‘When we think of refugees, we don’t think of Princeton students, do we?’

Asad Hussein ’22
Frank Wojciechowski
The parents of Asad Hussein ’22 fled the war in Somalia in 1991 for Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. That’s where Hussein was born and spent his life — until he arrived in Princeton in early July to take part in the Freshman Scholars Institute. Hussein is the fourth person in his family to move to the United States — in 2005, his sister Maryan moved here from Dadaab; his parents arrived last year. Hussein, whose birth name is Mohamed Hassan, adopted the pen name “Asad Hussein” when he began writing for publications such as The New York Times [1] and The Guardian [2] after graduating from high school. He talked with PAW about growing up in Kenya and what he hopes Americans understand about refugees.

This edited and condensed version of the conversation appears in the Sept. 12 issue of PAW. Scroll down to read the full transcript.

 What was it like growing up in Dadaab?

I had a happy childhood. But in the background, there was a lot of hardship. Sometimes you would see people who couldn’t afford food. The refugees were not allowed to work, to do anything. So because they had a lot of energy and a lot of different talents, they put those talents into other things — in art and into education especially, and in religion too. What kept them at the time was so much faith, so much art, and so much investment in education. You would see old people learning from the younger ones; younger people learning from the old. And I think that shaped the way I think about education and generally about the education process. If you were good at one subject, you could teach the other person. That person, if they were good at a subject, they would teach you too. It’s something that’s still happening in Dadaab, and I’m very proud of that.

‘A Symbol of Resilience’

I mainly knew my sister through the stories my mother told. She said Maryan loved to get in fights when she was young, prompting the nickname Askari, or soldier. In sixth grade, because teachers made sexual advances and disparaged her, she dropped out of school. She sold potatoes to support us and helped bring up my two younger siblings and me. She survived a civil war and a destitute life in a refugee camp. So I always thought of Maryan as a symbol of resilience, a woman who, in the words of the Somali poet Hadraawi, can kill a warrior and protect a herd of camels.
Excerpted from a piece by Asad Hussein ’22 in The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 20, 2016 [3]

What was it like for you in high school?

It was pretty strange — just when I was starting high school, there was an insecurity in the camp, and the teachers deserted the schools. We had to sort of be on our own and do everything on our own. So a typical day would be just going to school if you felt like it, and not going if you wanted because there were no teachers.

What did you do after you finished high school in 2014?

I spent most of my time looking for a way to get a higher education. After completing high school, there are not many options for you. You’re not allowed to move around in Kenya as a refugee. You’re not a Kenyan citizen. What you are is just a refugee. There were scholarships in the camp, and I applied for those scholarships, but I didn’t get them. But when things didn’t work out, I just kept on writing. I was writing for international newspapers, as well as the local newspapers in Kenya, and that’s what I spent the last five years doing. I was also teaching English at my former high school.

What was it like for your family when you were accepted to Princeton?

My parents didn’t go through formal schooling like I did, and they still don’t really know what Princeton is. I suspect, though, that they are very happy for me, and they know that this could be my gateway out of Dadaab. Getting into Princeton has been a big deal for me. But I always think of home and of the injustices that are still there. And when you are at a place like Princeton, which is a place of plenty, you think of the scarcity back home, and you get angry at it.

What would you like to study?

I still have no idea what I want to study, but if it involves writing and ideas and reading, I think that’s something I would wish to pursue. I’m here to learn and to keep an open mind.

Will you go back to Africa one day?

I may go back to Africa. I always have been a refugee. I don’t have a country, in a way. I’m from Somalia, because my parents are from there. I’m not from Kenya, because Kenya has put in place policies that keep refugees from contributing to the society. I’m a Somali, but the experience connects me to Kenya. And that I think is what connects me to Kenyan students who are here.

What should we know about refugees?

When we think of refugees, we don’t think of Princeton students, do we? We think of scary people, or people who are out to harm us and to do us bad. But being a refugee is just being cast by life — being thrown out of your home, and looking for a home now. And it can take ages: You can spend your whole life moving around. Americans move all around the world, and we don’t think of them as refugees. Refugee is [a term] for the people that were thrown out by war and who have been uprooted from their countries by war. But a refugee is a person just looking for home and safety. And I hope we would accept them as one of our own, too, because their kids could come to Princeton.

Interview conducted and condensed by A.W.


TRANSCRIPT FOR AUDIO VERSION

Allie Wenner: Welcome, Asad, and thank you so much for being here today.

Asad Hussein: Thank you for having me, Allie.

AW: And as I mentioned, I read some of your stories that you wrote — including one in The New York Times, and some of the others. But I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your family, and catch me up as to where they are today?

AH: Well, my family, to give you background, fled the war in Somalia in 1991, and they came to Kenya to seek refuge in the refugee camp in Kenya. And that’s where I grew up, and that’s where I was actually born. And now my parents are here as well. They came last year. Through so many different processes — because of the new administration — there was a Muslim ban, and they were obviously from Somalia, which was one of the countries in the Muslim ban. And they had it really rough. It was my sister who was sponsoring them, and she came here 13 years ago I think, in 2005. And she has been here since. And it was because the camp we were living at the time was being shut down by the Kenyan government. And my sister petitioned for them, because she was afraid they wouldn’t have a place to go to, and they came here last year, thankfully.

AW: But the camp didn’t end up getting shut down, right?

AH: No. It didn’t get shut — it was just, I think, more political than we thought it was. And there were elections at the time in Kenya. I think they just wanted to propel against the refugees at the time, and to get more votes. That seems to be the way to go if you want to move forward, you just ask some people to get out of your country. And if you do that well, then people will vote for you. It’s sad, but it’s true, I think.

AW:   You mentioned in one of your stories that your family was affected at least initially — or thought they might be affected by the travel ban. How did they end up —

AH: They were actually affected by the travel ban. And my parents, my mom and dad, didn’t come together to the U.S. My dad came first, after the first travel ban. And the travel ban was in place for a while, and we had to wait for them to reinstate travel for refugees. That’s when, again, my mom left just after the second travel ban. And it’s very interesting, in a way, because it was between travel bans, and my family’s been waiting for resettlement for 13 years. Which didn’t work out, by the way. And it was under Trump that they finally got to the States. Which in a way is ridiculous, because we started the process during the Bush administration. The whole of the Trump era we were still there, and nothing worked out. And quite ridiculous.

AW: Yeah, pretty ironic.

AH: It’s very ironic, very ironic. And this is when we all came here. Which is pretty strange.

AW: I wanted to ask — I think I read that you have two younger siblings. Is that right?

AH: Yeah. I have two younger siblings.

AW: Where are they?

AH: They now live in Nairobi. They’ve left the camp. They started in Nairobi, and they’re there now.

AW: Did they want to come to the U.S. as well?

AH: I think so, but the thing is it’s not so easy to come here. As I’ve said, you know, my family’s been waiting for 13 years to be resettled. It didn’t work out. And when my sister was petitioner for my parents, she could only petition for them — for one, it costs a lot of money. For two, she was not actually allowed to petition for her siblings. And if she did then it would take longer than the process took — it would take seven years or so. So she thought, let me help my parents first, and let’s see what to do about the siblings. And my family, in a way, was torn apart. And I didn’t know I would come here too. I didn’t know I would end up here, until I got into Princeton. I was like oh, I can join you guys now. So a year ago I didn’t know I would be here. So it was, in a way, just so many coincidences getting together.

AW: Very nice. And I wanted to ask about your childhood — what was it like growing up in the refugee camp — in Dadaab — is that how it’s pronounced?

AH: Yeah, it is. But you did pretty well I think, Dadaab. Dadaab is how it’s pronounced. It’s a Somali word, by the way. It means a hard, rocky place. Which quite describes the life there in a way. I was born there, and growing up, you know, you don’t just think it’s a refugee camp — that’s not how reality works. When you’re born in a place, you think that’s all there is in life. And I had a happy childhood, and I grew up playing with the other kids. But in the background too, there was a lot of hardship.

