When Refugee Families are Separated, Women Carry the Burden

The story of a Somali family uprooted by war and separated by America’s broken refugee resettlement system — and the siblings who brought them back together.

Ty McCormick | Beyond the Sand and Sea, One Family’s Quest for Country to Call Home | April 2021 | 3,518 words (20 minutes)

A few weeks after Maryan gave birth to her first son, Mohamed, word came from Dadaab that her parents and younger siblings were going to America. The Ashraf had been given priority for resettlement by the UN, and thousands of people seemed to be were leaving at once. Believing her brief marriage to Yussuf had run its course, Maryan took the first bus back to Dadaab with little Mohamed in tow. She had yet to tell her parents about her husband, in part because there was part of her that always doubted their marriage would survive. Now there was no hiding the fact that she was married and a mother. Sharif and Kaltuma would never approve of her plan to leave without Yussuf. But if they were going to America, she was going too.

The sight of Maryan with an infant child was a shock to her parents. Her mother broke down in tears, and she and Sharif both begged her to reconcile with Yussuf. “Think of the damage you are doing to our reputation,” they said. But Maryan was adamant that she was done with him. A day or two before the family was scheduled to begin the vetting process for resettlement, though, Yussuf showed up in Dadaab demanding to know why Maryan had left with their son. He had heard from family back in Moyale that the UN was taking her to America. Suddenly, the wife he had abandoned was his ticket to a better life.

Initially, Maryan rejected the idea out of hand. But her parents pushed and cajoled her. Divorce was simply out of the question as far as they were concerned. It wasn’t just taboo; it was unspeakable, a religious and moral failing that she would take to the grave. Leaving Yussuf behind, she realized, would wound her parents in a way she could never repair. What’s more, she harbored her own feelings of guilt at having agreed to marry him. You picked this guy, she thought. You can’t just walk away.

Reluctantly, Maryan agreed to give her marriage a second chance. She and Yussuf hadn’t had a legal wedding in Moyale, so they organized a hasty one at a mosque in Ifo in order to obtain the marriage certificate they would need to be resettled as a family. A sheikh named Jawad Abdi presided over the ceremony, and his signature is affixed to the bottom of a handwritten document from that day, specifying a dowry of “a cow of three years.” Sharif’s signature appears as a witness, above a statement clarifying that the improvised certificate, written in English and in Arabic, “should serve as proof of said marriage because currently marriage certificates are out of stock.”

Once they were officially wed, Maryan and Yussuf were given their own resettlement case with baby Mohamed, instead of remaining attached to Sharif, Kaltuma, and the rest of their children. That fateful decision, made to accommodate Yussuf, would end up splitting the family in two for years to come.

* * *

Maryan came off the plane in Phoenix carrying one-year-old Mohamed and a white plastic bag stamped with the blue insignia of the International Organization for Migration. In addition to immigration and work authorization papers, the bag contained a four-by-six-inch card bearing the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Unlike the generation of Somalis that would follow her, including her three youngest siblings, Maryan hadn’t grown up dreaming of the United States. The words “land of the free and home of the brave” held no meaning for her. All she knew was that she wanted a better life for herself and for her family. That meant being more than a mother and a wife, more than a woman for whom a suitable dowry was a cow of three years.

Their journey had lasted more than forty-eight hours, taking them from Nairobi to New York to Houston and finally on to Phoenix. Neither she nor her husband had ever seen an airplane up close, let alone ridden on one. Now as they exited the terminal at Sky Harbor Airport, Maryan suddenly froze in terror. In front of her was a glass-encased stairway that appeared to be collapsing. The steps were grooved and sturdy-looking, but they fell away, one after the other, each time she went to step on them. It took a moment for Maryan to grasp what was happening. The concourse had been relatively empty when they arrived at the top of the escalator, but now a small line had formed behind them and people were anxious to move.

“It’s okay, you can walk on it,” came the gentle voice of a woman behind her. The woman must have guessed they had just arrived from somewhere far away—Maryan in her black hijab looking fearful and confused, and Yussuf at a loss as well.

