By Hani Garabyare (@haniyesaid)
Tuesday June 23, 2020
The author as a child before the Somali Civil War. Photo: Hani Garabyare
Last July, President Trump made headlines by lashing out at a group of progressive congresswomen—among them Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the first Somali elected to Congress—and told them to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” Days later, crowds at a Trump rally were crying out Ilhan Omar’s name and chanting “send her back.”
In the immediate aftermath, I wrote a piece for The Root explaining the horrors that Somalis like Representative Omar and myself migrated to escape and posed the question: “Where would you like us to go back to, Mr. President?” Five months later, I did go back. For the first time in nearly 30 years, I stepped foot on Somali soil. I got to see the United States through the eyes of Somalis, and what I saw shocked me: America has plummeted from the pedestal it sat upon for most of my life.
Inside the United States, the “American Dream” is a rhetorical flourish which overuse has reduced to a cliché. But for my family and me, it meant everything. When I was a little girl, my family risked their lives to reach the shores of the United States. And when I once again landed in Somalia, the sights and smells revived vivid memories that had blurred with time: the days huddled on a rickety boat in the Indian Ocean, watching other refugees fall into the ocean and drown and the years spent waiting in a refugee camp for our opportunity to relocate to the United States. America represented something worth risking life and limb for. And I will confess: seeing the current state of Somalia—the crippling poverty, the political repression—reminded me that I had won the lottery by becoming a U.S. citizen.
But the idealized vision of America that was once so prevalent in Somalia has not survived the last three years of this Administration. A constant theme in conversations after my arrival was confusion, sadness, and shock at how much America had strayed from its ideals.
The first event that shifted Somalis’ perception of America was President Trump’s Muslim ban, which resulted in a 70 percent decline in immigrant visas from 2016 to 2017. To Somalis, this was a deeply personal cut: a country that once opened its doors to Somali refugees had now implicitly labeled as terrorists the very people who wished most fervently to be a part of the American experiment. Thousands of Somalis became exiled, indefinitely, from their relatives in America; and those who might have contemplated immigrating to America quickly realized it was a pipe dream.
The “send her back” chants directed at Representative Omar still reverberate. In the United States, where the news cycle refreshes every 48 hours and leaves us with collective amnesia, these events might as well have transpired a decade ago. But in Somalia, the insults are still fresh. From the time I disembarked from the plane, rarely an hour passed without being asked about President Trump.
Having lived under authoritarian rule for decades, Somalis instinctively understand—in a way that eludes many Americans—that one should never equate a people with its rulers. And so, for a time, Somalis were able to shrug off President’s Trump’s antics as anomalous and unrepresentative of America at large. But the conversations I’ve had since returning to Somalia confirm that the damage that has been inflicted on America’s prestige abroad is real, and ever-accumulating.
Emigration is still a constant topic of conversation in Somalia, but America no longer sits at the top of the list of aspirational destinations. People now speak of emigrating to the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands—even Finland—before they float the idea of going to America. In fact, when America comes up in conversation at all, it is usually as an object of bafflement and disappointment.
Somalis have followed, with shock and dismay, the skyrocketing of COVID-19 cases in the United States due to the Administration’s mismanagement. Somalis may have lower rates of reliable news consumption than elsewhere in Africa, but everyone knows someone who has migrated to the United States or Europe. People trade stories about the relative in D.C. who is under lockdown with no access to testing, and no faith in their government to manage the crisis. And they also trade stories about the relative who is in Berlin, where everyone has returned to work, where restaurants have opened, and where the case numbers continue to drop. They look at America and they see a country that is flailing. They see a country whose president makes demonstrably false claims—about access to testing, alternative treatments, and the disease disappearing “like a miracle”—with the same unfathomable self-assuredness as a dictator.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, they have seen President Trump exhibit other behaviors even more characteristic of a dictator. In the America that occupied the imagination of Somalis for the last 30 years, it was unfathomable that the sitting president would tear gas demonstrators to march triumphantly to a place of worship and hoist a holy book as a prop. It was unfathomable that a president would threaten to dispatch the military to put down peaceful protests. That is the sort of behavior Somalis emigrated to escape.
I share their horror and dismay. But as an American, I also feel optimistic. Thomas Jefferson once said, “every generation needs a new revolution.” In Somalia, social and political convulsions have rarely ended for the better; but I believe America is different. President Trump has exposed a dark undercurrent in American culture—one that embraces xenophobia, Islamophobia, and refuses to acknowledge the legacy of institutional racism. But he has also compelled the better angels of America’s nature to raise their voices and fight for the ideals that made America such a compelling place to Somalis for so many decades.
America’s prestige has taken a number of blows over the past few years, but it is not so brittle as to be permanently broken by a single Administration. I trust that Americans will vote Trump out of office in November and begin to restore America’s prestige. And I firmly believe that the next time I step foot in Somalia, the United States will have regained the respect and reverence that led my family to risk everything to migrate here thirty years ago.