A Somali Refugee’s American Story

The Trump administration's anti-immigrant rhetoric diminishes our nation before the eyes of the world.
 Tic Tac Toe on an iPad — an almost absurd waste of technology
Tic Tac Toe on an iPad — an almost absurd waste of technology

What’s the most danger you’ve ever been in?

What have you had to do for medical care — what’s the farthest and most insane length you’ve had to go?

What’s the longest time you’ve been alone? The longest stretch you’ve gone without speaking to another human being. I want you to close your eyes and think on those questions, and then let me tell you about Bashe…

It is my belief that most people in the country have never met a refugee  ― and if they have, they likely didn’t know it. They likely didn’t hear the story of what brought them to this country. Last week, the Trump administration reinstated their travel ban on refugees and immigrants from six countries, one of which is Somalia. Some polls have more than half the country in favor of these efforts to ban immigrants. I can only imagine that’s possible because most Americans don’t know the stories of the people to whom we’ve opened our shores over the years.

While I am (likely obviously) in the half that strongly opposes this ban, I will not bombard you with my opinion. Instead, I just want to tell you the story of one of the refugees I know — one of my heroes.

The picture above is of Bashe Abdi Yousuf playing Tic Tac Toe with my daughter a couple years ago. Bashe came to this country as a Somali refugee. I got to know him through my wife, Kathy — his lawyer. Her firm, the Center for Justice and Accountability represented him and several other plaintiffs against the former Defense Minister of Somalia during the brutal Siad Barre regime. They sued him for torture, mass killings and other crimes against humanity in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

I want to tell you just part of his remarkable American story.

Somalia and Somaliland

First thing’s first. What a lot of people don’t realize about Somalia is that it’s really (like so many places) multiple regions smashed together in the aftermath of colonial rule. The main divide that’s important to our story is that between Somalia and Somaliland.

Somalia was an Italian colony; Somaliland was English. The differences between those two colonial powers and how they treated the people of those two countries engendered tensions that continue to this day. More importantly, the people of Somaliland don’t consider themselves the same country as Somalia — but the U.S. government does.

In 1969, when Somalia and Somaliland were still one country, it was taken over by a military coup. The coup was led by a man who would become a brutal dictator, Major General Mohamed Siad Barre (known to the world more simply as Siad Barre), and his right-hand man was General Mohamed Ali Samantar.

The Siad Barre regime was communist, allied with the Soviet Union, and changed the country radically. The changes they made included creating an entirely new layer of civil service to control the country, which had very little central government prior, and the introduction of a written language.

Siad Barre
Siad Barre

Bashe and his family have told us some fascinating stories of that time. For instance, because Somali had no written form, there had been a debate in the country for years on how to make one, particularly whether to use the Latin or Arabic alphabet. Because all the typewriters in the country were from the Italian and English colonial powers, the Barre regime simply declared it would be Latin and ended the debate. Once the written form was created, Barre decreed everyone in government had to be literate in Somali within one year (they were already literate in English or Italian and usually Arabic).

A year later, many of the government’s experts had yet to master this new written form and so were replaced by people with the sole qualification of literacy. By way of example, the person who ran the country’s water infrastructure might have been replaced by a literate bureaucrat who knew nothing about waterworks. One can imagine the era of governmental strife this single change ushered in.

It’s in this environment of sudden and totalitarian madness that Bashe lived as a young man. He went away to school in Saudi Arabia and came back to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, to start his own business. Like most people in every country on earth, including ours, he didn’t bother himself that much with government or politics. Bashe was well educated — an intellectual — and descended from the Isaaq clan. Unbeknownst to him, these things made him an enemy of the State.

The Crackdown on Somaliland

Around 1980, Siad Barre began to grow paranoid that the Isaaq clan (the people of Somaliland, generally) would turn against him because their clan extends into Ethiopia and Djibouti. Somalia had invaded Ethiopia in the late 70s and they remained enemies. Barre imagined the Isaaq people in Somaliland were a fifth column who would put their tribal identity over their national one.

