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I used to be a number in a refugee camp. In America I became a person

In 1993, I was living with six siblings and Mama in Utanga refugee camp outside Mombasa in Kenya. Before coming to the camp, I had witnessed all kinds of human cruelty and ugliness in Somalia’s civil war: the wail of a young girl being raped, the killing of an old man, dead bodies decaying in the alleyways in the city of Kismayo, a mother with her four skeleton-like starving and dying children.

One overcast morning in June, two of my half-brothers woke up with malaria fevers – the first week, one died; the second week, the other. I had prayed for them, but God had not accepted my prayers. I blamed destiny for their death. It was the morning following my second brother’s death when I awoke with my own fever. Mama took me to the hospital, where I rested for three days next to an unclaimed dead body that lay decaying on the floor in a green plastic bag.

In Utanga, this dead man was nothing but a number – one among 30,000 other refugees who lived in the camp.

That week we were going to America – thanks in part to International Rescue Committee, the agency that had facilitated our sponsorship. What would I do there, I wondered? Years prior, before dying of liver cancer, Dad had told me to become a doctor. In his absence, I would fulfill his wish. I would be a doctor in America.

Before leaving the camp for the last time, we all walked to the edge of the river and washed up. Then put on our best shirts and pants. I wore tight blue Levi jeans, a Hawaiian shirt and knock-off Ray-Ban aviators, just like the ones Sylvester Stallone wore in the movie Cobra. Malaria had left me feeling weak and withered, but I wanted to appear strong for America.

As the bus departed to the Mombasa airport, America was on our lips. It dominated my thoughts and planted a sweet, almost ticklish sensation beneath my skin. I was skinny, skeletal, but so what? God had spared me from the mosquito-borne disease, and I was now sitting by the window on the plane.

I had not been on a plane before. I was afraid, but not as afraid as I was of my life in Kenya. As we took off, that life shrunk rapidly into the past.

At Boston’s Logan airport, each one of us walked off the plane carrying a bag with the logo of International Rescue Committee. We were going to stay with Saynab, my oldest sister, who lived in Bedford and had sponsored us.

While we waited, I walked around breathing in the exotic smells, touching the walls and staring at everything: the ATM stand, the Panini Express, Dunkin’ Donuts, the escalators moving up and down, the newspaper kiosk and the endless stream of women, men, boys and girls – mostly white – walking along, some pushing carts loaded with their bags. I had not seen so many diverse people together in one place before.

A white woman with gray hair tried to talk to me, but I couldn’t speak English. I gave a prolonged grin and she smiled too. Months passed.

While I was a freshman, Bedford high school hired and ESL teacher named Estee, just for me. I saw my first snow. I ate that triangle-shaped pizza, and I began to rock my head back and forth to songs like Sabotage by the Beastie Boys. I learned to walk from my house to the Bedford library, where I discovered classic books such as The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Was I becoming an American?

After school, I would walk to the library, where I listened to audiobooks and read newspapers and books. During the week I ate lunch at school, but on weekends I carried two slices of bread with peanut butter and jelly wrapped in wax paper and ate it in between the shelves while memorizing vocabulary words. I needed to learn the language to make a friend or two. Putting all my efforts into academics, I earned good grades and my name appeared in Bedford’s Minuteman newspaper.

In Bedford, along with pizza, I had protection from the police, clean air, books and a Mother Teresa-like Irish woman named Mrs Melvin who paid for my tutoring, bought me shoes and took me to Friendly’s restaurant right across from the Ramada Inn, where I had spaghetti and meatballs for the first time and ice cream in a cone. She even monitored my use of the language. I remember once using the word “sexy” to describe something beautiful, and then watching her face furrow.

“Who is teaching you the language?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Do not use the word ‘sexy’ again,” she said politely. “Use the word ‘beautiful’ or ‘gorgeous’ instead.”

“OK,” I said, smiling.

I did not tell her that I had learned the word sexy from Gilbert Gottfried’s Up All Night on the USA Network.

Over the last 25 years, I have finished high school, made the English language mine, and finished undergraduate as well as graduate school. I never did pursue a career in the medical field – I hated science and math.

I am now an academic counselor and an adjunct faculty at Bunker Hill Community College, and I have lectured at a few colleges. I am back to Grub Street Creative Writing School in Boston, where I enrolled in a yearlong Memoir Incubator Class so I can tell the stories I have been carrying.

One day, when I meet my dad again, I will tell him about the America I know. It rescued us from a place where I was what? – a stick in the mud, a rock on the side of the road, a red ant crawling beneath the feet of Kenyan men with protruding muscles who struck the refugee women, men, boys and girls with belts and sticks. A place where I was nothing but a number.

Published by THE GUARDIAN