But then God has already granted my wish to escape war, withstand disease, and survive starvation. How can I be so selfish as to pray for even more? God has already convinced the Americans to let me stand here in the snow and play. Could I ask for more? God is good. The world is good. The falling snow is beautiful, and my belly is full of love, prayers, and hope for my life in America.
I feel a sharp pain in my ears, but I am too busy to pay much attention. I romp through snow, as if coming across a new friend for the first time. I squeeze the snow in the palm of my hand until it hurts. As I collect snow in my mouth, my teeth begin to hurt and my lips crack. My nose is running, and my ears are on fire. I can see that my siblings are having similar snow-triggered symptoms. In the refugee camp, during the resettlement orientation we went to before coming to America, they told us all about snow. They told us how dangerous it could be. They said snow could kill. Still, I always yearned for the experience.
“Get back in here,” my mother calls out. “You need something warmer on.”
So I rush back into the house and head for the kitchen to turn on the oven. Once the oven heats up, I open the oven door and sit down in front of the heat.
My mother is sitting in front of the television, wrapped in a large blanket, holding a white ceramic cup with hot chocolate. Seeing me shivering in front of the oven, she invites me into the living room. “Come and taste this,” she says, holding out her cup to me. “Here, taste it.”
“Oh,” I say as I take the cup from her hands and sip. “I like that.” And then I watch my mother as she begins to get more cups for the kids.
“Keep that for yourself.” Mama gets up and walks to the kitchen to make another cup for herself. “But don’t go back outside until you put on a heavier jacket, okay?”
I walk up the stairs, enter the room I share with my three brothers, and grab my heavy winter jacket. I put it on and run back downstairs. As my siblings watch me get my jacket, they too get theirs, and we continue playing outside as if nothing in the world existed except our joy in the snow. Once outside again, I am more wary of the cold, the chilly bite in my feet and hands and ears, my runny nose. This time I recognize the danger.
As the danger and beauty of my first year in America passes, spring comes around again. I used to ride my rusty bicycle frequently to visit the library. One afternoon, I slow down at a traffic intersection, but continue through since I have the green light.
Just as I am almost through the intersection, the car that was waiting for the light suddenly takes off and bangs the rear wheel of my bicycle.
I lose control and hit the pavement, landing on my elbows and knees. Quickly getting up and inspecting my injuries, I notice plenty of bloody scratches on my elbows and knees, but I feel embarrassed. I watch as the blue Chevy that hit me parks, and the driver’s door opens. An elderly white woman steps out. “I am so sorry,” she says sincerely.
“It’s okay,” I reply, intimidated.
“Let me take you to a doctor,” she says. “No,” I insist. “I’m fine.”
I am not fine at all, and I am watching blood pour from my elbows and knees. My mangled bicycle is lying in the grass.
“Don’t worry about your bicycle,” she says nicely. “I’ll buy a new bicycle for you.”
“No,” I say. “It’s okay. No need.”
“Let me give you some money to fix it,” she implores. “I want to take you to a doctor, so you can get some stitches.”
“No, it’s okay. I’m sorry. Please. Go home.” I feel I owe her. Indeed, I owe her my life. She is American, and I am not.
I am an African boy whose country is ruined, and this white woman has welcomed me and allowed me into her country. I have come to her house. I walk on her streets.
I am breathing her clean air. I touch and hold her snow.
I walk in her large supermarket. I capture her smiles and hold them dearly. She has done a lot for me, but what have I done for her? Nothing.
Yes, she hit me with her car, and I have scratches that may need some stitches, but that is nothing. I look at my injuries and think that those wounds are nothing compared to the depth of my gratitude for America. She is American; she is free to go.
I pick up my bicycle and start dragging it home. “Can I take you home?” she asks kindly.
“No. Go home. I’m okay.”
As I take those few first steps toward home, I look back and see that woman standing there watching me. My bicycle is old and rusty and fragile, and I am not sure what I am to her. Maybe just a poor young black African in a skinny body.
But this kind old woman is the America of my imagination, new and fascinating.
Excerpted from America Made Me a Black Man: A Memoir by Boyah J. Farah, available via Harper.