(Side Note: For those of us familiar with stories like this from other places and times, it’s hard to hear the way our current regime in the United States speaks of Muslims without recognizing the same odor as this guilt-by-association totalitarianism.)

Barre and his chief strategist, General Samantar, planned out how to make sure the people of Somaliland would pose no threat to their regime.

General Samantar
General Samantar

It started with cutting off funding and supplies to Somaliland. The centralized government they’d introduced was now was able to control the flow of critical resources.

In 1981, the city of Hargeisa had a single generator and the government cut off gasoline shipments, so there was no way to power it. The city was completely dark at night. The government also cut off all medical supplies to the city’s one hospital. If someone had a medical emergency at night, they would go to the dark hospital with no equipment, even bandages.

Bashe and his friends, many of whom were young men doing business abroad — generally importing and exporting goods through Saudi Arabia — made sure that the city had hospital supplies and gas for the generator. They brought in bandages and syringes for the hospital.

The government had also stopped paying the local school teachers, so they had to find work elsewhere. Children in Hargeisa were going uneducated, which was obviously unacceptable, so Bashe and his friends raised the money to pay the teachers.

Basically, they did the government’s work for them. Years later, my wife Kathy would ask Bashe on the stand whether they tried to get the Barre government to help take care of the people of Hargeisa. Bashe answered:

Not really, but they got their own attention of this immediately. What they did was they thought that we were challenging them. We were young ourselves and we were naive, we didn’t know what a dictatorship means. So, they took us as a challenge, and immediately they make us that we were angry, anti-revolutionary.
Hargeisa, 1980
Hargeisa, 1980

First, They Came for the Intellectuals

One day, Bashe was at work and a group of security officers came to arrest him. They put him in a land cruiser and took him to a cell in an immigration facility where he was left alone without food or water for two days.

After two days, they began questioning him about his associations with the other members of his community who had worked to improve the hospital and the schools in Hargeisa. They were asking him almost entirely about his Isaaq friends, and it became clear that he and his friends were being thought of by the government as some sort of underground terrorist cell. Bashe would later learn that the friends they were asking him about had also been rounded up.

He was kept in that cell for about four months. Three weeks in, the questioning intensified. They began asking him about a bomb they believed he’d thrown into a military facility. Bashe had no military training and had never even seen a bomb. That night, they blindfolded him and took him outside of town. They tied his hands and feet behind his back and placed a weight on the center of his back — a torture called the MiG position. They waterboarded him. All the while, asking him about the supposed bomb.

This torture and questioning was repeated four or five times in the intervening months. Once, they brought a battery to his cell and tortured him with electricity. All while asking him about an anti-government movement he’d never heard of, discussed, or had anything to do with.

 Samantar and Barre on gold thrones. Samantar, in his uniform, had complete control over the Somali military, including the m
Samantar and Barre on gold thrones. Samantar, in his uniform, had complete control over the Somali military, including the men who tortured Bashe.

After months, Bashe was formally charged with being part of a secret organization seeking to take control of the government, called “Uffo.” No such organization existed. The charge brought with it the death penalty. He was taken to stand trial at the National Security Court. This is what he would say of it years later on the stand:

Bashe: When I arrived at the court, there was military people all around the court. And there was student uprising. The other side of the crowd, the soldiers. And we went inside the court. And the judge, the people who were sitting on the judge chairs were military and a police guy, two judges. One of them was military guy, I think he was a Major. And a police, I think he was a Captain.
Kathy: Were you allowed to testify?
Bashe: No.
Kathy: Who did testify?
Bashe: The only people who testified was the people who were torturing us, which was the witnesses of the government. The only thing my, you know, what is that, lawyer, told me, I asked him what’s my options. And he said he will be lucky if he saves my skin.
Kathy: How did you recognize that the witnesses were your torturers?
Bashe: Oh, those are guys who were with me for, torturing me for three, four months. I recognize their voice, everything of them.

