The Education of Abdi Ali (continued)


It’s a blessing that Ali can’t remember it–that day in 1991 when his life changed forever. Before that day, his family was healthy, happy, well-off. His father’s import business had afforded them a big house in Mogadishu. They had several cars. His mother had beautiful jewelry. Then, the coup began. Rioters charged through the streets with guns, shooting everyone aligned with the government, murdering them in front of their neighbors, their colleagues, their children. His father was killed.

“They killed as many people as they could,” he says. When the insurgents broke into their home, his mother bargained for her children’s lives, offering up her jewelry, the cars, the house. Miraculously, they let them all go.

She and her eight children–the oldest was 15; the youngest, Abdi and his twin brother, were 2–set out on foot, walking to the nearest town, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Before long, they heard guns firing in the distance, coming closer, coming after them. So they ran to the next town, and the next, meeting up with the rest of their extended family along the way, ending up on the banks of the Indian Ocean with thousands, all of them trying to figure out a way to sail to safety in Kenya. Coastal fisherman were selling spots on their boats, and Ali’s grandmother bought them passage on an enormous ship, overloaded. At the last minute, she decided she’d made a mistake.

“We can’t take this boat,” she said. “It’s going to sink.” She herded everyone off the boat and onto a smaller vessel just big enough to fit her clan. Then, she prayed: “God, I have all my family with me at this moment. I have nobody else. I ask you not to let us all die at once. Please.”

They spent five days at sea. On one of them, Ali’s family watched as the boat they’d first boarded sank. His brothers and sisters pulled as many people as they could onto their boat, and watched as so many others drowned. They debarked in Kenya, a foreign land with a foreign language, with no place to go, nothing to eat, running from the Kenyans who were trying to protect their homeland from the onslaught of thousands of refugees.

Ali’s family hid in the woods along the coastline with other refugee families. Parents foraged for food in the woods, dragged branches on their backs in order to build lean-tos where their children could sleep shielded from the rain. Eventually, the United Nations set up a refugee camp in the Kenyan city of Mombasa, and Ali’s family went there, living now in a hut with a roof made of mud and palm branches. The camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence to keep the refugees safe from the locals who, in the middle of the night, would pour gas on the huts and set them on fire. When the refugees would run out through holes in the fence, they’d be shot. Luckily, Ali’s family persevered. He watched the mothers wake up at 4 a.m. and walk to a nearby town, dangerous as that was, to buy vegetables to then sell in the camp. After cooking meals for their own families, they’d cook for the camp’s orphans using the rations brought in by the United Nations.

In 1995, the U.N. transferred Ali’s family to another camp, this one in Ethiopia. Once again, they were faced with a foreign land and a foreign language although, here, they had a more stable home to live in. Ali’s mother got up before the sun rose and walked five miles to work in the nearest town.

Ali’s older siblings spent the days watching the younger ones, careful to stay indoors where they were sure to be safe. His brothers and sisters read to them from books his mother brought from town. His siblings showed them simple math calculations and wrote out the letters of the English alphabet, which they’d learned at school in Somalia before the coup, and taught the kids to pronounce them.

When Ali was nine, his mother allowed him to walk with her one day to the town where she worked. He was amazed by everything, but mostly by the groups of kids walking around with notebooks.

“They’re going to school,” his mom explained.

“Can I go too?” he asked.

“Hopefully, one day, you will go too.”

For Ali, “one day” couldn’t come soon enough. He asked his mother to help him write a letter to the school’s headmaster, asking if he could enroll. His mother dropped the letter off at the school, and Ali waited and waited, but he never heard back. He decided to go see the headmaster in person, walking into town with his mother a second time. He asked the headmaster why he never replied.

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