As water for tea boils on the stove, Mona Ali’s phone erupts in a muezzin’s call to prayer on an unusually warm Sunday in February. She quickly shuts it off, saying with a wink, “I’ll pray in a little bit.”
The 32-year-old is prone to big, open-mouthed laughter, with eyes that smile and a voice tinged with sweetness. She wears chestnut highlights in her black hair, which she does not cover though she’s a practicing Muslim.
“Passing” as American as possible has always been important to Mona, who prefers the English variant of Muna, the name her mother gave her. The result is a charming ethnic ambiguity, which she believes can camouflage her within her tribeless Edina neighborhood. Mexicans speak Spanish to her. Arabs speak Arabic to her. Most others assume she is African American.
She has a 9-year-old son with an African American man, which is something of a taboo in Cedar-Riverside, Minneapolis’ Somali enclave. She admits she does not have many friends in that community.
Taking a drag from a cigarette — a rare indulgence — on her balcony above the Canadian Pacific railway tracks, she looks down over the rooftops of a woodsy subdivision full of mansions interwoven with winding creeks and fairytale bridges. She is proud to say that in order to send her son, Toddy, to nearby Highlands Elementary to study alongside the children of doctors and lawyers, she’s made sacrifices to afford the cheapest condo in the best school district her money could buy.
But today, Mona’s mind is miles away. Because for all she has done to blend in, she also has a secret.
“Who’s gonna care about ‘scum’? Who’s even going to listen to what scum has to say?” she muses pragmatically, pondering the legal quagmire that stands between her and the real American dream.
At 13, she slipped across the United States-Canada border in the sleeper cabin of a semitruck with her mother and seven siblings. It was the conclusion of an audacious flight that took her family from war-shattered Somalia to the Middle East, through Western Europe into Scandinavia, Canada, and finally Minnesota.
Mona has kept the full story from most everyone in her life. Co-workers, friends, fellow Highlands parents, and even her husband know only scraps of the odyssey.
But now, at a time when immigrants at every step of the long path to citizenship are wracked with anxiety — quietly awaiting the consequences of the Mexican wall, the ban on Muslims, the White House’s indifference to the plight of refugees — Mona’s instinct is to out herself.
It’s because her current status — even less than that of a refugee — has sentenced her to life within a box of limitations.
She cannot hold certain jobs, cannot complete school, cannot leave the country, nor work toward citizenship — the only thing that could ensure her stay in the one country for which she holds allegiance.
“The reason I want to come out with it now is because I’m tired,” Mona says. “I’m tired of not being able to do what I want to do, not just what I need to do to survive. I follow the rules. I pay taxes. I don’t know what it’s like to be in the back of a cop car. I’m getting gray hairs now. It’s about time I live the way I want to live.”
II. The war
As late as 1980, Somalia had peace. More than that, its place as the easternmost arrowhead of the Horn of Africa conferred a legendary beauty. Capital city Mogadishu was known as the “White Pearl” of the Indian Ocean, which along with the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden hugged Somalia’s long coastline of endless beaches.
There was something resembling a secular society then, as military dictator Siad Barre forced communism upon the country. He attempted to erase the nation’s fractured clans — patrilineal groupings that had bickered for authority throughout the centuries — and gather their powers for himself.
He picked a standard Somali alphabet, nationalized industries, and upset traditional gender roles by giving women the right to inherit property and divorce. Polygamy was banned, head covering discouraged. Barre viewed veiling as a distasteful Saudi style that Somali women need not emulate.
But Barre would prove to be a man of ambivalent ambitions. Though he publicly condemned clanism, he filled his government and army with members of his own tribe. Property seized by the state was redistributed among the same allies. His critics — including religious leaders who believed he undermined Islamic traditions — were tortured and imprisoned.
Insurrectionists with democratic aspirations began to brew discontent. In the north, clans sidelined during Barre’s reign talked of seceding from his government and forming militias.
Barre cracked down, sending the army to quash resistance by any means necessary. Northern towns were bombed, survivors shot as they tried to flee to Ethiopia. Over a 10-month period, some 10,000 people were killed as government forces arbitrarily arrested and executed anyone suspected of being a dissident, or for simply belonging to any clan at odds with Barre’s.
Rebel militias assembled and fought back. The war had begun.
It would take months to trickle the length of the country to Mogadishu, where Mona’s family lived. At 5 years old, she was too young to remember anything more than a disquieting urgency. She felt it in the talk of elders, the tensing of police, the way people seemed to rush everywhere they went.
Mona’s mother, Sahra Ibrahim, remembers waking in the dead of night to the sound of gunshots, a sign that war was not far.
Sahra and her husband, Hasan Diiriye, sold their properties and made for Gedo, a region further south where Hasan’s parents lived. The move would save their lives.
