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Boyah J. Farah: A Voice for Refugees

The Somali-born American writer discusses his early life in the war-torn country and becoming an American.
The Somali-born American writer discusses his early life in the war-torn country and becoming an American.

Boyah J. Farah‘s nonfiction work has been featured in Salon, the Guardian and Truthdig. Farah, who came to the United States in 1993 as a teenage refugee, participated in the memoir incubator at GrubStreet (a creative writing school) in Boston. In their conversation, Farah discusses the dangers of President Trump’s “tribal” rhetoric and the parallels he sees with the incitement of violence in Somalia during that country’s war. He talks about the glorification of war by those who have never experienced it firsthand and how those people can never understand the alternative “galaxy” of living through war. And Farah tells Scheer about how writing has been a therapeutic experience for him.


Boyah J. Farah – refugee and writer – @Boyahfarah

Robert Scheer

Joshua ScheerRebecca Mooney

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests; in this case, Boyah J. Farah, from Somalia originally. And he’s a writer; he’s got his master’s in the university in Massachusetts, and he’s published in a number of journals, Salon and one of the Harvard publications, and so forth. But he wasn’t always living the good life there in the New England area. He was a refugee, and a refugee from the war in Somalia going back to 1990. And this started when Bush, the first President Bush was in; and we got involved, and those of you who know the movie Black Hawk Down, that was a great drama and got a lot of attention. And then in 1993 Boyah was able to go as a refugee to the United States. And so that makes you kind of an expert on the issue that’s being debated. Because first of all, you are a Muslim; you are from a country that is on Donald Trump’s list of suspect countries. And you have, of course, proved to be a very productive immigrant. And you are a U.S. citizen, and so forth. So one of the articles that you wrote that got my attention was the accusation that Trump is engaging in the kind of tribalism, divide and conquer, that tore Somalia apart.

BF: Yeah, and every time, as a writer–I’m not a politician, I’m just a writer–and the way my writing works is, every time I get upset or every time I see something, I go to my favorite seat at Starbucks. And not just any Starbucks, but one particular Starbucks, one seat; I go there and I start writing, you know, write about what I’m upset about. And the day that our President Trump announced that, I just had to go there and write an essay.

RS: But you use the word “tribalism.” And you, you know, as you describe the situation in Somalia, the basic violence came really not from religion but from clans, and fighting over power, and a fight that was stoked by foreign governments as well. And then you make this use of this word “tribalism” to describe Trump. Why don’t you tell us something about why you use that?

BF: The words are important. In 1990 Somalia, the question–Somalis, there is one tribe, but there’s different clans in Somalia. And there was a leader that exploited that in order to achieve his own objective. And he used whatever means necessary, however destructive it was, to divide the people and to make sure they’d fight each other. And that experience that lives inside of me is now awakened by the rhetoric of our president. And that’s the reason why I can see–I can see the relationship, I can see the words that’s being used, the divisive words. Because before you and I were born, we were words; you know, two people got together, they talked, we came out. That’s how important words are. 

Last Tuesday I was sitting at Starbucks, exactly the same place that I was sitting when I wrote that essay. And let me tell you, a guy, a random guy came in with a knife. Just last Tuesday. And the guy that he had was an Indian guy that has nothing to do with anything at all. And later on we found out that the guy was mentally unstable. But I am sure he heard that rhetoric from the television, from our leaders, and he, you know, acted on it. So that’s what I mean, that I can see the relationship between my past and what I am seeing now. But I never thought, never, that something like that would follow me to this land, never. But history repeats, and everything that’s happening right now, it had happened before. 

RS: Well, it’s curious that you’d think it wouldn’t follow you to this land, because this land, in the time when Donald Trump said we were always great, did a lot of meddling in the world. And it wasn’t always on the side of virtue, including quite recently the case of Syrian and Libyan refugees where we had something to do with the instability that was created. In the case of Somalia, there’s a particular connection which I can’t quite grasp. But the dictator who sought power, [Mohamed Farrah] Aidid, was someone who at some point or other got along with us, and then we didn’t get along with him; and that’s, you know, the movie Black Hawk down is really about his ability to humiliate the United States militarily in that specific instance, and so forth. But one of the ironies, his own son, one of his sons was sent by him to the United States, where he studied in California and he became, and upon graduation he joined the Marines. And he was actually in Operation Desert Storm, and after he went home to Somalia and his clan, Aidid’s clan, when Aidid died from wounds that he had in an attack, this son from the U.S. Marines was made the leader of his country. And this, you know, in a way, I mean, it’s tragic, it’s horrible, lots of people died; but there’s sort of a comic opera sense to it. What is your take on that, the U.S. connection with your African country?

