On She Goes

Stories of Somalia

We’ll always be connected to our homeland through my parents’ memories.

Yasmin Yonis
Yasmin Yonis
November 1, 2017
Story hero image

Eighteen years after my family and I left for the US, I went back “home” at age 21. I  was on Somali land for the first time since my family left for our small Southern town, but it felt as familiar as if I had grown up there because my siblings and I were raised with our parents’ stories of their homeland. Despite growing up thousands of miles away in a country with a completely different language and culture, I felt at home when I set foot in Somalia. I was where I belonged.

My dad has loved my mom since they were young. I know this because my parents’ stories have kept me connected to our Somali homeland an ocean and continent away. My mother tells me how he used to sing her name as he walked through the streets of their northern Somali city of Hargeisa. And she, taken by him, eventually loved him back. When he moved away to Mogadishu for university, the Somali capital nestled by the ocean, my father wrote my mother a love letter every day—sometimes two when he missed her badly—until the day they were reunited.

My parents’ stories have kept me connected to our Somali homeland an ocean and continent away.

Though my parents were raised in Hargeisa, they were both born in Mogadishu. At that time, Mogadishu was a cosmopolitan city, the capital of a country considered a new hope for other African countries who had just thrown off the yoke of colonization. Now known for the violence that has plagued it for over 25 years, Mogadishu was a different world before the war broke out in 1991. Seeing photos and videos of its colorful Italian buildings (a throwback from Italian occupation), popular funk music scene, beautiful fashions and Afros, and the aspirations of Somali women coming out of the feminist movement of the ’70s and ’80s makes me homesick for a time I do not remember.

My mother kept all the love letters my father sent her wrapped beautifully in a silk ribbon. She wanted to keep it for her children to read one day, she tells me. We never had a chance. Soon violence erupted and she had to leave both her land and his letters behind. While my parents frequently tell us of stories of their lives before they became refugees, they do not talk about the war. I have only been able pull whispers of their story from them. I was two years old when our neighbors begged my mother to take us and flee on the boats with them, she tells me. She refused. My father, who was gone searching for a way for us to leave, had made her promise not to leave until he came back for us.

Family photo in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
photo by Yasmin Yonis

The water swallowed my neighbor’s family whole, my mother tells me, her face pained by the memory. Their watery grave could have been ours too. When my father came back for us, we squeezed in the back of a truck, my grandma’s knees sore from my weight pressed against them for days, and we fled to a refugee camp in a dusty Kenyan town. This is not the kind of trip anyone ever wants to make. My first memory is not of Mogadishu where I was born but instead the small house outside the refugee camp my father rented for us. I do not remember a time when we were not refugees, and my memories are filled in with what my parents have told me of that traumatic time. These are all the stories I know. I am shy to ask them for any more.

In the fall of 1992, after spending months in Kenya, we were resettled in Clarkston, Georgia, by a refugee organization. The last heat of the Southern summer sun was intense enough to remind us of home. Clarkston is a small Georgia town in between the Black Mecca that is Atlanta and the shadow of Stone Mountain, the mountaintop where Martin Luther King, Jr. hoped freedom would ring. To this day, the KKK still meets there. With its railroad tracks cutting through the middle of town, cheap housing, accessible transport options, and jobs provided by a nearby chicken factory, it’s an ideal place for the thousands of refugees searching for a new home.

My parents, with six children in tow, missed the only home they had ever known. My grandma kept a suitcase packed for over 20 years, never accepting this strange land as her home. My parents were sustained by their belief in God, their love for us, and especially their love for each other, and their storytelling that reminded us of where we came from.

My parents were proud when I told them I wanted to go back home and meet our extended family.