Sometimes you would see people couldn’t afford food every day. Looking inside, I can see why, but at the time you just think this is how life is. And this is how things are. But I think it was an interesting place. Because people didn’t have anything to do — the refugees were not allowed to work, to do anything. So people — because they have a lot of energy and a lot of different talents, they put those talents into other things — in art and into education especially. And in religion too. So what kept them at the time was so much faith, so much art, and so much investment in education. And people wanted to learn English — English was thought of at the time as sort of your gateway to the other life — which I didn’t know about at the time. I was like, you know, this is all there is to life. But all parents, you know, because of interviews they had to do during registration — I think they’re called verification exercises where, when they’re doing the headcount on the new refugees are doing a headcount — you go for interviews, and they ask about the family background and about basically their whole story. And they couldn’t tell their stories, because they didn’t know the language, English, which the interviewers spoke in. And they had to now teach us the language and to tell us, you know, go to school.

I remember the first time I went to school. My mom asked me to ask my father to take me to school. Not because of the education I would get, but because she said I would be able to translate for them. And luckily, I think, I’ve been translating between languages all my life, so later on when I completed high school, the first job I did was as a translator with the refugee agency. So it has become, in a way, a talent, though I didn’t think of it that way.

But there was a lot of hardship. But I didn’t think about it then. I just had a happy childhood, like anyone else I think. And I knew that that was all there was to life. And I’ve had, you know, so many people tell me that. I’ve seen people telling stories, people playing songs, people reading the Quran, learning English. I could see all those things there, because people couldn’t do other things, and they actually didn’t have the ability to do so much as they had to create and to work in art and in education — and especially education at that time was a big, big thing. You would see old people learning from the younger ones, younger people learning from the old. And I think that, in a way, had shaped the way I think about education and about generally, about the education process. It was always, you know, someone teaching the other. And I remember even in high school when we didn’t have teachers, we always had each other. If you were good at one subject, you could teach the other person. That person, if they were good at a subject, they would teach you too. And it’s something that’s still — is then, up to this day — in Dadaab. And I’m very proud of that.

AW: And Asad, you mentioned your high school education a bunch just now. And I’m wondering, what was a typical day like for you in high school?

AH: In high school, it was pretty strange because just when I was starting high school, there was an insecurity in the camp, and the teachers — who were mostly Kenyans — deserted the schools. And we had to sort of be on our own and to read on our own and to do everything on our own. So a typical day would be just going to school if you feel like it, and not going if you wanted because there were no teachers to take attendance or to do those sort of things. And that has been my high school life, I think, in a way.

AW: What’s the status of Dadaab now? So you mentioned it might be closing, it might not be closing.

AH: Dadaab first started as a temporary camp in 1991. And the people who came there actually thought of it as a temporary place. Legend says my mom when she first came there, she said I wouldn’t plant any trees, because she thought she wouldn’t stay long enough to see the trees grow and to sit under their shade. How wrong she was. She’s been there for 25 years. So — but that is what people thought, you know — I would go there during the war, the war would end, and I would go back. In their imagination, at least, that’s what they thought. It would take it would a couple of days perhaps, a couple of months. But everyone always thought the war would end and they would go back. That didn’t happen. And the place stayed on, and it turned into a city now. And it’s better than the cities, the Kenyan cities, that are around it. The villages that are around it.

AW: What do you mean it’s better?

AH: Because of the services it has, because of the education system and everything. Dadaab’s usually — even in terms of education, though the people there don’t have enough resources — that’s better than the surrounding areas. And that just shows you the ingenuity of the refugees there. But still, people think of it as a temporary place.

And everyone, it’s sort of a transit for people to come and leave. People have always left to Europe and to America and to other parts of the world. But Kenya doesn’t consider Dadaab as part of it. And that’s why, you know, even growing up there I was never part of the Kenyan fabric. I remember, you know, I was born there, but Kenya doesn’t recognize me as a citizen. I’d never been to Somalia until 2017, so I always thought of myself, you know, as part of Kenya, but not really because you’re not. You can’t move around, you can’t do so much. So Dadaab is stuck in a sort of limbo — it’s between places. It’s not in Kenya, it’s not Somalia, but the stories that our parents told us tied us to Somalia. And now that I’m here, you know, I sort of think of home — and when I think of home, I usually think of that contrast between Dadaab and Princeton. In Dadaab it’s sort of temporary. We almost always knew we would leave. It could take ages — and it did take ages. But we almost always thought we would leave.