BF: When that was happening, we were running away from the war. Once a fire is lit, once the culture is changed–because war can actually change culture. There’s two things that can change culture: music and war, revolution. When the revolution happened in Somalia, the fire ate the whole country, including Farrah Aidid. It’s a really complicated subject when you look at–you know, when I try to read what happened in Somalia. But if I look at the contribution that the United States of America has done for the Somalis right after the war, it’s unmatched. You know, the war that has happened in Somalia–I know recently I read somewhere that says, you know, the international community was involved in destabilizing the country. But the Somalis also had a lot of responsibility in that. And I know each generation lives upon the other generation, whatever the other generation leaves behind. And I feel like our forefathers did not leave behind something that I can live on and I can emulate, you know. Somalia has been on a roller coaster ride since 1990–since 1960, when we got our independence. And there is a lot of competing interests; America is one of that. When I went back to Somalia in 2013, Americans had, we had army there, a mercenary army; so [have] other countries. So there’s a lot of competing interests in Somalia, and Somalia is no longer one entity; there is multiple entities operating within the country. 

RS: It’s not as if you can pick one time and say, well, that problem got solved and now things are fine. The fact is, there’s great drought and suffering there now; there’s instability, there’s fighting. And you know, it just seems to me, and the reason I wanted to talk to you, we have a view of the world that somehow people have done this damage to themselves, which there’s some truth to it. But when we look at these refugee populations, as you describe them, you describe two of your brothers dying from malaria. You describe being in a hospital where a body, decomposing body, is in a bag next to you for three, four days while you’re surviving. You talk about rapes, and you talk about terrible violence, and so forth. And you know, we have this idea that somehow refugees are sort of this nameless herd of people around, you know, destabilizing other countries. And what your writing, what’s so poignant about it, is you remind us these are fully functioning human beings like yourself, and that the labels we put on people don’t really tell the story. So in your case, you were one of these Muslim refugees from a country where there are Muslims, that our current president Donald Trump is demonizing. And yet the basic fighting in Somalia was not over Muslim versus other, right?

BF: It was not. The tragedy of this is, leadership matters. Leadership matters, and always, in any conflict, there’s always a leader. You know, when there’s something messed up, you got to look at the leader, who’s in charge of this, who made this decision. Because it is the decision that shapes our destiny. So it is remarkable that President Trump must realize that this is not going to be something that only–you know, when people divide, it’s going to touch everyone. No one will be immune from it. So my writing is just to remind, I just want to–every time I talk to somebody, I always thought that my mind, people understood what I understood, my experience was the same as other people’s. So that’s the realization that I always had, and then a few times I spoke to people, and I realized that we actually live in two different galaxies. So what I’m trying to do is, I’m trying to gap between the galaxy of those who have not seen war, who have not seen pain, who do not know the culture of war and what it does, who don’t appreciate what they have. There’s hot water here, there’s cold water here, there is a lot of fantastic things in the United States of America. The best investment that one can make is to invest in another human being’s life, really. Because you do that, tomorrow–now, I do right now, a lot of things that I do nowadays is in honor of all the people that have helped me when I came to this country with nothing. 

So our leaders have to understand the value of investing in other people, other human beings. Including refugees. You know, because we have–I had no choice in the destruction of Somalia. I had nothing to do with it. Other people made that decision for me. But I paid the price. It is kind of unfair. So whenever I write, I’m just trying to make sure people realize that hey, you know,  this is not the case that we are–this is a small planet; there are other species; it’s not only two-legged creatures that are here, there are other species also; we must take care of one another. You know, this realization came from the war and my survival in it, and all the other two-legged creatures that helped me out when I was young. So somehow, I’m hoping that President Trump will read my essay and realize that, hey, we’re not the enemies. You know, Somalia is the enemy with each other; we’ve been fighting each other over nothing. And our fight is not our fight; our fight came from outsiders. You know, there is outsiders who incentivize our battles; we realize that. You know, the new president of Somalia understands that. I understand that. The new president of Somalia, Farmajo [Mohamed Abdullahi], who was elected, I think last month, came from the U.S; he got educated in New York; he went back. He has tremendous love for the United States of America, because this is the first place that took him in; this is where he got educated. This is where I got educated. So the damage that President Trump is projecting, or is doing, is remarkable. All the good things that the United States of America has done, he is destroying it with his words, and probably his deeds.

