I lost my shoes in Ecuador. But I lost Da’uud in the swamp.
I remember how his long lashes blinked back dampness the day we were married, his borrowed clothes pressed, his hair too closely trimmed, everything scrubbed till it shone. His parents were quite pleased; my parents were too. Quite pleased to be rid of a disobedient girl. None of them knew we’d met three times already, alone.
There are ways that a good Muslim girl and boy can meet safely. Respectfully. Just to talk. A girl must be pure, or no one will marry her. Everyone knows that. That doesn’t change, whether or not the woman part was removed. They say I fought like the devil, that I kicked my grandmother and broke a woman’s arm when they tried to do it. My mother was so ashamed; she put it off.
By the time I was ten, everyone in the camps knew I was unmarriageable, so Father let me continue at school. Most of the girls get placed into marriages pretty young. Thirteen, fourteen. For me, education was the only way out—and in my high school evening study group, (chaperoned, of course), I was the only girl. That’s where I first saw your father.
Da’uud was twenty-four, volunteering to coach us. He’d been the top of his class at school. And he was tall, with big, warm eyes and a shy smile. I was lucky to get into one of the few secondary schools, and the classes weren’t as crowded as my primary grades, with sixty to eighty of us jammed in a classroom. But at night, my group studied really hard: Mathematics, English, Sciences, History, Swahili. Da’uud was always patient and methodical. I wore a hijab and long robes, always very proper. My mother couldn’t take any more shame from me. I had to make it up to her by excelling in school.
Being a girl, I had to get up an hour before the boys in my class did, to light the stove and make the morning meal. I used to go to the edge of camp to gather the firewood with my girl cousins, but after Magool was, well, attacked by two boys—well, it cost a lot more, but we had to buy the wood. You can see why. They should have guards there!
I wanted to train as an eye doctor, something like that. My grandfather had the white eye, so I read my studies to him in the evenings. He was proud of me and quizzed me often. Because of him, I won school awards every year. The only thing that would have made him happier, I know, though he never said it, was if I’d been a boy. I was grateful he never said it. I did my very best.
You are Somali, little gift. Never forget that. It doesn’t matter what clan. Your father and I, we’re Somali first, although I was born at the camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Your father’s family only came here a few years ago. I mean, there. To the camp. It’s different, when you grow up in a square of dirt bordered by walls of sticks, or when you grow up free somewhere. Even if the country’s at war with itself.
Both Da’uud and I dreamed of university scholarships. Although I studied until I was skinny and threw up most mornings of the month-long national exams, my name wasn’t in the newspaper with the top one hundred Kenyan students that spring. I almost couldn’t believe it. Da’uud had been the same. He was so very smart, brilliant, but not number one in all of Kenya. He’d been teaching two years already in the camp when I married him.
So we made a secret plan to go to Canada. America was still the favorite of most young dreamers, but we thought we might have a better chance further on. The cold weather didn’t scare us. People lived there. We had to get temporary passes to visit his aunt in Nairobi, a lie. We would try by bus and on foot first or—maybe save for cheap flights to Togo, and find a boat. Everyone knew there were boats to cross the Atlantic.
I’m angry, little gift-to-me. I’m so angry that after our parents sold everything they could to help us onto that horrible boat, they wouldn’t even let us up on deck! That’s where your father, lean but strong, got the lung sickness. It was so wet down there, puddles sloshing around, and cold and dark. So dark. Everyone was coughing and throwing up. We took turns pressing our mouths to the crack at the top of the stairs just to suck in fresh air.
Smugglers met our boat in São Paulo. There were people, concrete, and cars everywhere! Pickpockets too, we were warned. We were passed from house to house then finally began the trek across Brazil–twenty-two Africans, mostly Somalis, in our group. I had to stop to get my breath often, but partly for your father, who had that cough. The rainforest had trees that reached the sky, insects like jewels (I saw a parade of ants carrying tiny green sails). It was terrifying in its strangeness. But different from hiding from rebels in the DR Congo.
Da’uud doesn’t know what happened the time we tried walking to Togo. We’d bussed to Uganda, then to the border, then walked for days, hiding from roads, so careful. He was scouting ahead when a man, an Interahamwe, found me. And I, well—well, I survived him. I survived it. I was lucky he was alone. And that he didn’t use a knife. Da’uud found me, weeping and sick, my clothes torn. I never talked about it. Ever. I couldn’t. We turned back, though, and then it took us nearly a year more to save for flights and false papers.
But the rainforest! The rainforest had a bright green sky, animals chittering and screaming night and day, birds and monkeys in every color. We were always hot, sweat streaming down, and there were snakes — what a crazy world. The guide left us finally, saying he couldn’t wait for a pregnant woman. The Somalis were ashamed. One woman gave me her shawl for the baby. But they all left us there, in the jungle, in Brazil.