But here I think Princeton brags about how old it is. You would walk around here and you would see, you know, the Class of 1830-something. And you’re like look at this place, it has stayed on for so long. But it just shows you people here are not ready to leave. We are not ready. I was at an ice cream parlor the other day, and it said this mirror is from 1933. I was like 1933? The mirror is still here? What’s going on? So the contrast, still, I think shocks me. The contrast between Dadaab — which was temporary, and still is thought of as a temporary place — and Princeton now, where I am at. Which is, in a way, older than I thought any place could be.

AW: That’s really funny. What were you doing after you graduated high school and before you came here. I know you mentioned you were working as a translator for a little bit of it?

AH: Well, I spent most of my time looking for a way to get a higher education. I completed high school, but the thing is, there are not many options for you. You can’t move around in Kenya, like I said — you’re not allowed as a refugee to move around. You’re not a Kenyan citizen. So what you are is just a refugee. And you don’t have a way to get higher education. There was scholarships in the camp, and I applied for those scholarships, but I didn’t get them. And I had to look for a way to get a higher education.

When things didn’t work out, I just kept on writing. I was writing for international newspapers, as well as the local newspapers in Kenya, and that’s what I actually spent the last five years, I think, doing. When I was in high school, I was writing. When I left high school I was still writing. And I still am writing, in a way. So I was teaching at my former high school, I was teaching English, voluntarily — it was just something I was doing on the side as I was writing. So I was writing, and then I was also teaching.

AW: And when did you realize that you wanted to go to Princeton?

AH: Well, I really — you know, people here think of that also as a big deal here. People are like, I knew I would come here since when I was 9. I didn’t know I would come here, to be honest. I didn’t even apply on my own. There was a friend of mine who was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine. And he was working in Kenya. He was the bureau chief for Foreign Policy in Kenya. And I wrote for him — I wrote an essay about my family [4] about the travel ban for him. And after the essay we met and we were talking about the essay and about Dadaab, of course. And he realized he had thought that I had been to university. He thought I was a part of the group of students who usually go to Canada to study and I came back from there and I was writing — that’s what he thought. Turns out, I didn’t actually go to university. He was really surprised, and he told me you know you could apply to American universities. And I thought, oh can I do that my own? And he really did help me through the application process. He even wrote me a recommendation. But I didn’t know that, you know, I could just apply to American universities and get in. So that’s how I applied to several universities. And Princeton was one of them.

And when I got in, it was really shocking in March when I received — when the released the decision. And they’ve said you’ve been accepted into Princeton, I was like oh stop. And still, you know, I didn’t register that — I didn’t know it was a big deal. You don’t think of it that way — not many people in Kenya know about Princeton. So still it was a big news story — but still, I didn’t really register it until I finally came here, and I was like oh this place is really old. And really, and it’s not temporary, so you could be here forever. So I didn’t register it until I came here. And it just happened accidentally — I didn’t know it would happen. And my getting into Princeton, I think, is one of the miracles I’ve ever experienced.

AW: What was it like for your family when you were accepted? Did they also not really understand the enormity of it?

AH: My parents didn’t go through formal schooling like I did, and they still don’t really know what Princeton is. I suspect, though, they are very happy for me and they know that this could be my gateway out of Dadaab.

But I think, you know — and I’ve been thinking about this the last few days — we always think of ourselves, and we think that we can get out of things on our own. But I think you are tied, in a way, to the people who came before you and the people who have been with you all your life. And getting into Princeton has been a big deal for me. But now that I’m here, I always think of home and of the injustices that are still there — my friends and my family members who are still stuck between a rock and a hard place — Dadaab. And when you are at a place like Princeton, which is a rich place, a place of plenty, you think now of the scarcity back home, and you get angry at it. And because you know it could be better — you know it’s not permanent.