On January 26, 1991, rebel militias invaded Mogadishu, murdering people who belonged to Sahra and Hasan’s clans. They stormed Barre’s palace and forced the dictator to flee to Nigeria.
Four days later, militiamen broke into the home of Sahra’s sister. They raped her before killing her and her son.
“It is difficult for me to piece together this history, because I suffer from depression, and my mind becomes confused about things that happened when I was living in Somalia after the war broke out,” Sahra would later say in an affidavit for U.S. immigration officials.
Before long, the militia gained on their new home in Gedo. Sahra, Hasan, and their children returned to the road, convinced that no part of Somalia was safe. Hasan’s brother did not go with them. His wife was ill, hugely pregnant, and almost due. Their parents stayed with them.
“Eventually, my husband’s mother joined us, but the rest of the family did not,” Sahra recalls. “We learned that the [militia] came looking for the Darod clan and killed my husband’s father, brother, and sister-in-law. We learned that the [militia] had cut off my sister-in-law’s finger while trying to remove her ring. Only his mother survived… she was blind in one eye as a result of being beaten….They had left her for dead.”
III. Where the wind blows
By 1992, Somalia was awash with violence. Bandit checkpoints partitioned what was left of the roads, where naming the wrong clan affiliation could get a traveler robbed, maimed, or killed. Journalists, aid workers, and United Nations peacekeepers were kidnapped and ransomed for arms.
Mona’s family was on its way to an ill-defined “West,” which symbolized stability, prosperity, and humanitarianism. They had a vague idea of aiming for Britain, she believes, or even the United States, whose Hollywood diplomacy of a muscle-bound Schwarzenegger and cowboy Eastwood had charmed Somalis prior to the war.
Her family embarked on a fitful journey, with no final destination. Their travels, as seen through the eyes of a young girl, left only vague impressions of a strange new world.
They carved through Somalia’s neighbors Ethiopia and Djibouti and spent some time in Saudi Arabia, where Mona’s mother had to wear a veil and be escorted through the streets by her husband. From there they went to Italy, where Mona recalls that East African prostitutes, women and girls, could be found most everywhere, plying their trade in plain sight.
Then came France, teeming with African migrants of former colonies, all lumped together in second-class-citizen standing. They hiked across its mountainous border to Switzerland, moving onward to the Netherlands, where they settled in a farm community.
What Mona remembers best was the illusory romance of living in a country with a king and queen, of towns devoted to growing the world’s flowers, of Christmas parades where St. Nicholas was accompanied by Zwarte Piet, a white actor in blackface with cherry red lips, who heaped pumpernickel on the children.
“They were clearly searching for a place that they could call home,” Mona says of her parents. “But something came up, it didn’t fit their needs, or it wasn’t what they thought it would be, and they left.”
Finally, at the end of 1996, Mona’s mother Sahra boarded a plane with the children bound for Canada. Father Hasan headed to the United States, where he found work in meatpacking plants. He would send money while Sahra put the children in Canadian schools.
Sahra applied for asylum in Canada, but fear of being turned away would sabotage her chances.
On bad advice from other Somalis, she told immigration officials that she belonged to a different clan than her own, and claimed to have hailed from a town other than Mogadishu. Canada rejected her application. The clan she named resided in Somalia’s relatively stable northwest arm, they told her, and could not have endured the horrors she described.
“My mom, I swear it was complete and total lack of guidance. She’s completely misguided, mostly, probably, by her own self,” Mona laughs. “But also she didn’t have many friends who were supporting her, and she just did what she believed was right. When she did go into the community and ask for help, they told her the wrong things to say, the wrong way to go about it.”
Sahra knows now that if she had only told the truth, she would have been granted asylum. But once Canada denied her application, she believed there was nothing left to do but find a way into America and try again. Hasan had been successful there. She wanted to return to his side.
So she paid a trucker $2,000 to take eight bodies across the border of Michigan with only light bags and Nutella sandwiches for the children. Sahra was terrified, she says. Among her children was a 1-year-old baby, whose cries could have alerted the border patrol at any minute.
“God protected us because he knew we weren’t up to anything sinister,” she says. “We just wanted to be safe and have recognition. We wanted to just live in a place that was nice, that was safe. We weren’t trying to do anything wrong on our way to happiness. But there is no happiness now.”
IV. No fate at all
They would apply for asylum in California, where, according to Mona, “They were giving asylum out like hotcakes!”
This time, Sahra did not lie about her clan affiliation or her birthplace of Mogadishu. But she wasn’t entirely truthful, either. She omitted the fact that she’d been rejected for refugee status in Canada.
It seemed like a harmless redaction. While crossing Europe’s borders, the family embellished, dramatized, and outright invented parts of their story, Mona admits. They couldn’t risk the chance of being turned away for not experiencing enough trauma to earn a nation’s sympathy.
