Book Review: Searching for Safe Haven

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“Kept alive but prevented from living. . . .” In these few words, Ty McCormick, ’10, an editor at Foreign Affairs, introduces the plight of Dadaab, Kenya, once the world’s largest refugee complex, housing hundreds of thousands of Somalis after civil war overwhelmed their country in 1991. Beyond the Sand and Sea: One Family’s Quest for a Country to Call Home is the result of not only three years of research when McCormick was Foreign Policy’s Africa editor but also his friendship with Asad Hussein, the book’s main character. Like others born in Dadaab, Asad is stateless, citizen of neither Somalia nor Kenya, unable to live safely in his familial homeland yet barred from Kenyan society. Asad grows up reading novels donated by charities, recognizing the strangeness of his life in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; finding hope in the immigrant narratives of Junot Díaz, Vladimir Nabokov and Ng˜ug˜wa Thiong’o; and seeing himself in the adolescent identity struggles of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

In 2004, as Asad’s family is being cleared for immigration to America, the nurse in charge of their medical exams derails their application when Ayaan, Asad’s 14-year-old sister, refuses to marry him. Only Asad’s older sister, Maryan, immigrates with her husband, Yussuf. What follows is the family’s 13-year quest to be reunited, with Maryan struggling to raise her children and distance herself from Yussuf, who is abusive, and Asad sustaining his dreams of becoming a writer within Dadaab’s desolation. Spending nights in the camp school’s tiny library, Asad masters English, writing essays about his plight and submitting them to newspapers. “My whole life, it seems, I’ve been living the American dream,” he writes in one. “I just don’t know how much longer I can bear to live it outside of America.”

For his entire life, he had been an outsider, an exile with no clear origin or home. A simple question for most people—where are you from?—necessitated an entire conversation for him.

In 2016, when the New York Times Magazine publishes his essay on Maryan’s visit to Dadaab, doors begin opening for him, albeit grudgingly. The piece also catches the eye of McCormick, then living in Kenya. Conscious of the limits of journalistic impartiality, McCormick befriends Asad and helps pay for his boarding school. Asad, lacking a birth certificate and nationality, struggles to fill out applications to American universities, feeling that, as in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, he has been “unpersoned”—erased from society. Eventually, though, he becomes the first person from Dadaab ever to be admitted to Princeton. When he is treated courteously at the American embassy, he thinks, “It’s like I’ve been fully upgraded to a human being.” In 2017, his parents arrive in the United States hours before the travel ban on Muslim-majority countries takes effect. The next year, Asad enrolls at Princeton—bringing to a close a book that is rigorously reported and rendered with heartfelt intimacy, and that ends, like many great immigrant stories, as if it were only just beginning. 

Deni Ellis Béchard is a senior writer at Stanford and the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction.