I met Awa in the Mall of America, among crowds of jostling people. I was with my siblings, trying to eliminate boredom from one of the endless days of the endless months of midwinter. She was caring for an autistic boy who loved to come to the Mall. She had never seen conservative Mennonites before. We were not acquainted with any Somalis.
Our first conversation began like this:
Awa: “Are you Muslim?”
Me: “No, we’re Christians.”
Awa: “Oh, I’m a Christian, too!”
We ended by exchanging addresses and phone numbers and becoming friends. The way we met became a standing joke between us: “Remember how I stalked you at the mall?”
Any friendship that brings together people of different cultures is valuable. Since knowing Awa, I have come to appreciate my country more deeply than before. If you are a part of this country, and complain about it, this is what I would want to say to you: “We are free. We have enough to eat. We have the opportunity to make money. We can travel where we like in relative safety. We may worship God as we see fit. We are free. Be thankful.”
Last weekend Awa and I drove to Bayfield, Wisconsin, for a girl’s day out, and rented a condo to spend the night. “Would you tell me about your years in the refugee camp?” I asked her on the phone beforehand. “I’d like to write about it.”
So on the way up, she did.
“The war started in 1991,” she tells me, “and that’s when we went to the refugee camp.” She is driving her Jeep, wearing sunglass and a scarf, blue jeans, a hoodie. I take a picture, and all that shows against the sunlight is white teeth, a black face, sunglasses silhouetted against the bright car window. “We didn’t have barely nothing. We didn’t know you have to stay in the refugee camp a long time. They provided you with food, but the lines were terrible. At one point, there was more than 500,000 people in the refugee camp. We lived in this big huge field–I mean it was miles and miles of nothing but tents. Over here they call it tarps. There were bamboos and tin for the sides and blue tarp to keep the waters out.
“The water was so nasty we had to boil it. You had to had to walk three miles to the closest bathroom. Food was always hard because you had to eat the minimum. When you had extra, you had to share because there was always someone who had less than you. We cooked over fires. We had no tables to lay food, so to cut meat, we held the knife upright between our feet and took the meat in our hands to slice across the blade.
“The hardest year was when a fire happened in the refugee camp. A Somali man got into an argument with another man and stabbed him. Then that man’s family got mad and started the fire. Those bamboo houses were so close together, hundreds and hundreds of them, and there was no way for the fire to go out–no water and no fire department. It took days for it to burn. All our most valuable things were gone.
“Life was tough, but my step mom and my dad always tried to hide and make it seem better.
“Some girls would get married to an old man just so they could have a better life.”
We drive into Bayfield, a town beside Lake Superior. Blue-eyed fishermen, a yacht club, a brick sidewalk lined with unique shops, apple orchards, fall foliage, smoked fish, long piers, driftwood.
Awa and I go into a shop called Stone’s Throw, full of unique trinkets, dishes, scarves, jewelry. I paint a cross with water and a paintbrush on something called a Buddha board. Jesus, I write over the cross. Awa takes the brush and adds our names. Awa. Luci. Friends forever. The board is full.
She has told me the story of how she, a girl born Muslim, became a Christian.
“There was a single mom, a Kenyan, who needed a babysitter, and I said, ‘I will trade a babysitter to learn the Bible.’
“She asked, ‘Why do you feel so empty that you have to learn Christ?’
“And I said, ‘I feel like the teaching is so wrong. Nothing that I’ve prayed for really happened. I feel like I’m praying to the wrong god.’
“So every day she would read the Bible and pray with me. I would pray in my own language. One day I almost got caught. My step mother said, ‘What did you say?’
“I changed it quick: ‘I just said Allah.’
“If she had heard me, I would have been dead where I was caught.
“The Kenyan lady said, ‘Your father doesn’t like you coming over to my house. Maybe he knows I’m teaching you something. You know if your family finds out you’ll be killed.’
“And I said, ‘We’ll worry about that when it happens.’
“My Somali teacher beat me because I would not learn the Koran. Years later, I saw him in America, and he just looked me and said, ‘I heard.’ I was glad he knew there was a reason.
“Back in Kenya, I had different suitors to marry me, and I made everything I could to make sure those suitors did not marry me.
“The hardest part was to break out from my family and tell them. I never had the stomach to tell my dad. I always thought when the time was right, he’d find out. He used to say, ‘There’s something about you I could never figure out.’ And I would say, ‘Why? Because I’m stubborn?’ I think he could see the Holy Spirit in me.
After Stone’s Throw, we stop next door at a used bookshop. I am happy, scanning titles, picking up books and smelling them. “I have something to give you,” Awa says. “And I’ll give it to you here in your favorite place.” She holds out four metal charms on her palm and tells me to choose. I close my eyes and pick up one that says Shine and another that says Friends. Awa keeps the other two: Shine and Forever.
“I know you don’t wear jewelry, so I thought a key chain.”
“It’s perfect,” I say.
I pay $6.95 for a memoir called Reading Lolita in Tehran–a book I have heard of, but never read. There is a picture on the cover of two dark-haired girls in hijab.
