Episode 26: One refugee family's 30-year quest for home, with Ty McCormick

Episode 26: One refugee family's 30-year quest for home, with Ty McCormick

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

Asad Husein was born in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Today he’s a student at Princeton University. His story is a miracle of grit and luck. It didn’t have to be that hard.

Asad and Marian’s family fled conflict in Somalia and found refuge in eastern Kenya, one of the world’s largest refugee camps. That was in 1991. Three decades later, the family still hasn’t been allowed to build a permanent home together anywhere. Their story, like a novel you couldn’t make up, is that of the broken refugee resettlement system and of responsibilities no one wants to take. American journalist Ty McCormick tells it.

Show notes

00:51 Intro
03:23 Asad and Marian, the two protagonists
07:52 Effectively stateless
11:02 An unknowable bureaucracy
12:15 Corruption at the IOM
19:48 A temporary system made permanent
22:48 How we fix the refugee resettlement system
26:56 Voters support refugees more than politicians do
28:52 A quest for belonging
34:43 Writing a story with its subjects
37:29 A story of triumph and tragedy
40:18 Outro

Sources & credits

📚 Beyond the Sand and Sea: One Family’s Quest for a Country to Call Home. By Ty McCormick. St Martin’s Press. 2021. Buy in US. Buy in UK.

Writing by Asad Hussein:

Chasing the Mirage, from Nairobi to New York City (The New York Review, April 2020)

The Refugee Camp She Once Called Home (The New York Times Magazine, November 2016)

My Family Waited 13 Years to Resettle in the United States. Then Trump Slammed the Door in Our Faces. (Foreign Policy, January 2017)

Music by Ofshane via Youtube’s audio library


Transcript

Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.

Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:00] Hello listeners. It's Isabelle. It's my birthday today. Like today, today, as this podcast comes out. And the present that would make me super happy is your email address. So that I can send you the newsletter and you never miss out on an episode or an essay. Go to join.borderlinepod.com. There you can sign up for the newsletter and also opt for a paid subscription, which is the only way that Borderline can continue. It's a present for me, but it's a present for you too. You'll get the podcast two days early on Sunday mornings, also a monthly hangout with me and other members, conversation threads, more content. I'm revamping the membership program a bit in April to offer you more. So now is a great time to join. Just do it: again, that's join.borderlinepod.com. Thank you so much for your support. Okay. That was more salesy than I've ever been in my life, so it'd better work. Now on with the episode.

[00:00:51] Ty McCormick: [00:00:51] There's this assumption that lies underneath all of our refugee policy, which is that these things are temporary. That temporal fiction has collapsed. Refugees are living in a situation where this is their permanent home. What does it mean to be a permanent exile trapped in this system that is denying the permanence of these places?

[00:01:11] Isabelle Roughol: [00:01:21] Hi, I'm Isabelle Roughol, and this is Borderline.

[00:01:25] About 1% of the world's population is forcibly displaced. That's nearly 80 million people forced by conflict or persecution to leave their home. I need to paint a bit of that picture and define some terms for you to better understand the coming interview.

[00:01:39] A majority of those people are internally displaced. They stay within their own country. That leaves about 26 million refugees and another 4.2 million asylum seekers. Those are 2019 numbers and with the pandemic, the stats are likely to be a bit all over the place for a year or two. Refugees are people recognized to have left their country because they were at serious risk of human rights violations there. Asylum seekers are people who are asking to be recognized as refugees and are somewhere in the process.

[00:02:11] Refugees mostly come from a handful of crisis points on the planet, such as Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, or Myanmar. And they mostly go to neighboring countries in the global South who are not without their own problems. Syrians go to Turkey, Afghans to Pakistan and the South Sudanese to Uganda.

[00:02:28] Finally refugee resettlement is a process largely managed by the UN whereby a few wealthy countries take in a limited number of refugees. It's the golden legal route to a new life, but as you're about to learn, it's also slow, bureaucratic, rife with corruption and frustrations, and ultimately a bit of a lottery.

[00:02:47] Today, I'm speaking about this with Ty McCormick. He's an American journalist, editor at Foreign Affairs magazine and author of "Beyond the Sand and Sea: One Family's Quest for a Country to Call Home." For years, he followed Asad Hussein, his sister Marian, and their whole family who arrived from Somalia to the Dadaab refugee camp in Eastern Kenya and spent the last three decades in the maze of refugee resettlement. It's a powerful, heartbreaking story of both tragedy and triumph that reads like a novel, but you couldn't make this stuff up.