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville says, “I’m tormented with a pining — longing, for the remote.” And in that passage he’s talking about travel, but the last few days I’ve reinterpreted that, and I think of it as home. I’ve been, now, tormented by a longing for home. And I’m tormented by the injustices there, and by the people there. And I think we could do better than that, Kenya could do better than that. When I was in Kenya, you know, I always thought of myself as just a refugee. When I left Kenya, now I’m here, now I’ve become something larger than myself — I’m an African student. And I’m carrying the burden of an entire continent, which is sad because I don’t have citizenship of any country. I’m stateless. But I really connected with the Kenyans who are here — and they don’t ask me for citizenship, as long as I can speak Swahili, they are my brothers and sisters. And that’s something that’s missing back home. People don’t think of you as one of their own. And these people are Somalis, and they’re very proudly Somalis. I’m from Somalia. But I think they can have two things — they can be from Somalia, and they can live in Kenya. And contribute to the community in Kenya, like Somalis do all over the world. Somalis who come here without speaking English and they really adjust to the place and they become successful professionals. Which beats even my imagination — because I came here just the other day, I speak English, but I still have a hard time here adjusting to the culture and to the language even. But these people can come here, and adjust to such a vast culture and a vastly different language, then I think they can do the same thing back home. And they can adjust to that situation there, and they can contribute to that society. Just like I could do if I was back home.

If I were allowed to go to a Kenyan school, I think I could do just as well. But you can’t do that. You can’t afford to go to a Kenyan school. The government, the Kenyan system put in place policies that stop refugees even from traveling and from moving around in Kenya. So there’s so much they can do, there’s so much they can’t do now. And I can see the contrast between the two, and I get angry at times. I’m still angry, I think, in a way.

AW: Well that’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes anger can be a good motivator.

AH: Yeah. I hope so. It does motivate me, I hope.

AW: And do you have any idea what you might want to study at Princeton, Asad?

AH: Well, it’s the writing that got me into Princeton. And I love writing and reading. And I think that’s something I would want to continue. I still have no idea what I want to study — I can’t say I want to study this, but if it involves writing and ideas and reading I think that’s something I would wish to pursue.

I came with an open mind, I don’t pretend that I know anything. I think if I knew something I wouldn’t be at a school, would I? So I’m just here to learn and to keep an open mind and to contribute to the conversations here, and to learn from people that I also share my experiences and what I know about life and about the human experience.

AW: And I think I read somewhere that you said you wanted to do for Kenya what — what’s his name — Khaled Hosseini — did for Afghanistan?

AH: Well I didn’t say Kenya. I didn’t say Kenya.

AW: Okay. I apologize.

AH: I still by, the way — I think I’m Somali. I’m stateless, but I’m a Somali. And I don’t want to say I’m from Kenya, because Kenya hasn’t let me be one of their own. And I think for political reasons, I wouldn’t say I’m from Kenya. I’m a Somali.

But the experience connects me to Kenya. And that I think is what connects me to Kenyan students who are here. But I want to do for Somalis. The Somali now experience — we have been nomads all our lives. My family has been nomads for generations. We have been between places, between countries. So it’s the same nomadic nature that got me here, I think, and that got my great grandparents moving around East Africa. So I don’t have a home that I can call this is my home. I’ve been to Somalia, and Somalia, you know, has been through a lot. And the people there just ask me about Kenya. So I became an ambassador for Kenya in Somalia — which is strange. And I became an ambassador for Kenya here, too. Once you say you are from Kenya, then you’re from Kenya. But Kenya hasn’t let me be one of their own.

And I now think of the Somali experience as a universal experience — one that’s shared by so many people who have been cast into so many different places either by the war or by their own nomadic nature. And it’s fine. I want to capture the experience and to tell their stories and to break some of the stereotypes that the world has about us and about our experience and culture. But Kenya — the experience connects me to it. And I hope Kenya accepts the children that are in Dadaab. It didn’t accept me, and because of that, now I can’t say I’m from Kenya.

I think it would be, you know, crazy for me to claim a country that didn’t really give be citizenship and where I couldn’t even move around. But I am a Somali at heart, and I believe to do for Somalia what Khaled Hosseini did for Afghanistan — I think that was the line in my essay.

AW: And do you think you might want to go back to Africa one day to work?

AH: Well, yeah. I think I may go back to Africa.

AW: Keeping it general this time.