“In ’96, my sister left to come to America,” Awa said on the drive up. “My family moved to Nairobi. We lived in the bad part of Nairobi, where sewage goes right through the yards. We waited there for the UN to send us a call or a letter that we could go to America. We had to go to a certain place every day where they posted the notice that told if we qualified. And in 2000–it was in summertime–we were told we passed and to get ready to come to America. We were all happy, it was our most dream. My sister in America, Faadumo, got a job and was sending us money, enough to pay rent and food so we could move away from the slummy place to a better part of Nairobi.
“After you get accepted, you wait months and months before you can leave for America. We were almost ready to leave when 9/11 happened, and we had to wait some more.”
I ask the bookshop proprietor, a lady with glasses and white hair twisted up, for a lunch recommendation. “Maggie’s,” she says. So we eat at Maggie’s, a bright pink restaurant decorated with pink flamingos. There are many customers. The food is delicious.
Amongst the garish decorations, I point out a small red sign that says, “Uppity Women Unite.”
“What is uppity women?” Awa asks.
I explain, and she laughs and takes a picture. “I want to show this to my husband. He says I’m bossy.”
After lunch we drive down quiet roads, through autumn leaves, to a park, where we walk a narrow strip of sand along Lake Superior. I take off my shoes and go barefoot until my feet are cold and I stuff them, sandy and sockless, back into shoes.
We near some people along a wide strip of sandy shore.
“Let’s go back,” Awa says. “I think it’s a private beach.”
“I don’t think you can own the beach.”
“If you have waterfront rights you can. Those people pay high taxes.”
I am still walking, reluctant to turn around.
“Let’s go back. There’s a tree blocking the way. And they might have guns.”
“We’re not in the city, Awa.” But she is right about the tree blocking the way. We head back to the Jeep and Bayfield.
“I always wanted to come to America,” she told me earlier.
“Reality is different, though, isn’t it?” I said. “I mean it’s nice, but it’s not perfect like you think it will be.”
She nodded. “You think in Somalia that when you go to America you will be rich, you will live in nice fancy houses and have a nice car. But life is different. You gotta work hard here. At home you have to work hard, in a way, but there’s not much to work at. There’s rich, and there’s dirt poor; there’s no middle class.
“I remember talking to my sister Faadumo and asking her, ‘Why don’t you send us more money?’
“And she said, ‘If you had any idea how we sent you the money you wouldn’t be saying that.’
“And I was like, ‘Ok, fine. You don’t care about us. You just wanna live the American dream.’
“We came to America in 2003. It was the day of Halloween. I remember the airport was so beautiful. There were drinks everywhere, and clean water, and it was cold.
“I saw a guy who had a bloody face–I didn’t understand he was wearing a costume–and I was pointing and saying, “That guy needs help!” And Faadumo told me to be quiet and not make a fool of myself.
“Faadumo drove a decent car to pick us up, but it wasn’t the best, and ten miles away from the airport, it broke down. One of her boys said, “Mom, did you put gas in it?” and she said, “I don’t have enough money for gas.” That’s when I noticed that Faadumo was right. Life is tough out here. She didn’t even have enough money to take us where we were going.
“When I saw that, I decided, ‘I’m an American now. I’m gonna get the first job who will accept me.’ I wanted to make money so I could have a better life.
“When I got my job, I was so excited! The next time we got food stamps, I gave mine back. I told the worker, ‘I don’t need this. I got a job. I get paid in one week.’
“My family was mad at me for giving back the food stamps. I said, ‘But I didn’t need it. I got a job. Didn’t you see my letter? I got approved. I got a job!’
“They still tease me about that.”
Back in Bayfield, we walk the streets as dusk comes, go into the few shops still open. When it is dark, we walk down the pier, read the names of yachts, take pictures of each other being crazy, look back toward the lights of Bayfield. Then we walk back to our condo on the edge of downtown. Away from lighted streets, Awa is nervous. When we arrive at our condo, she turns on the light quickly, looks around.
The condo is cozy and quiet, and we both relax.
Awa fixes us a Somali meal of coconut rice and steaks flavored with curry. I try, unsuccessfully, to start a fire in the fireplace. It blazes up for a few minutes, and then it is done. Awa tries, and hers is the same. The wood is too wet, we decide.
“We should do this every year,” Awa says. “Plan a time to go somewhere.”
“Yes,” I say.
Driving down earlier, she said, “You couldn’t do this in Somalia. Two women could never go somewhere alone like this. In America, we are free to do what we want.”
I remember how happy and proud Awa was on the day she became a citizen. She memorized every one of the hundred questions in the booklet given to her. Of the hundred, they only ask six, but you must know them all.
“I think freedom is the thing I value more than anything else,” I say. “Besides following God and Jesus, and to me that’s part of my freedom.”
“Matt asked me if I’ll vote this year,” she says, “and I told him, ‘Yeah, I’ll put down a name.’ He asked me who I’m voting for, and I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know the difference of who they are.’ ‘You can vote for the same one I do,’ he said, and I told him, ‘No, that’s not free speech.'”
We pass a sign that says “We Stand With Scott Walker.”
“Matt hates Scott Walker,” Awa says. “Maybe I’ll vote for him just to prove my point.”
The leaves are golden in sunlight, and roll across the landscape. The Jeep dips around hills.