They claimed their home was looted, Sahra raped, her mechanic father murdered in his shop when in reality he had died several years before the war even started. And they rationalized it all, knowing that these things indeed happened to their countrymen, and could happen to them still if they were shipped back.
In 2000, California granted their asylum. Sahra moved the children to Minneapolis, where they reunited with Hasan.
Mona began high school at Southwest, where classmates marveled at how well she spoke English. With time, she adopted the expectations of American teenagers, fading innocuously into the blended fabric of American society, where the past didn’t matter.
After graduation, Mona went to the University of Minnesota, by the grace of federal aid, majoring in economics.
But in the second semester of her sophomore year, Mona received a letter. Her financial aid had been discontinued, effective immediately.
She begged the university to explain why her college lifeline had been cut. Officials referred her to the U.S. Department of Education, which would only confirm the letter was real.
“Nobody explained to me why until [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] summoned us to go to court,” Mona recalls. “We went alone, the first time, just me and my mom. And the judge said, ‘We’re going to continue this case, but you need to go get a lawyer.’ That was a solid because he could have went on and been an asshole and deported us on the spot.”
In 2004, Homeland Security began collecting fingerprints of non-U.S. citizens applying for visas to uncover terrorists and international fugitives seeking shelter in America. That data was shared with Canada.
That’s when U.S. officials learned that Sahra had been rejected in Canada.
Under an agreement between the two nations, refugees were to declare asylum only in the first country they set foot in. The family’s American asylum status was voided. Sahra was slapped with a fraud charge for lying on their application.
The family fought to stay. Their attorney, Linda Close, argued that 2005 Somalia was no better off than the version they fled, where indiscriminate murder remained the coin of the realm.
Police shot unarmed noncombatants. Journalists and aid workers were slain. Rape was used as a weapon of war.
Three years later, Immigration conceded, granting the family a rare status called “withholding of removal.” They would not be deported as long as the U.S. considers Somalia a country in turmoil where they would likely face torture and persecution.
But the government’s clemency came with conditions. To Mona, they looked like criminal probation. She was barred from ever obtaining permanent residency. She could be deported at any time. And she was no longer eligible for federal aid, meaning that she could not finish college. None of her younger siblings could afford to enroll.
Twenty-three-year-old Khadra Ali recalls with distinct disappointment the year Mona dropped out. She was just entering high school when another sister told her to quit trying since she had no shot at college anyway.
“Nobody had a chance after Mona,” Khadra says. “That’s why I don’t think anybody actually tried to get good grades. I honestly wanted to go to college, and I could have if I paid out of pocket, but I can’t afford that.”
Mona tried to maintain a job as a mortgage broker at Wells Fargo. It required that she reapply for her work permit annually, at least three months before it expired, so that the backlogged Immigration office could process it in time. Yet there were years when the government could not respond quickly enough. She would lose her job, be forced to sit idle until her new permit arrived, and then find new employ.
For the past four years, she’s been working as a personal care assistant, paid $11 an hour through Medicare to take care of young boys with autism. It’s hard work with few returns, aside from the indispensable value of the work itself.
Her brother Ahmed couldn’t handle the hopelessness. Sahra describes him as a shy but bright young man with ambitions for a future in engineering. When those dreams evaporated, he threw himself from the Washington Avenue Bridge.
V. Shots in the dark
St. Paul attorney Jerzy Guzior, who represents Mona, has a number of clients sharing Mona’s legal status, but none so willing to talk about it.
That status, withholding of removal, usually involves people who’ve committed crimes in America, but cannot be deported because their home countries are in such disarray there’s a good chance they wouldn’t survive. As a result, public sympathy runs thin for these people, even though many others are lumped in the same category for simply for missing the one-year deadline to declare asylum.
Mona “was underage at the time, an absolute minor, who didn’t have any influence over what was happening to her,” Guzior says. “They put her in a box, and the box is not really comfortable.... She’s a very smart, bright young lady. She’s very ambitious. She wants to go left, right, but she cannot.”
An obvious solution might have been to petition for citizenship through her husband.
When she initially married, Mona says she resisted giving her husband the impression that she was only after papers. He never knew the full contortions of her immigration case.
They’re now separated, and it hardly seems appropriate to ask for help.
D.C. attorney Jason Dzubow agrees it would never work. Spouses petitioning for citizenship have to show they have a valid marriage. If they’re legally married but no longer together, Immigration won’t be moved.
“If they were married and they had two children with birth certificates and a house and $100,000 in a shared bank account, they would have a five-minute interview,” Dzubow says. “But if they didn’t have any kids or money or property, they would typically get separated, asked questions like, ‘Who pays the bills in your house?’ ‘How many bathrooms are in your house?’ ‘When’s the last time you guys went out to dinner?’”