RS: Well, as you say, leadership matters. And education matters. And one of the points you made in your article for Transition magazine, I guess that’s at the Hutchins Center at Harvard, is that where–I mean, were you in some sort of writing program there, or they just ran the piece?

BF: They just ran the piece.

RS: And it’s a moving piece, because it sort of, first of all, crosses the line from being an African who is then in America, and an African American. And you describe a scene where you’re on your way to, you have an appointment with someone, a writing coach, someone’s helping you with your writing. And you were in a very good writing school, and it’s one of the things you worked on in your graduate program and so forth, and that you teach now. And you were sitting in a car in a white suburb, right? Wayland, Massachusetts. And you describe this scene of people going by and staring at you, and taking your license number, and what are you doing in this neighborhood. So suddenly you’re not an African who is in America; suddenly you’re having the experience of a lot of African Americans who were born here, right?–

BF: Indeed, I mean–

RS: –and are in the wrong neighborhood, and it was a very powerful essay for that reason, of crossing those lines, and the simplification of who we are–oh, you’re an undocumented– oh, you’re a Mexican American– oh, you’re an African– you know, no! We’re all complex, we all have lots of tendencies, and particularly this word “Muslim,” which our president simplifies to describe this, you know, hugely complex, varied phenomena in the world. And in your case, you’re one of the Muslim refugees we’re supposed to be apprehensive about from a country that he has actually mentioned. And you know, again, as a writer, you must be deeply offended by the character profiles of people as the simple, divide-and-conquer enemy.

BF: You know, they say time–there is wisdom in the progression of time. When I was coming from the refugee camp, America was heaven. I did not want God to kill me in that refugee camp without seeing America. And then, you know, I get to come to America, I get to go to school, I get to try to escape from my past; you know, I wanted to live in this galaxy, where there’s peace. And I wanted to escape the galaxy where there’s war, my past. And then, you know, I worked a while, I tried to contribute to as many two-legged creatures that I can; those that I can help, I tried to help them out. And that was my way of restoring my broken past. But the more I stay in the belly, metaphorically, the belly of America, the more you get to see what black folks in this country go through. And there was a danger in not realizing that I’m African American. Because when you are from another country, I had different lenses with which to look at the world. In Somalia, the nickname of Somalia is “nation of poets.” They value words more than anything else, and they say dignity is equal to death; if you lose dignity, there is no reason to live. That’s the culture I came from. And there is one God, and there is no hierarchy; you have to respect man, man has to respect you. And if that person loses respect, you let him know. 

Of course, you know, I get introduced again and again that I’m black, that I am African American. And then, you know,  you get to accept it. The more you live in the belly, the more you understand that, hey, that what African Americans complained about for many years, it is true. And not only is it true in literature, but I have experienced it, so I know for sure it’s true. And then you get to accept that, hey, I am an African American, and this has happened. And that particular incident, I learned to be on time. So I went to my friend’s residence so she could help me with my writing; I went there an hour earlier to make sure I’d get there on time, so I parked right across from her house. And all of a sudden, I see people taking pictures of my plate. So I’m like– 

RS: You mean your license plate.

BF: License plate. And I wasn’t really sure why, but I had–I mean, I knew I was in the wrong place, perhaps; I’m like, what happened? And then all of a sudden a guy comes to me, takes a picture of my license, my plate, and then he comes to my window–

RS: This was in May of 2015, this is not ancient history, yeah.

BF: Yes. And then he took a picture of my face. That kind of messed with my dignity. And then a cop came a few minutes later. And as soon as the cop came, my friend also saw as she drove by, and she stopped and she was like, you know, “What’s happening here?” And the guy was like, “Oh, this is a close knit community.” You know. I’m not really upset. The only difference is, I’m a writer, so I had to get back to that seat and write about that particular experience.

RS: So let me just take a quick break here for the stations to identify themselves, and we’ll be right back with Boyah Farah, who came to this country as a refugee and now is a very important, significant writer…So we’re back with Boyah Farah, who is telling a story of the refugee who then becomes the American, and a citizen. And it’s interesting. You came to this country from the turmoil of Somalia for, among other things, quiet and safety; sanity. And you were describing at the beginning of this interview being in Starbucks–I don’t mean to give a lot of publicity to Starbucks [laughter], but you’re not alone, being a writer and sort of using it as your office; I find that quite common. But you describe a scene, what was it, last week, where somebody came into a Starbucks there in Massachusetts where you were and tried to stab an Indian American, or an Indian person?