The escalator wasn’t the only thing about their new life that seemed odd. When Maryan would ride the Number Eleven bus with baby Mohamed, people would fawn over them and say what a cute daughter she had. It wasn’t until she made friends with a few Americans that she figured out the source of the misunderstanding: children’s clothes were gendered here, and Mohamed’s light pink pajamas were throwing people off. The grocery store was another locus of confusion. For months after they arrived, Maryan kept buying things by mistake because the pictures on the labels were misleading. A packet of tea bags, for instance, showed huge cubes of sugar, which was what she had intended to buy. Nothing was packaged this way back in Kenya. You bought things loose, not in bags or plastic wrappers. But Maryan was curious and outgoing by nature, and she didn’t mind learning by trial and error. In fact, she bought lots of things on impulse, without even trying to guess what they were. A box of shiny red strawberries jumped out at her, so she bought them on a whim, only to recoil in disgust at what to her was their strange, sour taste.

Many new arrivals in Tucson who had come from Dadaab, including Yussuf, had never lived outside of a small rural village. Some of the children had never seen the outside of a refugee camp. Maryan was unique in that she had lived alone in Nairobi. She also spoke decent English, and was used to a level of independence that was unusual in conservative Somali communities. This was a source of constant friction in her marriage, but it was also a font of opportunity in America. Because she could read and translate, she was an invaluable resource to the dozens of refugee families living in the area, the person inevitably called on to resolve all manner of misunderstandings with landlords, employers, and the police. It wasn’t long before the International Rescue Committee started hiring her for little jobs assisting other new arrivals, translating at job interviews or helping decipher training videos. She liked helping other refugees, and she could make as much as $75 for a single day of work.


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With the help of the International Rescue Committee, Maryan soon got a full-time job at Jack in the Box, cutting tomatoes and iceberg lettuce for Caesar salads. The pay was only $5 per hour, but the work was more regular than the translating jobs and the restaurant was close enough to the apartment complex that she didn’t have to waste money riding the bus. There were a few mishaps in the beginning, like the time she called a colleague fat and caused her to break down in tears. In Somali culture, girth signifies wealth, so she hadn’t anticipated this reaction. But on the whole, things went smoothly on the food-prep line. She made friends with her manager, a young woman named Nancy Rodriguez who was also a new mother in a tempestuous relationship. The two women liked to gossip and often confided in each other when things weren’t going well at home. Sometimes, Nancy would knock quietly on Maryan’s window at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. Maryan would slip out of the house, careful not to wake Yussuf, and zoom off with Nancy in her silver Honda Civic. The two of them would drive for hours before the sun came up, talking and listening to music. Eventually, Nancy started letting Maryan drive, teaching her to maneuver along quiet back roads even though she didn’t have a license.

Yussuf was having a different experience in his new country. Much less comfortable than his wife in their new surroundings, he was even more determined to control her than he had been in Kenya. The International Rescue Committee had helped him get a job, too, first as a night-shift cleaner at the Hilton and later as a landscaper. But the work was hard and he was constantly confused and embarrassed. Unable to speak English and unwilling to learn, he took his frustrations out on Maryan. He disliked that she worked, and he hated that she thought it earned her a measure of autonomy. The way Maryan saw it, she brought in more than half of their income, so she should have at least half the say in how the household was run. Yussuf disagreed, often forcefully. Over time, their fights grew even more ferocious. She would yell and cry, and he would slam his fists against the tables and the walls. Sometimes, he would physically block her from storming out into the hall. More than once, the neighbors called the police. But there was part of Maryan that felt sorry for Yussuf, part of her that knew she couldn’t leave him in a place where he couldn’t survive on his own. Each time the cops came, she kept her mouth shut.

Yussuf seemed threatened by Maryan’s prominent position in the community. He grew incensed when people he didn’t know called the house asking for her, and more than once he ripped the phone out of the wall. He also tried to sabotage Maryan’s friendships by spreading rumors that she had neglected their son. Once, when he and Maryan were meeting with an employment counselor at the International Rescue Committee, he announced that he had forbidden her from working outside the home. The counselor calmly reached across the desk and lifted up baby Mohamed, who had been swaddled in Maryan’s arms, handed him to Yussuf and told him to take the bus home. “You can control your child,” she said flatly, “But in America, you can’t control your wife.” Enraged, Yussuf stormed out of the room with the baby, a torrent of insults pouring out of his mouth in Somali. “You just follow the cadaan,” he sneered at Maryan, using the Somali word for whites. “You just follow their rules, and you don’t respect our religion.”

