Endurance, fortitude, luck and generosity: Book recounts family’s effort to find a country to call home

  • Amherst native Ty McCormick, an editor with “Foreign Affairs” magazine, has written his first book, “Beyond the Sand and Sea,” which chronicles the struggle of a family of Somali refugees to make it to the United States. Image courtesy Ty McCormick

  • Ty McCormick’s “Beyond the Sand and Sea” chronicles a Somali family that spent years in a Kenyan refugee camp before four of its members made it the U.S. 

  • Maryan Hussein, at left, in Dadaab, during a visit back to the huge Kenyan refugee camp in 2019. She had immigrated to the U.S. in 2005. Photo by and courtesy of Ty McCormick

  • A aerial view of Dadaab and the flat desert terrain of eastern Kenya where the sprawling refugee camp is located. Ty McCormick says the camp at one point held almost 500,000 people. Photo by and courtesy of Ty McCormick

  • Refugee shelters at the Dadaab camp in Kenya, in an image taken in 2011. Photo by Pete Lewis/Department for International Development/Wikipedia

Staff Writer
Thursday, April 01, 2021

Perseverance and determination. Despair and defeat. Opportunity and danger. Hopes raised — and dashed.

For a family of Somali refugees who spent years in a refugee camp in Kenya, the United States beckoned as the promised land, one where they might all might find a permanent home. But the dream proved a difficult one to realize for all its members as they faced bureaucratic hurdles, corrupt Kenyan officials, changing immigration polices in the U.S., and other obstacles.

Yet in “Beyond the Sand and Sea: One Family’s Quest for a Country to Call Home,” Amherst native Ty McCormick recounts a enduring tale of how several members of a family that had fled civil war in Somalia in 1991 finally made it to the U.S.; one, a young man named Asad Hussein who had largely taught himself how to read and write in English, won a $70,000 scholarship to attend Princeton University.

In his debut book, McCormick, a senior editor with “Foreign Affairs” magazine, also takes a hard look at how millions of people around the world are increasingly becoming stateless — permanent exiles — as they flee violence, environmental disasters and other problems, only to spend years in refugee camps as more and more countries put up barriers to their resettlement.

“To me, the journeys that so many refugees are making today are the epics of our time,” McCormick, now living in Brooklyn, New York, said in a recent phone call. “The burdens they take on, the sacrifices they make, the dangers they face — it’s so difficult to really grasp what they’re going through.”

McCormick, who attended the Hartsbrook School in Hadley and Amherst Regional High School before graduating from Deerfield Academy in 2006, later studied political science and Arabic at Stanford University and global development at Oxford University. He eventually became a freelance journalist based in the Middle East and reported on the Arab Spring in North Africa in 2010-2011.

About six years later, in early 2017, he was based in Kenya, serving as the Africa editor of “Foreign Policy” magazine, when he met Asad Hussein, then 21 years old, and began to hear the story of his family. Asad had relatively little formal schooling, but he’d written a well-received New York Times Magazine story in Nov. 2016 about growing up in the sprawling Kenya refugee camp of Dadaab, and of the first visit back there of his oldest sister, Maryan, after she’d been living in the U.S. for 11 years.

“I thought his story was so moving and so well-written, and I wanted him to write a piece for me,” said McCormick. “I had assumed Asad had moved on from the camp, but I discovered he was still living there.”

Following their initial meeting in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, McCormick would conduct myriad interviews with Asad and later with Maryan and other members of the family. McCormick and his wife, attorney and writer Jill Filipovic, would also end up offering some financial support for Asad’s educational efforts, and at times McCormick worried that the basic objectivity he was supposed to maintain as a journalist was at risk.

“Yet the more [Asad] told me about his story, the more I wanted to write about it, the more I felt I needed to write it,” he said.

As he notes in his book’s introduction, “[S]ome stories test those artificial boundaries, and some shatter them altogether. The more of his story Asad entrusted me with, the less I felt like an impartial observer. And the more time we spent together, the more outraged I grew at the obstacles he encountered that were mostly invisible to everyone else.”

Years in exile

Though Asad, today 25 years old and a junior at Princeton, is the central figure in “Beyond the Sand and Sea,” the story also offers profiles of his father, Sharif; his mother, Kaluma; and of Maryan. All four are now in the U.S., while three of Asad’s brothers remain in Kenya.

It’s a story of hardship and endurance that begins with the family’s 100-mile trek from Somalia to Kenya in 1991, leaving their farm to escape civil war and walking along a dusty road lined with debris and “the burned-out husks of vehicles, bodies decomposing in the sand.” The youngest child, a baby daughter named Daahiro, died of malnutrition shortly after the family reached Kenya.

Asad was born in Dadaab in Oct. 1995, though for bureaucratic reasons the date was recorded as Jan. 1, 1996. The book offers a grim portrait of the giant camp, set in the desert of eastern Kenya, where ferocious heat, food shortages and primitive housing are the regular lot for a place that McCormick says at one point held almost 500,000 people.

Despite this, the young Asad emerges as a curious, hopeful boy who begins at an early age to soak up the books of J.D. Salinger, Junot Díaz, Vladimir Nabakov and other western writers. Maryan, 12 years older, essentially played the role of third parent to Asad and his two younger brothers. Life was hard, but by about 2004, the family was well on track to get approval for asylum in the United States.

But, McCormick relates, their case became stalled after a male nurse at Dadaab proposed marriage to Asad’s other sister, 14-year-old Ayaan, during a medical exam. When she refused, the nurse allegedly said the family would “not be going anywhere.” The same nurse, McCormick writes, was later investigated for corruption and making sexual overtures to other refugee women but remained on the job.

Maryan, under pressure from her father, a devout Muslim, to marry, wed a Somali man she had mixed feelings about so that she could move to the U.S. in 2005. But she would struggle to find her way in her adopted country, in part because her husband wanted her to be a subservient, stay-at-home wife, even as Maryan worked a succession of low-paying jobs to help their growing family.

Maryan would eventually leave her husband and, working with a dedicated U.S. immigration lawyer, win approval to get her parents to the U.S. in 2017, in her father’s case literally hours before the Trump administration’s initial ban on immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries such as Somalia went into effect.

“Beyond the Sand and Sea” shines brightest as it tracks Asad’s struggles and his effort to discover the world outside Dadaab. There are flashes of humor, such as when he wins a scholarship to a college-prep school in Nairobi and hears one of his affluent classmates lament missing out on a trip to a hot local club: “Asad had only a hazy sense of what clubs were, but he could tell they were of considerable importance.”

Yet, as McCormick writes, “There seemed no end to the number of hoops Asad was supposed to jump through” to find his way out of Kenya. That gives the story of how he eventually makes it to Princeton, on a full scholarship, a real page-turning aspect — and it also outlines how much of Asad’s story is, McCormick writes, “a marvel of endurance and fortitude … [and] a chronicle of happenstance, of long odds and impossibly good luck, and of uncommon generosity.”

It could have ended badly, McCormick notes, as it does for other young men caught in the limbo of refugee camps: with recruitment by a terrorist group, a dangerous passage to another country to find work, or jail or even death at the hands of national security forces.

He says his friend’s arrival in the U.S., in July 2018, was “somewhat bittersweet” because of the degree of anti-immigrant sentiment at the time. “That was embarrassing to me, to have him see that. I really wanted to be able to show him the country I loved, the things I was proud of, and that wasn’t it.”

Nevertheless, Asad is now doing well at Princeton, he says, writing for the school newspaper (he has also written freelance articles for other publications) and exploring a number of different subjects: “For him it’s really an embarrassment of riches, considering how he grew up. And it’s been a privilege to tell his story.”

The Hartsbrook School and Broadside Bookshop will host an online discussion with Ty McCormick on Thursday, April 8 from 7-8 p.m., including a Q&A. To register for the event, go to http://gvgb.co/EveningWithMcCormick

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.