BF: Yeah, he actually stabbed. And we found out later on that the guy was not mentally stable. But the fact that he randomly came in with two knives and just stabbed somebody right there, that could have been me, and said you know, “get out of my country.” Because I came from a war zone, because this is a small little space where I haven’t seen gory stuff like that since, you know, I left Somalia, it almost violated my space; you know, that little space that I retreat almost every single day to write. That somebody can just come in and do stuff like that. So it was something, it was a wake-up call, really, that this out-of-control rhetoric–that there is danger in an uncontrolled tongue, and the danger, we’re seeing it across the country. 

RS: Let’s talk about this knowledge of a war zone. Because I first learned of your writing through Chris Hedges, and we’ve actually published or had you on at Truthdig, which I edit, and Chris Hedges is a guy who worked for The New York Times for 20 years or so, was the bureau chief in the Mideast, and has been in a lot of war zones. And the discussion you had was with, or he had was with, some combat veterans who had been in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you, describing the reality of war and what it does to people. And I know, you know, I certainly don’t have your experience, but I’ve been in a few war zones as a journalist. And there’s an incredible disconnect; people nowadays particularly talk about it like a video game or, you know, or drone attacks or so forth. And your writing about your experience, you know, as a kid in a war zone, captures the anarchy of it, the horror of it. Do you find that you can get that across to people?

BF: I didn’t really study to be a writer. I mean, I didn’t know if I was going to be a writer; you know, accidentally it happened. Whenever I talk to somebody and I tell them that, I argue with them, I debate with them or whatever, about war, about the carnage of war is mostly–I think there was a proverb that I used in that essay, where it says: When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. Metaphorically, the grass is the children, women and children; and the elephant is the men, you know, fighting each other and destroying everything. Because I have that experience with me, every time I talk to people and I say, hey, war is not the solution; the people who are going to suffer are the women and children. You know, man is going to die; women are going to get raped, they are going to live in their pain until death. For them it’s an entertainment, it’s a movie; my favorite movie–and I can understand that now, because my favorite movie before the war was Rambo. So I thought Rambo was fantastic, but now I know that Rambo is not fantastic; it does more damage than anything else. Every Fourth of July comes, every Fourth of July war comes back to me; every Fourth of July, war comes back to me. Every single day when I hear a boom, war comes back to me. It messes with you. But now I’m using literature to understand the psychology of war, my own psychology, my own experience. I’m penning it down and read my own work and see if it makes sense. 

But it’s really tough to understand what war does to human beings. And what’s even hard to understand for me is, those people who are trying to, you know, start new wars. The majority of the people who start new wars, they do not understand war; Donald Trump does not understand war. He does not. I am sorry that I have to say that. He doesn’t understand war. And the language that he’s using right now will create more wars. The only people in Somalia who welcome him are al Shabaab. Why? Because al Shabaab will get many, many recruiting. He will be the recruiting agent. He will be, he will increase the number of young Somalis who agree with the al Shabaab militants, who, they kill you if you have a tie. A simple tie. There are young people, uneducated, the world has given them nothing but war and bloodshed; what are they giving back? They’re giving back the same exact thing the world has given them. 

If I was never given what I have now, if the United States of America did not rescue me, where would I be? I must always ask that question. I would have been one of them. You know, it’s just, it’s natural. Because as a young person, you want to contribute. You want to do something beyond just sitting around. Young people in Somalia have nothing. The world has given them war; Donald Trump has given them, now, he is saying they are the enemy. Even the ones that love America–majority of the Somalis respect America; they love America, America is the country that welcomed them. America is the country that welcomed me. So how can I go back to Somalia and argue the narrative of al Shabaab? War is always about narrative. Whoever wins the narrative, wins the war.

RS: You know, that rhetoric is fueled by an industry quite close to us here, the movie industry, television. And you mentioned Rambo. And there was a very brave American soldier, Jessica Lynch, who got severely wounded in Iraq at one point. And a whole narrative was developed around her, fed by the military; you know, the female Rambo, and how she fired her guns and took the enemy down with her and yet somehow survived. And she then wrote a book, Jessica Lynch, and what she said, this was wrong; she was not the female Rambo, there is no such thing as this heroic Rambo figure. And she said her gun jammed, and the vehicle had smashed into a culvert, and she described a whole different view of the horror and the terror of war. And then she said this thing that went against the basic narrative: she said she was saved in an Iraqi hospital by Iraqis who were supposed to be the enemy. And yet they showed consideration, took care of them. And then when she was liberated they filmed the whole thing and made a big deal about it and wanted to restore this Rambo image, and the U.S. government distorted the story. So what you’re really up against as a writer is there’s a common narrative of war in which virtue triumphs, decency triumphs. And from your writing so far, your description is one, yes, as you said, it’s the women and children, it’s the most vulnerable that get smashed. And the question is, does anybody really want to read that? Are you working on a project of that sort? Are you describing that?