[00:03:18] Here's my conversation with Ty McCormick.

[00:03:20]

[00:03:23] Asad and Marian, the two protagonists

Can we start maybe by you introducing your protagonist Asad, who, who he is?

[00:03:28] Ty McCormick: [00:03:28] Sure. protagonists, I like to say. I think Asad and Marian are sort of the two characters that run through the book. And I hope that readers will read them in parallel.

[00:03:40] Asad is this extraordinary young man who was born in a refugee camp that during his childhood became the world's largest refugee camp. It's a place on the border between Kenya and Somalia, where there is no running water, there are no paved roads, there are not even two-story buildings. And so this, this sort of sea of sand and thornscrub and makeshift dwellings is his entire universe for his entire childhood. But he's sort of driven by this hunger to learn about the outside world and this kind of insatiable curiosity that takes hold in a library that was set up by some aid workers in the camp. And he just kind of reads everything he can get his hands on which from his perspective, having not seen the outside world results in some sort of bizarre you know, sort of fantasies about what lies beyond, in his own telling.

[00:04:35] You know, when I first met him, he was reading "The Yacoubian Building" by the Egyptian novelist al-Aswany, and it's, you know, it takes place in a Cairo apartment building and a setting that I think most readers in the West would readily imagine. Just a small apartment block on a boulevard. But for him, that was impossible to imagine. He imagined two of the sort of flimsy huts that he lived in stacked on top of each other for a first and a second floor. So that's, that's how Asad grew up. And much of the story sort of follows his journey and his, his odyssey to see the outside of the camp. First, it's seeing the capital of Kenya, Nairobi. And then it's sort of seeing what sort of educational opportunities there might be for him and ultimately coming to the United States and, and, and enrolling at Princeton University.

[00:05:24] For his sister Marian it's almost the reverse. She comes to Kenya from Somalia. So she already has an experience of the outside world when she arrives. And she's kind of his guide to the world beyond, telling him stories both about what their homeland in Somalia was like. And then once she gets resettled to the US, which happens for her much, you know, several decades or a decade and a half before Asad comes to the US, she's the one sending word of what lies waiting for the family in the United States. And she's quite upbeat about what lies there. She sort of describes the United States as this land of opportunity, this place where you can be anything you want to be and gives her younger brother hope and nurtures his budding ambitions and desires to become a writer like many of the writers that he reads in the library where he's sort of discovering the outside world.

[00:06:17] Isabelle Roughol: [00:06:17] But she also kind of gets knocked back from that dream quite a bit when she does, when she does lend in the United States.

[00:06:25] Ty McCormick: [00:06:25] Yeah. I mean, part of the tragedy of the story, I think is that you see, or at least I saw these two characters as, as similar in a lot of ways. Both brilliantly gifted, both driven, both with this incredible sense of obligation and responsibility for those that they love. And yet there's just a totally different reality that, that the gender difference you know, I think imposes on them and the boundaries that, that Marian faces are quite different than the boundaries that...

[00:06:54] They're not insignificant boundaries that stand in Asad's way either. In fact, you know, the incredible number of obstacles he has to overcome is, you know, it's, it's, it's sort of staggering. I hope the book does a good job of sort of illustrating what for many people are invisible sort of trip wires designed to keep people from backgrounds like Asad's out of the worlds that, you know, wealthy Western people inhabit.

[00:07:19] But they, they proved to be too insurmountable in many ways for, for Marian. Of course she's, she's, you know, happily resettled in the US now, she has a wonderful family. She's a very upbeat and positive person, but I think that under other circumstances, she may have been the one at Princeton. She certainly has the ability to do so. I think she was derailed early on when she was forced to drop out of school to take care of the family and you know, faced a whole series of predatory men essentially, that gradually pushed her life off course.

[00:07:52] No ID, no exit Isabelle Roughol: [00:07:52] You do show these series of obstacles. It just seems like, you know, whenever he's kind of swimming towards his destination, there's a wave that knocks him back. Can you detail some of those, sometimes somewhat absurd things that just seem to keep people in place and quite literally locked into that camp?

