Where Would You Like Us to Go Back To, Mr. President?

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participates in a panel discussion during the Muslim Collective For Equitable Democracy Conference and Presidential Forum on July 23, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)

When I came to this country, America stood as a nation of hope to young children in forgotten and faraway lands. It once welcomed children like myself—and children like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)—with open arms. That is why it was so incredibly painful to see a U.S. president goad his supporters in the racist, xenophobic “send her back” chants.

When this president and his supporters direct such chants at people like Rep. Omar, do they have the slightest conception of what they are asking her to be sent back to? I do, because I escaped the same horrors she did.

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I grew up in Somalia, but I never enjoyed anything resembling a childhood. The civil war that started when I was 4 years old robbed me of that. I was born into an upper-class family, one of 10 children. My mother had boundless energy; she worked until the ninth month of each of her pregnancies, would steal out of the office to breastfeed her children and then return to work. She was the only black woman to rise to an executive position in an accounting firm in Somalia. My father was a businessman and the first person to substitute sugarcane as a source of energy in Africa.

But our family “curse” was my mother and father came from different clans. When the war started, my mother’s clan began to systematically murder members of my father’s. My father’s farm was burned to the ground by people who he once considered friends. Twice, he was almost murdered; the second time he broke his ribs fleeing from the gunman who sought to kill him solely because of his clan affiliation.

I was a small child, but certain memories are singed into my mind: the sound of a bullet whizzing past my sister’s head, missing her by inches; huddling with my family in a stranger’s house with no water or electricity while fleeing militias that sought to kills us; the sight of militiamen arguing over who was going to kill a young man who stood helplessly before them; the sight and smell of dead bodies on the streets.

We fled on foot from Mogadishu to Kismayo, far from the killing—or so we thought. But my mother’s clan followed us. I remember running inside a house as a massacre happened outside, tripping on the stairs and landing on my face; I remember my mother picking me up, looking into my bloody and battered face and screaming in vain for help.

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I remember taking shelter in a room with my sister, who acted like a second mother to me. The room was stuffed with teddy bears, an act of kindness by my parents to distract me from the horrors of what I had witnessed. One day, I called out to her and she was no longer there. Unbeknownst to me, my parents had decided to split the family up; my father had whisked my sister and two brothers away in the middle of the night. We never had an opportunity to say goodbye. I did not see her again until a decade later.

I remember being on the Indian Ocean in a boat crammed with other refugees, enduring the scorching heat, watching people fall into the water and drown. I remember the rickety plane that took us to Kenya, the stench of vomit from the passengers doubled over with air sickness. And I remember the filthy refugee camp in Kenya, the lack of sanitation, and the emaciated bodies. My mother, weeping at night, skinny to the point of being unrecognizable.

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America’s once progressive refugee policy saved me from this nightmare. Eventually, we settled in Michigan; I’d be lying if I said it was an easy transition. The memories still haunt me. My mother, once so strong, developed a chronic depression that landed her in the emergency room too many times. But I worked hard. Against the odds, I became a staffer in the United States Senate and then for President Obama. Like Ilhan Omar, I have lived my version of the American dream.

Others were not so lucky. Many of those who stayed behind were killed; countless still live in refugee camps. The scars of the war have yet to heal.

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If President Trump and his supporters took a moment to consider the conditions that led people like me to abandon their possessions, to flee on foot, to brave the Indian Ocean and Kenyan refugee camps, they might think twice before telling us to “go back.” Our ancestors’ graves have been vandalized. Our homes and properties have been expropriated.

President Trump, we will not leave and we will not allow our lives to be dangled for your political gain. We will continue to love America for all it has given us and we will continue to criticize its leaders when they stray from the ideals that have made this country so great.

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Hani Garabyare is a public policy adviser, children’s and human rights advocate based in Washington, D.C.

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