BF: I always thought that, you know, war is cliche, and I didn’t want to touch it. And then I found out that it’s actually therapeutic; I mean, it actually helps me. So I am trying to write, like, maybe a thousand pages of agony; and not just agony, but also I am trying to honor the nation of poets. That it is those young women and children, what made them survive the evilness, the atrocity of war, is words; wordplay, poetry. So in my literature, I’m trying to marry the two. Every time I’m writing, I always have these two words in my head: show it, don’t tell. Show it, don’t tell. You know, I’m trying to show the people that got shot in front of me, and what they looked like. 

There was one individual that actually was stoned to death. And that person, I have never forgotten his name; I have never forgotten his words; I’ve never forgotten how brave he was until the last breath. Until actually, when everyone left him, the last thing that was still twitching was his ear; his ear was alive. Everything else was dead. You know, like he wasn’t moving, but his ear was still twitching. His words never left me; his demeanor never left me. The guys who were trying to kill him, and how they were, like, angry, never left me. You know, small, little things that just never left me. Or a girl who–one time, three of us were hungry, really hungry, so we went to, we were at the coastal city of Kismayo. And we went to the ocean, and whenever we go inside the ocean, the hunger kind of disappears because you’re in cold water and, you know, you feel good about yourself. So we went to the ocean and tried to feel good about ourselves, because we were incredibly hungry, and there was a lot of war; so it kind of dissipates, it dissipated our fear and it dissipated our, it reduced our anxiety, you know. And then there was a woman and a man came; they were talking, the whole time they were talking. Three of us teenagers, we were talking about that we should become militiamen, because if we do become militiamen, we’ll be able to get women. And so we were teasing each other how, if we become militiamen, we’re going to survive and we’re going to get the women and we’re going to, you know, drive trucks the way militia does, the way the guys with the guns do. And maybe ten minutes into it, that guy–she was trying to tease him, so she walked away from him–I guess he was trying to get her, or whatever, and she was like teasing him, she walked away from him–he took his gun, shot her. And that guy, we used to see him in the city, and we used to call him woman-killer, but we could never say that in front of him because he’ll kill us, too. 

That particular image never left me. That girl had a mom, she had a sister, perhaps she had children; I don’t know. She had family, but her family will never find out that that woman died at that beach, that I participated in her burial. My friends participated in her burial. You know, because it’s sort of an Islamic culture that the dead belongs to nobody, the dead belongs to everybody; that’s the culture. So every time a person died, that was something that was communal. We all get together and bury it. Even if the person is the enemy to you, once the person dies, he has no enemy; you must bury him. So there’s so many times that I participated in a burial of human beings who were alive, you know, five minutes ago, and now they’re dead. Some of them are half alive–you still have to bury them, because you know there’s no doctors and you know that person is not going to come back. Their ear is twitching, but everything else is dead; so bury it, quickly, and then get out, and then wait for your own demise. And a culture like that, what happens to you, you get close to God; you pray all the time. Round the clock, you pray. And sometimes you pray that you get shot quickly and you die. Sometimes you pray that you survive. And then if you survive, where are you going to end up? There is pain waiting for you. So even, we used to be afraid of our own survival; that if we survive, there must be a pain waiting for us somewhere. Therefore, the death, the one who dies, you must be happy for that person. That they are in a different galaxy. 

So in my literature right now, I’m trying to honor the dead, those who died, and tell their stories in a very minute detail, almost novelistic way of writing, to make sure I tell their stories. And in a way, I also want my literature to be a warning for those two-legged creatures that are trying to create war for other human beings. Because I know, I understand, economy is real; I understand companies trying to make money out of this stuff; but I’m also hopeful, since I survived the unsurvivable; I get my hope from there. That one person will read my literature and say, it is not worth it. That we shall stop. That this planet, small planet, belongs to us. That is what I’m trying to do right now. So I’m trying to write war, I’m trying to write my experience here; but my first book, I’m trying to tell the story of my past. You know, my survival in refugee camp. And you know, hopefully it will get to America.

RS: An interesting conversation with Boyah J. Farah, who came here as a refugee to the United States, saw the horror of war in Somalia, and has gone on to be a productive citizen in this country, which is a reminder that people who are refugees can have a better life, and that could be put at risk right now. Our producers are Rebecca Mooney and Joshua Scheer. The engineers are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. See you next week.