[00:08:10] Ty McCormick: [00:08:10] Yeah. I think on the most basic level, there's the question of identity. Asad was born effectively stateless in the camp. His home country doesn't recognize him. when I say home country, I mean Somalia. His parents' home country does not recognize him as a citizen and Kenya doesn't recognize him as a citizen. They don't have birthright citizenship there. And so he's born into this kind of limbo where his whole official status and identity is tied to a single piece of paper, which is his family's ration card, which allows them to stand in line in this sort of humiliating ritual that refugees are forced to endure bi-weekly in order to survive. They wait for, you know, a couple of kilos of sorghum and maize and some cooking oil and maybe some salt. And they get those rations based on how many family members they have. And so you have a little photograph of your children and a little, maybe a fingerprint and their name. And that is their entire official identity when it comes to at least the state's recognition of, of Asad and Marian's being and UNHCR's record of them, the UN refugee agency.

[00:09:19] So that's, I think, the very first impediment to any sort of access to the world beyond. Because if you don't have an ID card you can't do much of anything. You can't purchase a car. You can't purchase land. You can't get a job. You can't do virtually anything. And the Kenyan government I think is in many ways dealing with a bad situation in the sense that it's left largely on its own by the international community to deal with conflict on its borders. It's this sort of island of stability sandwiched between South Sudan and Somalia and now Ethiopia. And I think it feels put upon that it ends up being the host of many, many hundreds of thousands of refugees that of course the West is not terribly keen to have come wash up on its borders. And so it I think feels justified in treating them the way it does, but it doesn't change the fact that, for the many hundreds of thousands of people living in those camps, life is so attenuated, is so limited in so many ways by the regulations that the Kenyan government puts in place. from the fact that there are checkpoints leaving these camps...

[00:10:31] It's hard to imagine, I think for outsiders who haven't seen it. It's essentially an open prison. And you have a population the size of, of New Orleans, or at some point it's the size of Atlanta, living under conditions like this and barred from leaving, barred from working, barred from doing virtually anything. So those are the sort of first order set of barriers that the main protagonists in the book face that are standing between them and a fulfilling life.

[00:11:02] An unknowable bureaucracy

[00:11:02] Then there are all of the invisible barriers that are put in place by Western countries to where these refugees are hoping to be resettled.

[00:11:09] And that's where it really begins to be I think absurd. You have this impenetrable unknowable bureaucracy that you interface with in the camp, but then have no way of knowing where your application goes to and it sits for years and you periodically, maybe you get a notification saying that you have to report for a medical exam, but no sense of, of why any of these things are happening.

[00:11:35] And meanwhile, families are getting ripped apart. The family in the book, Marian goes to the US, the rest of the family is left behind. Fourteen years pass. She's wondering "what happened to my family's case? Why was I, why were they left behind when so many other people got to come to the US?" And it's, it's, it's a combination of just the incredibly complex nature of the inter-agency process and also a system that is designed not to be transparent and designed not to give refugees a window into the, the decisions that are ultimately responsible for, for determining the rest of their lives.

[00:12:15] Corruption at the IOM

[00:12:15] Isabelle Roughol: [00:12:15] And ripe for corruption. I mean, you and, you and Marian showed that, probably her family's case and a lot of others were being held back either, well, you can explain it, but essentially cases of sexual harassment or, or monetary corruption.

[00:12:31] Ty McCormick: [00:12:31] Yeah. And unfortunately it's, it's far from an isolated incident. It seems to be fairly widespread when you have so many people who have veto points on a process and the ability from a pretty low level -- these aren't people in Geneva, scheming to hold back refugees, it's that you have, you know, hundreds if not thousands of individual people who have to stamp one piece of paper or clear one medical form, or, you know... These are incredibly complicated processes, some of which I should say is driven by the obsession of Western countries, the United States in particular, with security. And all of these different layers of vetting of refugees, because they're considered to be a threat, even though largely you know, the data doesn't bear that out.

[00:13:17] But in any case, because of all of those veto points, you have enormous opportunity for graft and for corruption. And so in the case of the family that I, that I follow in the book, you know, the family had sort of had this suspicion that this one nurse at the International Organization for Migration, which is the UN migration arm, had sort of put his thumb on the scale and prevented the rest of the family from coming. The story that they tell was that in 2004, the whole family went for their first medical exam, which is this medical clearance, sort of a standard physical that all refugees have to pass before they can be resettled. It's mainly to screen for things like tuberculosis and othercommunicable diseases that they want to make sure that people who are getting on flights and going to be in close proximity with other people don't have.