AH: If Africa is a place. I think that was really good. You know, I always have been a refugee. And you don’t have a country, in a way. You know, you’re from Somalia because your parents are from there. You’re not from Kenya, because Kenya, as I keep saying, has put in place policies that keep the refugees from contributing to the society. So I always didn’t know what I was, and I came here and said I am from Africa — the illusion that you can be from a continent. That you can collect the stories of nearly a billion people, just keeps me happier, I think. And I like the generality of it, I can just say I’m from Africa, so no one would know that I’m stateless.

AW: And if you could tell Americans one thing about refugees, what would you want them to know?

AH: Well, I think that’s why I came here in the first place. When we think of refugees, we don’t think of Princeton students, do we? When we think of refugees we think of scary people, you know, people who are out to harm us and to do us bad. But that’s not the thing — being a refugee is just being cast by life — being thrown out of your home, and looking for a home now. And it can take ages, you know. You can spend your whole life moving around. But I hope people would understand being nomads as we are — by nature, as human beings — we are tied to the hunters and gatherers of the old ages. And we are nomadic by nature. The sedentary life has handicapped us in a way, and it has thrown us out of place. But at heart we are still nomads, and we will move around.

We need to accept each other, because you need to move around too. The Americans move around, all around the world, and we don’t think of them as refugees. Refugees is just for the ones that were thrown out by war and who have been uprooted from their countries by war. But a refugee is a person just looking for home and safety. And we, I hope, would accept them as one of our own too, because their kids could come to Princeton. They could come to Princeton.

So everyone, in a way, is a refugee at heart, but we only see the stereotypes that come with being a refugee. We don’t think of refugee as the nomadic nature that is in us. And we don’t associate it with moving around. But I hope Americans would understand that being a refugee is not really harming others, it’s about looking for home and safety.

AW: And what’s your impression of America so far?

AH: America’s a strange place. I’ve been really shocked by the culture. I’ve spent a large part of my life consuming American culture — especially American literature — and I always thought of America as a paradise, a place where, you know, you can just go and your stresses and life — stress about life — would just go away. But that is not the thing. America’s just a place like everywhere else. And it has a culture, language, that would blow your mind.

But I think it’s an interesting place. It’s a place of diversity from what I’ve seen so far. I think that’s what makes it interesting. Everyone I spoke with, since I came, has a backstory. What I think of as a backstory — someone will tell you, I was born here. I’m from D.C., but my parents are from Pakistan. I was born here. I’m from Kentucky, but my parents are from there. So everyone is from somewhere else. Everyone has a backstory. And it’s really strange for a country with so many people, with so many different background stories, to not accept refugees.

I come here with a backstory too, with a background story too, and everyone else that I’ve met has a background story. Even those who have been here for ages. The other day I went to shop and I was at this shopping mall that I think was 200 years old, and at the counter I struck a conversation with the owner, and he told me, oh, you’re a student here. I told him I’m a new student, and he said, this shop is 200 years old, but you know what?’ My great-great grandparents are from Germany. And it just shows you that everyone here is from elsewhere in a way. In life, or at heart we are all somewhere else. We long for different places. And I think the diversity is a strength, not a weakness. And I love that about America so far. The background story I think is what I think of it as.

AW: Your path to Princeton has been non-traditional, I guess you could say. Do you think that you bring something unique to campus? Maybe a different perspective or a different way of thinking about things?

AH: I think everyone that comes to Princeton brings a different way of thinking about things. But I think I bring a different experience, and a different way of looking at life and a different story. In class, even now, the classes I’m taking, you know, everyone brings a different sort of perspective to the class. And when we are reading Plato, for example, everyone would look back at their life and at their experiences and they would connect that to Plato. And I have learned so much from others. And I hope I’m contributing to class too, because I’m connecting the text to my own story and to my own experience. And that is something, I think, everyone else comes with. It’s not something that’s exclusive to me. But my story is so strange that other’s now have felt, in a way, connecting to it. Even when it’s so different from them. And that just shows you that the human experience — so strange, yet so common. And we can all identify with other stories — even when those stories don’t ring a bell in our heart. And we can’t say oh, that’s me. But we can still say that could be me. And I think that’s interesting.

AW: Definitely. We’re almost out of time Asad, but I want to say thank you so much for coming in today and sharing your story.

AH: Thank you so much for having me.

AW: It’s been great.

AH: Thank you.