* * *

Maryan began to dread being in the apartment. Whenever Yussuf was there, she would find an excuse to go somewhere else with the baby, whether it was to the Reid Park Zoo with Nancy, who had a yearlong entry pass, or to Chuck E. Cheese with other friends from work. But the bond between her and Yussuf wasn’t completely severed, and feeling lonely and isolated, she sometimes let herself be drawn back into his arms. A little more than a year after they arrived in Arizona, she realized she was pregnant again.

Ambia was born with jaundice, a common blood disorder that made her skin appear slightly yellow. “You have a cursed child,” Yussuf said, when he first laid eyes on her at the University of Arizona Medical Center. The doctors said she would be just fine, but that Ambia needed to stay overnight for special therapy under a halogen light. They discharged Maryan, though, and told her to go home with Yussuf, a notion that struck her as preposterous. She wasn’t about to leave her baby in the care of people she didn’t know to be treated with a light machine she didn’t trust. In Kenya, no mother would leave her newborn at the hospital, but here the impassive white robed physicians clearly expected her to. She broke down crying, and implored them to let her stay. Eventually, they relented, and Maryan and Ambia were given a room together for the next three nights.

The counselor calmly reached across the desk and lifted up baby Mohamed, who had been swaddled in Maryan’s arms, handed him to Yussuf and told him to take the bus home. “You can control your child,” she said flatly, “But in America, you can’t control your wife.”

A few weeks later, when they were back home at the apartment on North Alvernon Way, a bill arrived in the mail. When Maryan read it, she let out a gasp: $16,000, for the care she and her daughter had received. It was more than a year’s salary at Jack in the Box. A knot forming in her chest, she dialed the billing department, unsure of what exactly she would say. But after she gave her patient code and verified her date of birth, the woman on the other end of the phone sounded surprised Maryan had called. “I’m showing no balance owed,” she said. “It’s been paid in full.”

Maryan never found out who paid that bill. She wondered if maybe it was the employment counselor from the International Rescue Committee, a woman whose name she can’t recall but who was always kind to her. Two years later, after her second daughter, Najma, was born, Maryan got up the courage to ask the counselor if she had been the guardian angel who had wiped out her debt. The woman scoffed at the suggestion. “I don’t have that kind of money,” she said.

But the counselor did have ideas about how Maryan could earn more money of her own: by pursuing a GED. With a high school equivalency certificate, a whole range of new job opportunities would open up—ones that paid better than $5 per hour and wouldn’t leave her clothes smelling like fried food.

Soon, Maryan was spending several hours a day at Pima Community College while an elderly Somali woman in their apartment building looked after the children. Maryan liked being back in school, but in the beginning, she was bewildered by her classmates. They put their feet on their desks and ate food during class. Acting like that at Abdul Aziz Primary would have earned you a beating. Were these students not afraid of the teachers? Did the teachers have no self-respect?

One of her courses at Pima was English as a Second Language, or ESL. Most of the assignments were simple worksheets that involved identifying errors in grammar or spelling. But the worksheets were supposed to serve a secondary function as well: introducing foreigners to American traditions and customs. Tailgating at sporting events was the subject of one memorable ESL worksheet, which advised students that the boozy tradition was “a fun part of college life and for sports fans in Illinois.” Maryan often found herself giggling quietly over assignments like these, which struck her as random to the point of absurdity. They weren’t even in Illinois, she thought to herself. And why on earth would she ever need to know about drunken college football parties?