[00:14:08] It is far from routine, it turns out. And so they arrive at the medical clinic. They all go through the physical and a cousin of theirs that was attached to the refugee resettlement case is this 14-year-old girl. And the nurse at the IOM center takes an interest in her and, you know, makes an advance on her. You know, I think the way that he phrased it was "you should marry me." And of course she says, "no, I'm, you know, I'm going to America with my family." And his response is "you're not going anywhere." And that, that ends that interaction. But then after that, the family's case stalls out.

[00:14:48] Marian has her own resettlement case. She goes to America with her husband and her young child at that point. But the rest of the family, her, her siblings and her parents are left behind and they are periodically summoned back to this same medical facility, this IOM medical facility, that becomes this kind of central source of trauma for the family. They go back half a dozen times, if not more. And they're put through the same paces, oftentimes receiving the same inoculations over and over and over again and don't know why they're never being processed to get on a flight, to come to America. And at some point along the line, Asad overhears two nurses speaking to each other in Kiswahili, which is the language spoken in Kenya, but not spoken by the refugee population by and large. Asad is this kind of precocious, young, educated kid who's teaching himself all sorts of languages in the library and so of course he speaks Kiswahili. And he can understand clearly what the nurses are saying and the one says to the other: "Why do we keep seeing the same family over and over?" And the other sort of sighs and says, "Well, it's so sad what this nurse has done to this family."

[00:15:58] And so he takes this as an indication that their theory is you know, has some merit to it. There's another data point that kind of pushes the family in this direction, which is that when Marian arrives in the US, she gets this mysterious text message saying, you know, "for a fee I can fix the block that's on your family's case." She calls the number. It seems that the person on the other side sort of loses their nerve. There's no resolution to that.

[00:16:24] And then, almost two decades pass and Marian gives up on the resettlement system and actually sponsors her parents for green cards, which is this incredibly involved other process where she has to prove that she cansupport them financially. And so she, you know, takes on an additional job, additional shifts. Ends up earning, you know, more than twice as much money as she had been earning as a full-time home health aid in order to show that she can sponsor her parents.

[00:16:53] And she's unable to show the amount of earning she would need to sponsor her, her younger siblings as well. So she has to kind of make this agonizing choice to leave them behind, take her parents with her. In any case, they are eventually brought to the US. They received their green cards in between the two Trump travel bans, there's this kind of race to get in ahead of the second iteration of it. They succeed, they get here. But the three younger siblings at this point are still left behind in Kenya. And there's still this unanswered question of, you know, "What happened to our family? Why were we ripped apart? Why did we have these 'stolen years'?" Is what she calls them.

[00:17:30] And so as part of the, the writing of the book, we set out to answer that question and we went back to Dadaab. And I certainly didn't expect to find the answer to the, to the question. It seemed that after so much, the passage of so much time that there would be no way to, to answer it. It turned out that the figure who, who was at the center of this corruption ring or this alleged corruption ring was, was extremely widely known in the camp and thatmany, many, many other refugees, more than a dozen, came forward with similar stories and described virtually the same thing that had happened to the family. And we brought the findings to the International Organization of Migration. They, they opened an official inquiry through their Inspector General's office. You know, at least outwardly they appeared to take it very seriously. And then, you know, months and now more than a year has passed and they, at least the last I have heard from them, when the book went to press they said that the inquiry was still ongoing, but that they had been unable to corroborate any of the allegations.

[00:18:34] You know, from my perspective it seemed that they weren't looking very hard to find what it was that was so obviously staring us in the face when we were there. One very strange fact that I was never able to, to explain was that they never sent, they never sent investigators to the camp. They sent them to the United States to places where refugees had been resettled, hoping to hear similar stories, I guess. In my view, not taking into account the fact that almost nobody who had endured that and actually gone through it and gotten where they wanted to go, was going to want to dig up those old horrific memories. You know, if you were really looking for those who've been victimized, and certainly all of the people I spoke to were still stranded in the camp decades later and they seem uninterested in going to speak with those people and. the, the nurse remains on the job to this day. It's sort of amazing. And I think one of the only reasons that there hasn't been more pressure to remove him is that for the last two and a half years, there's been no resettlement because of Trump's policies. Virtually no one is going through the IOM medical checks that were such a central part of the childhoods of the, of the family that, that I've profiled in the book.