Even if Mona remarried, petitioning through a new husband would be potentially disastrous. The rules say she’d have to voluntarily leave the country, get special permission to re-enter, and then reopen her court case.
“Most lawyers wouldn’t be bothered with it because her chances of success are too unpredictable,” says Dzubow.
VI. Mogadishu, Minnesota
Meyran Omar, an actress and filmmaker who creates documentaries about the Somali diaspora, is Mona’s closest confidante and one of few friends who knows any part of her winding past. She has a soft spot for the unrepentant oddball who lives her life as something of a subverted expectation on legs, even though doing as she pleases comes with consequences.
“She has a hard time in her life, to be honest with you,” Omar says. “Many times I sit with her, invite her to dinner, talk with her because she doesn’t hang around Somali people because of the way she’s treated, you know what I mean? They expect that she dress like a typical Somali girl.”
It amuses her to watch Mona don a headscarf for their excursions at Karmel Square, a Somali mall in Whittier, only to throw it off as they leave.
But it was this irreverence for convention that landed her an audition for Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan’s HBO show, Mogadishu, Minnesota, where Omar met Mona.
The show, a drama about the Somali-American experience that touches on the threat of radicalization, would be produced by war aficionado Kathryn Bigelow, director of The Hurt Locker. Her involvement, along with the recent convictions of nine young men from Cedar-Riverside for planning to join the Islamic State group, led Somalis to conclude the show would exploit their pain.
K’naan, who filmed the pilot in various Minneapolis locations, defended the show, arguing that it would capture the complexities of being Somali in America.
Mona auditioned, acting out a short balcony scene for the nonverbal role of Big Man’s Girl, a potentially recurring character. She is seen lounging on a balcony, smoking shisha tobacco out of a hookah beside a gangster who looks after his grandmother.
“Her scene, no other Somali woman would have dared,” says Omar, who also auditioned. “Give her a million dollars, she would not do it. Nowadays, they say only bad girls use shisha, like street girls, not good girls…. But Mona, she didn’t care.”
Auditioning inspired Mona to explore acting in hopes of earning money in creative ways that wouldn’t be tethered to her annual authorization card.
“I’ve had to act my whole life. I had to act normal, relatively normal, American normal, pretending not even to be Muslim at times,” she says. “I like to think of myself as I can be whoever you want me to be, I can be that person…. Inside it would be burning up, but you wouldn’t be able to tell.”
But as protests erupted over Mogadishu, Minnesota, Riverside Plaza turned down requests to film in the iconic towers where many Somalis live, and HBO has yet to greenlight the project. Facing increasing hostility in Minneapolis, K’naan considered moving the enterprise to Toronto.
If that happens, there’s no way Mona could take part. She would be barred from re-entering the United States.
VII. Forging ahead
On St. Patrick’s eve, BMWs and Mercedes-Benz SUVs clog the streets surrounding Highlands Elementary in Edina for its annual Carnival, the school’s biggest fundraiser of the year.
Highlands is transformed into a child’s wonderland. Bounce houses fill the gymnasium. Cafeteria tables bear buffets of ring pops, gummy vampire fangs, and bubblegum tape. Waist-high students gallop through the halls, zipping in and out of classrooms that house karaoke stages and board game competitions.
The school set a goal of raising about $20,000 on this night. Mona does her part, spending 40 bucks on tickets for a Hot Wheels gift basket raffle and a pocketful of candy for her son Toddy. Mona rationalized that since they didn’t celebrate Halloween — a holiday rooted in paganism, which Muslims often sit out — he could have this night to indulge his sugar cravings.
It was $40 she couldn’t afford.
Discouraged by her job, Mona quit home care in November to focus on Toddy, whose digestive problems and difficulties focusing undercut his ability to keep pace with his peers.
In class, the 9-year-old was prone to frustration when he didn’t understand something, and migraines when faced with bright lights, loud sounds, and difficult textures. Testing ruled out autism.
Mona wanted a new career, one with room for growth that would allow her to give more attention to her own child.
But by March, she was broke and restless. When a friend of a friend recommended her for an intake position at a counseling center, she pounced at the chance to interview.
Shortly before Barack Obama left office, Immigration extended work permits for asylees to two years instead of one due to complaints about the sluggish renewal process.
The changes did not extend to those on withholding of removal, though, so holding down this job would be no easier for Mona.
As Toddy runs ahead through the halls of Highlands, slipping between the lumbering bodies of adults, she trains an eye on his lime-green hat.
His friends and teachers have no clue about his family’s desperate migration, the confounding labor of crossing all those borders, the years spent hiding and worrying, and how close they still are to being plucked from their lives and shipped back to a broken Somalia.
“I love this country, bittersweetly,” Mona says. “My demons are that just because my mom lied, why do I and my siblings have to suffer? I have suffered. I don’t want to suffer any longer.”