Six months later, Maryan had her GED. Not long after that she got a job at St. Joseph’s Hospital, mopping up the surgical theater after operations. The pay was better than at Jack in the Box, and she was able to afford a drivers’ education course and eventually a used car. She was also able to send more money home to her parents. There had been all manner of expenses to cover, including tuberculosis medication for her father, whose health had taken a turn for the worse. Lately, she had also noticed additional charges on her credit card statement for e-books that her brother Asad had downloaded from Dadaab. The books were expensive, certainly more money than she would have spent on small luxuries for herself. But remembering the monotony of life in Dadaab, she was glad her brother had become a passionate reader. She hated to think of him wiling away his days in the heat, waiting in humiliating food distribution lines, and cooking over a fire pit. Books seemed to light him up, and thinking of him that way made her happy.

The two of them corresponded more frequently as the years wore on and Asad matured into a reserved and sensitive young man. She would create email and social media accounts for him so they could communicate more easily, then give him the log-in credentials over the phone. Sometimes, she would get email alerts warning that someone was trying to access her accounts from abroad. Those emails always made her smile.

She had come to think of Asad not just as a little sibling in need of direction, but as a partner in caring for their parents—she as the breadwinner in Arizona and he as the caregiver and problem-solver at home. Now instead of talking to Sharif about difficulties with doctors or the UN, it was always Asad she coordinated with. His was a comforting voice on the other end of the phone, and as time passed she felt herself leaning on him as well. When he was young, she had tried not to burden him with her own struggles. But the worse things got with Yussuf, the less of her suffering she was able to hide. It was strange opening up to someone she remembered only as a small child, someone whom fate had taken away from her and whose life was now so different than hers. They existed in totally separate universes, and yet there were things that only he could understand.

* * *

Maryan had another phone besides the one she used to call home with her $20 calling cards. It was slim and black and its existence was a closely guarded secret. In the contacts, there was only a single number saved: 911.

The emergency phone had come from a domestic violence counselor. Because Maryan had high blood pressure and crippling anxiety, her doctor had come to suspect she was in danger at home and referred her to a shelter for battered women. Even before that Maryan had thought about running away with her children, but she didn’t know who she could trust or where to turn for help. Yussuf had succeeded in turning much of the refugee community against her, spreading vicious rumors about his wayward “Western” wife who thought she was better than other Somalis and didn’t value their traditions. Even the idea of domestic violence was viewed with suspicion by many of the refugees she had helped translate for over the years. “If you are married and your husband beats you up, you have nothing to say because he’s your husband,” was how she summed up their thinking.

She hated to think of him wiling away his days in the heat, waiting in humiliating food distribution lines, and cooking over a fire pit. Books seemed to light him up, and thinking of him that way made her happy.

Yussuf never hit Maryan, but his constant emotional and psychological abuse had slowly broken her down. She would wake up in the middle of the night, heart racing, unable to bear the thought of another day with him. Even so, she felt paralyzed. Faith had always been important to her, and while divorce was technically allowed in Islam, it would make you an outcast. There was part of her that felt she had a religious duty to stay in the marriage as long as her husband did. And nothing had changed her belief that leaving Yussuf would crush her parents and forever change the way they looked at her. Running away to avoid getting married had been one thing. Divorcing the father of her three children would be quite another. “It felt like there was something holding me down that was heavier than me,” she recalled. “Like I was in the ocean and the waves were just overpowering me.”

But the situation had become untenable. She had started breaking down in public, crying in front of coworkers and in the middle of shifts at the hospital. She had missed work after one particularly painful fight, and then she had missed another day and another. Eventually, her boss had let her go. Yussuf had finally gotten his wish: a wife without a job.

Not long after that Maryan found herself alone on a ledge, looking down at what seemed like her only avenue of escape. As Yussuf pounded angrily on the locked door of their apartment, threatening to break it down, she teetered on the edge of a sliding-glass window, the smooth pavement of the parking lot beckoning from twenty feet below. She had reached the limit of what she could take. But as she contemplated stepping out of her life, it occurred to her that Yussuf probably wouldn’t care if she died. The thought of his indifference filled her with rage, and she pulled back from the ledge. Suddenly, she knew what she would do, and it was something that would hurt Yussuf, too. The next day, she sold her car and bought four plane tickets to the farthest place from Arizona she could think of that was still in the United States. Then she picked up the phone to tell her parents she was leaving Yussuf and moving the kids to Seattle.

Excerpted from Beyond the Sand and Sea by Ty McCormick. Published by St.Martin’s Press.