[00:19:48] A temporary system made permanent

[00:19:48] Isabelle Roughol: [00:19:48] So that has essentially put a stop to what was already an extremely slow, slow process. And there is that kind of Groundhog Day sense to, to a lot of what's going on. And you write. I mean, there was, there was a sentence that I jotted down because I thought it was so, it was so powerful: "people lived as if they were saving part of themselves for their real lives." It's essentially a giant waiting room.

[00:20:12] Ty McCormick: [00:20:12] It is. It's an extended a period of limbo that I think, you know, one of the reasons I wrote the book is that there's this assumption that lies underneath all of our refugee policy -- and I say our as the international community -- which is that these things are temporary and that we set up camps and we mobilize emergency humanitarian relief because there will be a discrete crisis and it will subside and people can go home. And that has largely been the case you know, since the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War. But when the Cold War ended, the nature of conflict changed and we started to see a lot more civil wars. We started to see a lot more people displaced as a result of sort of low-level insecurity and instability that prevented people from returning home for, for decades.

[00:21:02] And the Somali and South Sudanese cases, I think, are two of the most powerful. They have essentially been unchanged since, you know... The two camps, Dadaab and Kakuma, which are... Dadaab was the largest refugee camp in the world. Kakuma was one of the largest. And one is a primarily destination for Somalis. And one is primarily a destination for South Sudanese. They were both set up in 1991 or 1992. And they are virtually unchanged today. And so this idea that they're temporary safe havens for people has completely, that, that temporal fiction has collapsed.

[00:21:38] And we now are living in a situation, or refugees are living in a situation where this is their permanent home. But they are barred from building permanent dwellings. They are barred from doing any of the things that we associate with a normal life. And so that was, I think one of the things that I wanted to capture in the book, which is: What does it mean to be a permanent exile trapped in this system that is, that is denying the permanence of these places? I think at one point in the book, I described Dadaab as a permanent temporary city. That's where you get into the absurdism. I think, you know, Asad, one of the things I found so compelling about him was that he was drawn to absurdist literature because of the absurdity of the life that he lived and the things that he absorbed around him. you know, and, and so that, that felt more accessible to him then, you know, I don't know a crime thriller set in in New York City.

[00:22:34] Isabelle Roughol: [00:22:34] Hmm. And that's something we forget, I mean here in Europe we talk about refugee crises a lot. But actually most refugees are in the global South and many are on their second or third generation within the same family.

[00:22:48] How we fix the refugee resettlement system

[00:22:48] I guess you've had a chance to think about this a lot: What would a better refugee system look like? What would need to be fixed to make it work?

[00:22:58] Ty McCormick: [00:22:58] I think it's easy to get overwhelmed and say it's so broken that there's really nothing we can do, and that this is a political problem, and that Europe can't take in more refugees. And I think when you start unraveling the logic that way, it's very easy to become paralyzed and to say well there's nothing we can do. I think that there are incremental things that can be done that would radically change the experience of refugees around the world.

[00:23:22] I think you would have to do two things in tandem. You would have to improve resettlement. You would have to make it more transparent. You'd have to scale up the volume of it. Right now there are about 36 or 37 designated resettlement countries. Prior to Trump the US was by far the largest recipient of folks who were resettled through that system. I think there's been about 4 million people resettled anywhere in the world since 1980 3 million of them have come to the US. 1 million have gone to this 30 some odd other countries, including Britain, Canada, Australia. So I think you would need to scale that up. I think you would also need to expand the number of resettlement countries. I think a big part of the solution has to be beginning to get middle income countries or lower upper middle-income countries involved in this.

[00:24:07] China has to be part of the solution. China doesn't even have a legal definition for asylum its law right now. It is very uninterested in it. It takes in no refugees through the resettlement system, the UN system. It says, "we're still a developing country, we're worried about the social stability of bringing people from other parts of the world." They of course treat their Muslim, Uyghur minority horrifically. And so I think there's both an unwillingness to do it on the Chinese side, and there's an unwillingness to push too hard on the Western side because they say well "they treat their minority so badly, then why would we send more there?" But to me that's just a terrible incentive structure. It's like because you are badly behaved, we're not going to ask you to do anything. And I think that as China takes on a bigger leadership role in international relations, that is something the West should push China to do, to show that it is ready for that leadership. It should be resettling refugees. So should other middle-income countries and rising powers.

