Fear, Giddiness and Surrealism: My Long Journey to Grub Street
By Boyah J. Farah
My mind has been humming with thoughts of writing a memoir about Somalia’s civil war--my survival during the painful journey between Somalia, Kenya, and the refugee camps, and then my life in America. I have been writing intermittently with very little professional help.
They ask me why I write. I write for many reasons. I write to honor the dead and protect the living. I write to warn of future tragedies among men. I write for my daughters, for my sisters, and for my brothers. I write for humanity. I write for the future. I write for me to heal the wounds I carry. I write because it is what my body wants to do. And writing is the therapy that allows me to interpret my past.
On a sunny July afternoon this past summer, while sipping green tea on a chair outside a Starbucks in Medford, a sharp thought flew into my mind. I stood up and then I sat back down, placed the cup on the table, and turned my laptop on to register for a course at grubstreet.org. Looking through the site, a Sunday course called Finding Your Book caught my attention. I signed up and waited for Sunday to arrive.
Overwhelmed with raw memories, I walked into the building at 162 Boylston Street for the first class. Twenty years ago, when I arrived in Boston with the first wave of refugees from Somalia’s civil war,the 5th floor at 162 Boylston Street housed an office of the IRC (International Rescue Committee). The IRC was the first place I visited as a new immigrant.
Life often begins where you first started. As I sat in Joanne Wyckoff’s class with my new classmates, my mind would often drift and wander, but it never left this building. My journey in America began in this exact place where now I’m trying to capture my life in words. Destiny had called me to Grub Street, to be part of a fascinating learning process in the art of writing at Grub Street.
The year was 1993.
I wore tight blue Levi jeans, a Hawaiian shirt and had a pair of knock off Ray Ban aviator sunglasses, just like the ones Sylvester Stallone wore in the movie Cobra. Malaria had left me weak like a withered tree, but I wanted to appear strong for America. It was part of my dream to see this land.
While waiting for Yasin, a family friend, to pick us up from Boston’s Logan International Airport, Hooyo (mother in Somali language), three brothers, two sisters, and I were looking around, trying to explore inside the airport. I walked away from my family as I began to touch the walls, smell the air, and imagine America. “I cannot believe I am in America” I said to myself silently. Before me, there were moving stairs where passengers would walk onto them as they moved up and down. Unsure of the moving ladders, I stood near and just stared at them with amazement. Yasin came. As we stepped into his minivan, he uttered “Welcome to America.” His welcoming words flabbergasted me with joy as if it were my birthday.
As we left the airport, the blue sunny sky beamed down as everything appeared neat with highways and interconnecting bridges. Suddenly, our van stopped. He paid money to a young Asian man inside the booth and then the van moved to enter a hole with two car lanes. “We are now driving inside water through a bridge” Yasin said. When we emerged, there were tall buildings and fast moving cars everywhere. There were small cars, big cars, trucks, buses and vans moving in the same direction but each stayed within a marked lane in orderly fashion.
When we had gotten closer to our destination, just like in the movies, a glimpse of the magical America appeared in front of me. As Yasin obeyed the signs, signals and streetlights, I began to see perfectly cut grass, and houses among giant trees. There were schools with no children outside, a hotel, a library, a police station, a barbershop, a hospital, salons, and a red giant truck, which Yasin called a fire engine. A building with a “Friendly's” sign appeared on the left. And on the right side, there was another building with pictures of drinks and sandwiches etched into the glass window. The word “McDonalds” was written under the giant “M” in red and yellow. Just before the shopping mall, a Ramada Inn appeared. A wailing ambulance whisked past us.
Eventually, Yasin pulled over to a store with a picture of a coffee cup, decorated with two words in pink and orange, Dunkin’ Donuts. He drove behind the store to the small window where a teen boy served him a dozen donuts. “Here, taste this one,” he handed me a Boston Cream donut. I licked off the chocolate frosting and then took a bite. The mouthwatering white cream poured into my mouth. This was a taste that I would never forget. The sweetness of this donut reminded me of the America I had dreamt about while I slept on my mat inside the white tent in the refugee camp. Even when I slept under the moonlight in the refugee camp, the stars seemed to say pleasant things about America. No more sleeping on a mat inside the white tent or under the moonlight. While I was mesmerized at the taste of my donut, we pulled out of the store and drove onto the Great Road in Bedford.
Before Yasin took a left, I saw a white woman wearing pink shorts, jogging with her dog near Roberts Drive in Bedford. She had gold-colored hair and eyebrows like those of a lion. There was another old woman standing in front of her house. A few seconds later, two teenagers on bicycles appeared between two houses. Behind a barking red dog with a dark mouth, a man was pushing a loud machine. I stared at him as Yasin said that the man was cutting grass. Unlike Africa where people often gather in groups, in Bedford, people were scattered everywhere. What a strange but fascinating world… It was a quiet place with few people who resembled the ones I had seen on TV.