Da’uud had memorized all the guide’s landmarks. Your father had such a memory! He was so smart! The only reason he hadn’t the top marks in his year was because he’d missed a month with malaria. Because of his memory, we found the god-tree and turned north, then the “W” trail, and found ourselves finally seeing the sky, peeled open and blue. And he helped me every single step of the way. He held my hand, poured water through three cloths for me to drink, and wiped my face. He slept with his hand on my stomach, feeling you swimming in there. He sang to you every night to block out the strange sounds.
He made us safe.
“It’s life all around us, Hani,” he would whisper to me, “and a wonder that two Somalis could be here. Alive. Now sleep.” Then he’d try to muffle his coughing.
A kind family in the foothills of Peru helped me nurse him for five days. They had herbal teas, and I had dried garlic. I’d practically had to drag him up the trail out of that singing green place, and they were so sweet to us. And poor people, like what we’re used to. But what was the use of it?
In Ecuador, they warned us of the Darién Gap, an endless swamp and no road. The Columbian “coyotes” were untrustworthy, they said. It was true, but it was much worse. Tree thorns sliced our arms, and we could barely breathe from the heat, sloshing through muddy creeks, the insects ravaging. Snakes, fire ants, scorpions, mosquitoes. We were parched and dry-mouthed rather than drink bad water and sucked water off the big leaves. Our first coyote demanded twice the money. He passed us to a second coyote who stole our crackers and disappeared!
Then we were alone with so many trails. We hid from any soldiers and crisscrossed rivers. We found banana trees, surely a gift from God. Also, once, just once, we found wild mangoes. Da’uud grew feverish, so I tied a rope between us.
One day I woke up scratching, and Da’uud was gone.
He’d untied the rope!
I hunted in every direction for three days. I wept an ocean.
Your father was a Somali, little girl, the top of his class.
Finally, I had to go on. For you. We’re in Yaviza now, recovering from your birth. It is a loud, filthy place, like a barn for holding us, travelers. The police say I must go back. Never. I have whispered to the other women here who are going forward, inshallah. We plan to go secretly, by raft. From here, we must reach Guatemala, and then we float on tires into North America. Really. Really. It is true magic.
I am your protector now.
America is not friendly right now, they say. But it is a short walk from there to Canada. There is white rain there, snow, and it’s soft enough to lie in. People play in it. I can’t wait to show you. Your clan doesn’t matter there, and we heard women are respected. Best of all, in Canada, we heard schools are free and good.
Hibaaq, you will be at the top of your class.
Author’s Note: A story about refugees crossing the planet to reach North America must be written with respect and research. I’ve read much about the experiences of refugees coming to North America, and many news articles about those winding their way up through the Darién Gap. I found myself unable to put them down. I live in a safe Canadian cocoon, and news about refugees crossing through snow into Manitoba and Québec started this binge reading. I’m now involved with Syrian refugees in my area and support a sister through “Women for Women International,” and another in the Nyaruzugu Refugee Camp, (through the Msenwa Foundation) but I hope my story shows deep respect for those who have endured so much to find a safe home in North America. Thank you to Msenwa Mweneake for being a sensitivity reader and offering feedback.
For anyone interested, here are a few articles and books I recommend as a start:
“Central American corridor a dangerous route for migrants heading to Canada—Profile of asylum seekers using corridor running north through Central America is changing” CBC article by Lisa Laventure · CBC News · Posted: Feb 22, 2017.
“The Desperate Trek: Crossing the Darién Gap. Migrants from around the globe are forging a desperate path to the U.S.—through the heart of the rainforest.” Los Angeles Times article by Kate Linthicum. Dec 22, 2016. Photos by Carolyn Cole.
“The Invisible Migrants of the Darién Gap: Evolving Immigration Routes in the Americas.” Article by Peter Miraglia for the Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Nov 18, 2016.
“Still With Us: Msenwa’s Untold Story of War, Resilience, and Hope” book by Msenwa Oliver Mweneake, Msenwa Foundation, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 2016 Thank you for your feedback, Msenwa.
“Flight and Freedom: Stories of Escape to Canada” book by Ratna Omidvar and Dana Wagner. Between the Lines, Toronto, 2015.
“One Thousand Sisters” book by Lisa J. Shannon, Seal Press, Berkeley, California, 2010
“Citizens of Nowhere: From Refugee Camp to Canadian Campus,” book by Debi Goodwin, Anchor Canada, Toronto, 2010
“Seeds of Hope: Creating a Future in the Shadows,” book edited by T. Aberman, F. Villegas, P. E. Villegas. FCJ Refugee Centre, Toronto, Ontario, 2016.
Note: If you ever hear of an art showing of the “Wall of Courage” by artist Helen Haynes, simply go. Just go.