[00:25:07] I think at the same time that you do that and at the same time that the rich world invests more, you ask the countries that are hosting refugees... They tend to be poorer countries but stable countries like you know, I think that the biggest host countries in the world are Kenya and Uganda and Pakistan, not in that order. And you gradually have to rescind the restrictions on movement and work and treat them as cities. There's all sorts of economic research that shows that actually that's to the benefit of the host community anyways. The economy of Dadaab is huge by the standards of that region of Kenya. And it's operating with this huge drag because none of it can be above board. It's all a black-market economy. If you were to bring it out into the open and tax it and treat it like any other economy, it would be a boon both for the local community and for the Kenyan government.

[00:26:01] I think as we know there are political reasons why that doesn't happen. But I think we need to move toward that kind of arrangement with the host countries with the understanding that the rich world and the developed world is going to take on more of that burden. So at the same time as they ask Kenya and Pakistan to allow refugees to work and to move freely and to be treated as you know something close to permanent residents, that the US and Britain and Canada and Australia are going to be resettling more of these refugees every year and taking some of that burden off of... I don't even like to use the word "burden", I think it is unnecessarily prejudicial. I think that the research doesn't really suggest that it is a burden. But it certainly is perceived as such politically. And so I think as Western countries ask host countries to do more, they should be making clear that they are doing more themselves. So that's a very long-winded answer to your question.

[00:26:56] Voters support refugees more than politicians do

[00:26:56] Isabelle Roughol: [00:26:56] It sounds great. It also sounds like something that would be really hard to get the political will and the and the and the backup from the voters right now.

[00:27:04] Ty McCormick: [00:27:04] It is and it isn't. You know I think one of the surprising things about refugee resettlement, certainly in the US, I'm not sure about the polling in the UK, but it's actually surprisingly popular. And one of the things that the Trump administration was surprised by was that they thought they were going to win political points by going around the country and saying " "you don't need resettle refugees." There was this new regulation that they passed, I think by executive order, that essentially said that communities had to affirmatively approve any refugee resettlement to their area. So it gave local communities a veto to say, "we don't want refugees to come." And they expected all of these places in Texas and Arizona to say, you know, to take advantage of that veto power and to say, "we don't want refugees." And it turned out that the vast majority of these places opted to resettle refugees.

[00:27:54] And even if you look at the top destinations of resettlement in the US, it's like three cities in Texas are the number one destinations for refugee resettlement. It's Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth. And of course Buffalo, New York. There's a combination of new rising cities in the South and the Southwest and post-industrial cities in the Rust Belt and elsewhere that have figured out that resettling refugees is a great way to revitalize your city, to reverse population trends that are unfavorable, to spur economic activity. Immigrants disproportionately start businesses in this country. And so there's, there's huge benefits to be had. And I think that even at a local level, even at the level of city councils, people realize that and their opinions reflect that. And so, no the vast majority of Americans do support resettlement. It's a cowardice that resides I think more in Washington than anywhere else.

[00:28:52] A quest for belonging

[00:28:52] Isabelle Roughol: [00:28:52] One of our protagonists, Asad, a theme throughout for him is belonging. Obviously he doesn't belong in Kenya. He tries to go to Somalia find out if he belongs there, he doesn't. And he doesn't quite belong in the US as well, right, cause he lands in Trump's America, in between travel bans... What has it been like for him? And you leave us with him in 2019. So I wonder how he's doing now. It's been maybe a couple of years and tough ones too.

[00:29:20] Ty McCormick: [00:29:20] I think you're right that this sense of seeking belonging but not finding it is an ongoing saga for Asad. And I think to our great shame, to my great shame, the America that he arrived in is not the America that he dreamed of as a kid, you know. This this is a country that he wrote himself that people in the camp spoke about the way they speak about the hereafter. There was this incredible almost reverence for the country. Which as an aside I think this is a thing Americans, many Americans don't realize: what an incredible soft power tool refugee resettlement is. I mean the good will that it engenders among people who have any contact with that system is unbelievable, and how quickly that was squandered under the Trump years. That's, that's an aside.

[00:30:07] But no, I mean he came to an America that was much changed and was much harsher and was much meaner and more inward looking and smaller than he had imagined. And I think that was very difficult for him. I think he had expected to find a place that he may be belonged. And to a lesser extent I think he has, you know. He loves New York city. And I've encouraged him certainly to take the good with the bad and to realize that we are a very diverse country and we're not really you know... There's much to find here, I think, and particularly in in in the places that are more open. And half the country was fighting tooth and nail to hold back the tide that Trump had brought. So I think he's been able to recognize that to some degree and to appreciate some of those things.

[00:30:57] But when as he says, his identity feels like it's up for a referend that's an impossible way to live. And I think one that we've forced on him and every other person that's been resettled here or has come here through other means during this period. And I think we're starting to come out of it right now. I think the beginning of the Biden administration is in some ways a return to more normal state of being for the US. But from a policy perspective a lot of those things haven't changed yet. I think Biden has been extremely slow to reverse many of the things that on the campaign trail, he was very quick to say that he was going to change. He signed some executive orders on day one that rescinded some of the meanest aspects of the Trump immigration refugee apparatus but has kept in place a lot of the emergency measures that are justified at least nominally under the guise of the coronavirus crisis.

[00:31:53] And for instance he hasn't raised the resettlement cap. He promised to do this and made his administration sort of set all of the things in motion to do that. And in fact the State Department when as far as booking flights for I think 700 or so refugees that were supposed to come as a result of the raised... there's an annual ceiling that the president can set for how many refugees can be resettled but he never signed the paper. And so the state department very embarrassingly had to cancel all these flights and, you know, each person on those flights has some overriding reason that they need to come to the US. There was one incredibly tragic story that I read about in the newspaper, about a woman in Congo who was pregnant, and this was like the last period of her pregnancy that she could travel. And now her flight is canceled and so she's now not cleared to fly even if they sign the paper. And not only that she's now going to have a kid that's added to her refugee resettlement case, which is going to take years to process a new person.

[00:32:54] And so you know these things are life changing, life altering, sometimes life ending for the refugees that are affected by them. And yet there's this Real reluctance to change things I think because Biden's getting beat up about what's happening on the Southern border by the Republicans. And he thinks, you know if I'm speaking frankly, he thinks Americans are too stupid to tell the difference between asylum at the border and refugee resettlement. And these are two totally separate policy tracks. They're two separate promises that he made. Two separate issues entirely. But I think in the popular narrative, the administration -- you know I'm speculating; I have no inside knowledge of this -- but I think that there's a sense that these issues could get conflated in the minds of voters and that he's going to be seen as soft on immigration if he follows through on the promises that he's made.

[00:33:42] So the vestiges of the Trump era are still with us. And that meanness is still with us. And I think you know for Asad it's been more painful than for instance for Marian, because Marian has seen what this country can be in other periods. And she was here for you know what I think for her anyway was a more hopeful era in the Obama era. I think she was quite excited, like many people who have a connection to Kenya, I lived in Kenya for a long time and there are a lot of Kenyans who are willing to claim Obama as one of theirs. I always say I think if he ran for president in Kenya, he could win because you know the whole birtherism thing played totally differently in Kenya. It wasn't a racist lie. It was like "this is our guy! We love

[00:34:25] Isabelle Roughol: [00:34:25] Don't tell the Republicans that.

[00:34:29] Ty McCormick: [00:34:29] So to answer your question, I think that has been a difficult part of the transition. And one that makes me sad as an American who does believe in the American project and sees refugees as a very much a part of that.

[00:34:43] Writing a story with its subjects

[00:34:43] Isabelle Roughol: [00:34:43] Hmm. I want to talk about your process briefly and how you worked with Asad especially and Marian and other people. Because you've been following them for years now but Asad is also a talented young writer in his own right. I'm sure he might want to tell his story as well at some point. So how did you work with him that he would be a part of telling his story?

[00:35:07] Ty McCormick: [00:35:07] Definitely. And I do assume that at some point he'll write a memoir, although his first love is his fiction. And I think that for him the dream has always been to write novels.

[00:35:18] I tried to be careful in writing this project and writing this book that it's not a biography of Asad. It's a portrait of a family's journey and as I said early on in the podcast, it really is a story of a brother and a sister and the incredible bond between them. And so in that sense I tried not to step on his toes. And I think that you know you will no doubt be hearing from him again in some way. But you know it was such a privilege to work with them both and with the whole family and to get to spend you know hundreds of hours with all of them, doing extended interviews. I sort of use an informal interview process where we sort of banter back and forth between formal questioning and just conversation. And it flows very easily. And I think when you're trying to get to the level of detail that I tried to achieve in the book, and I told the story through the eyes of the different characters. So the book is divided into three sections. The beginning section is, it alternates between Asad and Marian's point of view, each chapter. The middle one introduces a number of additional characters, and then the final section, which is titled reflections, is my retelling of the whole story from my perspective. So it's a sort of double chronology in the book.