Just a few hours before, I had been in a refugee camp called Utanga, in Mombasa, Kenya. There were no tall buildings, or paved streets, but huts and thousands of white tents as cows, goats, chickens, wild animals, forest and people shared a small piece of land with trash and mud. The air had always smelled of rotten dead animals mixed with the cooking aromas from the white tents. People were dying from a host of unknown illnesses, but the angel of death favored the mosquito-borne infectious disease malaria. Malaria ate two of my brothers who slept beside me inside that white tent. My mother had raised them from young ages, so I considered them brothers. They had even survived the bombs and the treacherous journey between Kenya and Somalia where many people died but they succumbed to malaria. That world was now gone, but it remained intact in my memories. It was replaced with the new world in Bedford where the air was smooth, fresh and the grass cut to perfection.
I arrived in Bedford on a Saturday, but on Monday, my Hooyo told me to go to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) on Boylston Street in Boston. Since Abo, my father, had died and the war erupted, Hooyo had always asked me to do things for the family. “You are the man in the family,” she said. I did not speak the language yet, but the task of finding the IRC office was easier than facing death in the jungles of Kenya and Somalia.
On Sunday night, I went to sleep thinking about the next day’s task. Monday came. My older sister Ijabo made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for me. With my tea still half full, she said, “You take the 62 bus and get off at the Alewife T Stop. Then you take the red line train to Park Street. Then walk to 162 Boylston Street. The office is on the fifth floor. In case you get lost, our home number is on this paper.” She handed me a written note with directions and with questions to ask strangers on the bus or the train in case I got lost. As she walked me to the bus stop, she slipped five dollars into my pocket. “Good luck!” she said.
The only thing that accompanied me that day was my smile. I hopped on the 62 bus and sat in the back above the bus’s engine. When I looked back behind the bus, my sister was still standing there, frozen, looking in my direction.
In the seats in front of me, there were two black male passengers who were talking to each other. I wanted to listen, so I could learn English. But, the roar of the engine blocked me from hearing much. The bus stopped at Alewife station and everyone got out including the black males. But unlike Bedford, there were lots of black people at Alewife. I purchased my ticket for the subway and got on the train. I chose the seat closest to the door.
Every time the subway stopped, I would look at the name of the station through the glass window to see if it said “Downtown” or “Park Street”. I had never been on a subway before. As the train moved forward, my emotions danced between fear, giddiness and surrealism. Some people were talking to one other, but I didn’t know how they could hear each other because the train was so loud. Passengers were rushing in and out of the train as if they were competing with this fast train.
The presence of passengers seemed to calm my nerves, like the old lady who smiled at me whenever I looked at her. I had never befriended a white person before; the closest I had come was a handshake with the white counselor who processed our sponsorship papers to America.
Getting off the train at Park Street, I froze with fear. I stared at the moving people in downtown Boston. And then I walked up to a man with dark brown skin, but he quickly walked away. I spotted a black woman who was sitting and smoking at the corner of a building near the traffic light. Sheepishly, I handed my note to her. After reading it, she walked with me to the building at 162 Boylston Street. It was the last week in July and sweat rolled down from my face, but not from the heat, from the realization of being in America and knowing that I could pursue what I want out of life.
I grinned my way into the building. There was an older white man sitting on a chair inside the elevator. He had his hand on a controller as if he was ready to drive a car. It was my third day in America and English words refused to come out of me. So I smiled, looked at him and then handed him my note.
He uttered random words back at me as the elevator moved upward. My teeth remained visible until the door opened. I stepped into the office. Just like me, there were other refugees from Somalia sitting and waiting for their case workers. As I saw them, happy cheers gushed out of me. My smiling ceased. I finally could speak the language of my mother.
In July of 2013, wearing a gray sports jacket, a black shirt and jeans, I stood at 162 Boylston Street, and snapped a picture using my phone before entering Grub Street. This time, there was no elevator operator and I traveled upward, I heard the soothing sound of piano emanating from the first floor. An antique red typewriter stood before the book shelves. There were small classrooms, a fridge and a kitchen with a variety of teas and coffees. With books that carry undying stories, the building has been transformed into a mini writing oasis. I joined a class of eleven students and submitted my first writing "the hissing valley”.
In the following week while I was in the kitchen, one student told me how powerful my writing is. Another student also showed her appreciation for my writing. The feedback I got from my classmates and the instructor made me believe. Hooyo once told me that if I believe in my ability to do something, then I can do it. The magical feedback made me believe that I am a writer. And that I can finally pen the story I carry deep inside.
Boyah FarahSee other articles by Boyah Farah