I was a junior in college when I first read the Toni Morrison quote that goes “In this country, American means white. Everyone else has to hyphenate.” I remember the sting I felt reading it in my African-American literature course. It seeped into my consciousness for the remainder of that day, of that week, of that year. I had signed up for the course to discover more black writers. The books we read and the discussions we had painted pictures of this country that I’d never seen before. I knew the basic history of this country’s past sins but as an immigrant, the details were foreign to me.
In 1995, my family and I immigrated to the United States from Somalia. We landed in Dallas, Texas, in the beginning of August and were greeted by unwavering heat and the smiles and hugs of my aunt, uncle, and our cousins. I was 7 years old and I remember looking around the airport in astonishment. There were tears of joy and sighs of relief: for the first time in a long time, we felt safe. America felt like a fictional place up until that moment and our presence here felt like magic in a way. We were lucky and we knew it.
In January, when news broke that our new president had signed an executive order to ban people from seven Muslim majority countries, the familiar sting I felt in that college classroom came back.
A couple weeks ago, I spoke to my mom about our refugee experience. She is a woman of faith and has always been optimistic even in the more dire of circumstances. From civil wars in Somalia to facing men with machetes in Kenyan refugee camps, she has always relied on God to see her through it all. When I ask her if the two years in Kenya were difficult, she gets a very somber look on her face. “Oh they were very hard. We went through a lot of hardships. It’s sad to leave your home and to start all over,” she explains. “We weren’t wanted in Kenya either and it made everything more difficult.” One night after our home was burned down in Kenya, my mom had a dream about her dad who passed away when she was a teenager. She says he told her to not worry and that the hard times would pass. A couple weeks later, we learned that we passed the final test in the vetting process and that we would soon be leaving to America.
In a group chat I have with friends who are more like brothers, a friend of mine made a joke about how he liked Donald Trump because he was keeping Somali refugees out of Minnesota, where I live. I knew it was a joke, but that sting came back again. I told him that my family and I are refugees and I didn’t like it. He apologized and said he had no idea we were. Still,t I thought to myself: What if we weren’t? I went back and forth in my head, thinking maybe I was being too sensitive and telling myself that there are bigger issues to be mad about. But I realized that I couldn’t let it go. In a time where Muslim people are the least popular minority in this country, the one place I expect to find refuge is in a group chat with friends who should know better. I can’t control outside forces when it comes to racism and hate but I can speak up when it’s right in front of me.
I’m not sure where we go from here, or what the next four years will bring. In one of his last interviews with the New Yorker, President Obama told his staff the morning after the election that “history does not move in straight lines; sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backwards.” It was an attempt to calm their fears and to assure them that he still believed in America. That quote has stayed with me and it lessens the sting of feeling like I don’t belong. Whenever I feel that sting, I pick up Baldwin or Morrison or Naylor, and they’ll tell me to stay the course. America is a dysfunctional, complicated place but it’s my America too.