No Place Like Home

Thousands of Somalis fled when their country committed suicide a decade ago. Now the local INS office has found a way to send them back.

Abdul Juma Hassan crossed the border on March 28, 1996. He brought with him only what he could carry--a spare change of clothes in an old suitcase, and no more than $300 stuffed into his pocket. Like most of the people on the twilight run between Mexico and Laredo, Texas, he entered U.S. territory illegally; he'd used a counterfeit passport with the name "John Camel," purchased on the black market in Kenya, to fly into Mexico City, but he had no other identification. And, like most of those who risk the passage, he had a vague inkling of what life would be like on the other side. He was certain only that it would be better than what he was leaving behind.

Eight thousand miles away in Mogadishu, where Hassan had lived the first 24 years of his life, clan warfare had turned the streets into a lawless urban inferno. "I was tortured, humiliated, and almost killed by Hawiye militia mobs," he wrote in his July 1996 application for political asylum. "If I go back to my homeland, Somalia, I will be executed as they did to my mom and my two brothers. The killers who killed my mom and two brothers are out there, and they will kill me."

Like many families in Somalia, Hassan's was caught in the crossfire of the 1991 coup that precipitated the country's descent into anarchy. His mother was a member of the Daarood, who were slaughtered en masse by the rival Hawiye clan during the ensuing social collapse. Hassan, interrogated and beaten by Hawiye thugs and fearing that he, too, would be murdered because of his matrilineal clan affiliation, fled Mogadishu in early 1991 for Ethiopia, and then Nairobi, Kenya, where his father had settled after the coup. "Even though I love my country," he later wrote, "it is clear that Somalia is not save [sic] place for anyone to return to. Mogadishu, Somalia, is the only place that I know, born, went to school, lived, grown up, and none of [my] family lives there now."

Staying illegally in Kenya, and with no home to return to, Hassan borrowed $400 for false travel documents and $1,200 for a plane ticket. Though he had no family in America, he imagined that if he could make it to U.S. soil he would at least be safe. He was prepared to take the risk. He was 26 years old.

In Texas Hassan volunteered his story to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service--what he'd witnessed, why he'd run, and how he came into this country. He was frightened then, but also determined not to show it. In fragmented English, he recounted his escape from Somalia as it had happened, without dramatic embellishment or appeals to sympathy. He had no reason to think that he would not be believed; he still had the scars of the Hawiye beating on his body, after all. Nor did he consider that his composure would later be used to discredit him.

At first, life in the United States was much as Hassan had dreamed it. For four years he bounced between Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia, staying with friends until he could secure a work permit. He slept on couches, studied English and computer science from old textbooks, and finally landed a good job as a computer technician in Minneapolis. After he'd settled in, he found himself an affordable one-bedroom apartment and bought a car. He was rightfully proud of the existence he'd carved out for himself. "I feel that I'm [a] very productive, model taxpayer who never run any trouble with the law and have no bad attention toward any one," he wrote in a letter to the INS three years after arriving in the country.

Then things fell apart. On April 4 of this year, Hassan was checking in, as he did each month, at the INS office in Bloomington. Without any warning, the INS caseworker Hassan was reporting to accosted him, put him on the phone with his boss and ordered him to quit his job. He was taken into custody and told that within a matter of days he would be on a plane to a remote province of Somalia in which he'd never set foot, and which is controlled by a rival clan.

His crime? Hassan, like all Somalis fleeing the collapse of their state, had been unable to obtain a passport. Because he didn't have proper documentation, he had been forced to enter the United States illegally. His punishment? The INS had determined that Hassan had to go, despite the fact that his homeland has no government to protect him. Today he is in prison, awaiting deportation to a country that no longer exists.

 

INS case No. 74682301 arrives in the interview room of the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Rush City wearing white sneakers and a pale blue, prison-issue short-sleeved shirt. The space into which he's escorted is antiseptically bare and minimally furnished in gray institutional tones. It's like the waiting area at an airport--except that no one departs from here, and no one arrives, either, without first cutting through a good deal of red tape. Outside the reinforced Plexiglas window, a marshy landscape quivers under a cloudless azure sky. Abdul Hassan has not walked freely beneath it in four months. Between him and liberty, there is a quarter-mile maze of corridor blocked by a series of four automated steel doors, a platoon of guards built like sides of beef, and the full force of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service.

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