[00:36:35] But to get inside the heads of the characters the way that I tried to do in the first two sections, you have to go over the same material you know dozens and dozens of times. So we covered the same little seemingly insignificant events in their lives from lots of different angles and lots of different conversations. And actually from a logistical standpoint, it becomes very difficult to categorize all of those interviews and to figure out where the intersection points are. And you're like "Oh well, where was that conversation that we had a month ago that we...?" You know and you end up listening to the same recordings a thousand times. But through that process I hope that I got sort of a realistic sense, to the extent any outsider could ever hope to, of what the thought processes were for the different characters in the book going through this incredibly, incredibly, incredibly challenging journey.

[00:37:29] A story of triumph and tragedy

[00:37:29] Isabelle Roughol: [00:37:29] I wonder how you look at this story... Asad and Marian are incredible people of grit and resilience and just have been through so much and have come out on top given the circumstances. And that's incredible and at the same time I wonder if you know... Why should it take being that exceptional to make your way out of a situation like this. And you have several other characters throughout the book who kind of show all the other possibilities, right? I mean you have a young man, another talented young man who dies by suicide. You have people taking an incredibly dangerous journey across the Mediterranean or joining extremist organizations. So is it, in the end is it a story of achievement or is it a story of luck?

[00:38:19] Ty McCormick: [00:38:19] It's a story of both. I don't want to take away from what Asad and Marian have achieved. You're right, it was a real challenge to write a story that is both a tragedy and a triumph at the same time. And I was, it was something that I was afraid of in writing this that an unfair and twisted reading of it could be that "if all immigrants could just work as hard as Asad, then they would be fine." And that's obviously not what I was trying to achieve with the book and I tried to be very deliberate about how I told this story so that it that reading was at least a leap from there. The reality is that for the vast, vast majority of people in these circumstances, even with the talent that someone like Asad has, you have to have luck break your way over and over and over and over again in order to get where he is.

[00:39:14] I mean he's the only person ever born in Dadaab to go to Princeton University. There have been a lot of people born in Dadaab and a lot of people with extraordinary talent. you know another thing that I think gets missed here is just how educated the population in Dadaab is by regional standards. They have all sorts of impediments to getting a good education but even with those, they're being educated in English and Swahili at a level that allows those who are at the top of their classes to go to Canadian universities in small numbers every year and be just fine. And become astrophysicists and become biologists and become doctors and nurses. So the ability is there, it's just the opportunity...

[00:40:00] So I hope in telling the story what I did more than illustrate the triumph, was to illustrate the barriers to success that so many other people face. And I hope that it's possible to see that picture in all of its complexity.

[00:40:14] Isabelle Roughol: [00:40:18] Thank you so much to Ty McCormick for chatting with me. The book is "Beyond the Sand and Sea: One Family's Quest for a Country to Call Home." It's just come out with MacMillan in the US and will be published May 3rd in the UK. Asad Hussein is a wonderful young writer himself. He's been published in the New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy or the New York Review of Books. I'll make sure to link a few of his pieces in the show notes. I've reached out to the International Office of Migration for a response to Ty's allegations. I did not hear back.

[00:40:47] Remember to sign up for the newsletter at join.borderlinepod.com. And if you're enjoying the podcast, please take a second and share it with someone you think would like it. Go ahead. Copy the link, drop it in the text. It really makes a big difference.

[00:41:00] I'm your host, Isabelle Roughol. Music is by Ofshane. Borderline is a One Lane Bridge production. I'll talk to you next week.

PodcastImmigrationPolitics

Isabelle Roughol

Journalist. Founder & host of Borderline. Former international editor of LinkedIn, foreign editor at Le Figaro, reporter at The Cambodia Daily. Global soul, messy accent.


Donate

Borderline is funded by readers and listeners. Membership is the best way to do so, but donating is nice too. $15 hosts the podcast for a month. $40 pays for the site and membership platform. $5 keeps me caffeinated. All is appreciated.

GB £ US $ EU €