Because of their stories, I can close my eyes and see my mother as a child learning the nomadic ways of her family, who moved frequently all over the Somali region, depending on the land and their camels for their livelihood. A tomboy who loved climbing trees, she told us tales of her doing the manual labor reserved for men with her father, tough as any boy. I can see my dad, barely six years old, walking alone with confidence into the elementary school’s principal’s office to sign himself up for school in Hargeisa. It didn’t matter that no one in his family had formal schooling and his father didn’t know what he was up to that morning. He was adamant that he was going to make something of himself, leaving his family for boarding school outside of town and eventually moving south to Mogadishu where he was always at the top of his class. He studied by candlelight through the night, he would tell us, working hard to do well in his classes. It paid off. He started a successful company, providing a good life for his family. He told us these stories during our frequent family meetings to remind us of his hopes that we also would excel at school.

My parents were proud when I told them I wanted to go back home and meet our extended family. I was greeted at the airport by so many family and friends I didn’t know who was who. It was late December, and while snow blanketed much of the US, it was a balmy 70 degrees there. It was the dry season; the roads were dusty, and the only vegetation in town was the thorny plants that caught on my long dresses. It was a stark contrast to the pictures I had seen of the spring and summer months when the land was a lush green, the mountains overlooking the town a sight to see.

Their eyes were bright and their smiles wide as they fawned over me, commenting that I looked so much like my mother.

I had too m any cousins and second cousins and aunts and uncles to count. My aunts greeted me as if they had waited their whole lives to see me. I was their sister’s daughter, a sister they had not seen for almost 30 years. Their eyes were bright and their smiles wide as they fawned over me, commenting that I looked so much like my mother. I was their long-lost daughter, and each family house hosted me during the six weeks I was there.

At each home, aunts and female cousins carried large pots of food, hurrying in and out of the kitchen, a separate building a few steps away from the main house. The smoke from the coal stoves welcomed me when I entered the gate, and it smelled like my mother’s kitchen. They laid out more food than any person could eat: spiced rice, tender goat that fell easily off the bone, pasta, beef, sabaayad—a flaky flatbread used to eat meat—and Fanta in tall glass bottles, which reminded me of my parents’ vintage photos of the ’80s, where I had seen the bottles scattered at every party.

They took me around town and I soaked in everything: women selling fruit, the stores whose names were printed in both Somali and English, the conversations in rapid Somali. The market was loud, swarmed with people even at night. When the blaring lights of the small taxis appeared, I had only seconds to jump out of their way. I was a suburban girl, unaccustomed to sharing the street with goats and taxis, but I was also Somali—finally somewhere I wasn’t a stranger.

As the parents of 10 children, my parents worked as a team to raise us. They split responsibilities—my dad worked outside the home, made the money, and focused on our education. My mom worked inside the home, managed the money, and passed down her Muslim faith to us. But what they were really passionate about together were our family meetings, where they told us stories. I didn’t appreciate it then, but now I see how it connected us as a family. We would have these family meetings like clockwork the night before the first day of school and another before the spring semester. Now that almost all of us are adults—we range in age from my 38-year-old sister to my 15-year-old brother—our family meetings are rare occurrences. Until recently.

Yasmin with her father at her Graduation in Athens, Georgia.
photo by Yasmin Yonis

My dad decided to give us his opinion about the lives of all 10 of his kids, as if he were writing an evaluation report. By text. In a group chat. It took him four days to finish his analysis of all his children. My 38-year-old sister was encouraged to go back to school and find a husband. My 26-year-old sister, now living in Germany with her husband, was praised for giving my parents a grandchild with twins on the way. He praised me for my academic and professional achievements but hilariously said I was “creating dissent” among his younger daughters by making them feminists. I was labeled “unique and controversial” for my politics and desire to live a much different life than most of my family members.

After each of the “reports” came out, my siblings and I laughed in a separate group text, sending each other GIFs with our reactions to his comments about us. We knew his words were said with the hope that each of us would fulfill our potential, especially in light of the extraordinary sacrifices made by my parents. He reminded us of the story of his life, a story we had heard many times before. But each time we learned something new about the man he was before he was our father and the land he still called home. This was our dad using technology to adjust to his children growing up, some of us living in other states or countries. Since we all couldn’t come home, he brought his teachings of what home meant to him. Because of our parents’ stories, when my siblings and I say “home,” we mean a homeland that others would consider a world away but that we are forever connected to through our parents’ memories.