The government put 25 of them on trial for the crime of helping their community. The trial lasted for only two days and 20 of them were found guilty.

As Bashe mentioned in his testimony, there was a student uprising around the court because these local heroes had been arrested. The government showed “leniency” by sentencing them only to 20 years in prison rather than death. They were then kept in the Hargeisa city jail, where they were allowed visitors. Bashe was able to see his family and they brought him food and something to read — two novels and a magazine.

 Labataan Jirow is far from Somaliland
Labataan Jirow is far from Somaliland

Within a few days, likely due to the student uprising, the 20 prisoners were moved out of Hargeisa and taken, eventually, to a prison far to the South called Labataan Jirow.

Bashe was placed in a cell there with one of the other twenty defendants for six months of his sentence. After that, his friend was removed and Bashe was left in solitary confinement.

The prison cell had a concrete table and chair, a dug toilet pit and a simple shower. There was an iron barred door and an outer door that was a solid sheet of metal. Through the outer door, there was a window to the outside world, the image of which Bashe called “the postcard.” When the outer door was closed, the cell was pitch black.

This is how Bashe would later decribe the daily conditions in his cell:

The condition was I think monotonous, it was the same all the time. In the daytime I used to see the light, that’s when I didn’t make misbehave or I did anything wrong because if I misbehave or if they decide that I was not behaving the way they want, the only door I had was closed. So, it would be dark 24 hours.
The food I was given was the poorest you can imagine in a third world country jail. I won’t blame them. They would give me what they had. They gave me, they tried to give me as much as they can, but it was really poor.
There was no electric light. The place was full of cockroaches. You know, there was mice everywhere. There was, what is that, cockroach flying, you know, like you are in Atlanta airport, flying everywhere.
And it was really bad. One time I remember I fainted somehow, I don’t know what was wrong with me. We use to, the bathroom, to put a bucket on the top of it, a full bucket of water so the rats will not come out. One night I remember I tried to lift that bucket and I fell down, I fainted. And I remember it, a drop of water hitting me on my chest, which was coming from the, you know, the shower in there. And there was, I was covered with every kind of cockroach, mouse, rats, everything. And I was, I was not sure where I was, so I have to crawl. When I see the small window of the outside, I figured out where I was.
From that night on, I tied myself to my bed so I will not be able, you know, because if I fainted and I hit one of those concrete chairs or tables, I might have died immediately. So, I was, I didn’t go outside for, I didn’t go at nighttime anymore again in the bathroom.

Bashe was left alone in that cell, not speaking to another human being, for seven years.

 A drawing of Labataan Jirow prison made by Byeng Gaidh
A drawing of Labataan Jirow prison made by Byeng Gaidh

The Knocking Code

Kathy once asked Bashe how he kept from going insane during seven years of solitary confinement under such conditions. And he told her one of the greatest stories of human resilience I’ve ever heard.

The 20 men who had been wrongly convicted and imprisoned were all in cells in the block with Bashe. They couldn’t call out to each other or the guards would beat them and shut the outer door. Bashe would later say, “ I have been in torture for a long time. The worse torture you can go through is isolation. You turn into an animal.”

One of the men in the prison knew a knocking code, like Morse code. Because all the men were educated, they all spoke English, Arabic, Somali and likely many of them Russian, but none of them knew this code. Painstakingly, the man who knew the code taught it to the men in the cells next to him by knocking on the wall. Those men then taught it to the men next to them, then the next.

Using this code, the men were able to communicate and keep each other sane and alive. One time, for instance, Bashe got sick — as the horrifying prison conditions guaranteed. His leg became infected and was turning blue.

Bashe: I told my, you know, the guy next, the left side of my cell, who was a doctor, Dr. Ismal, I told him that I have, that my leg is blue. He told me, you know, a technical term, I don’t remember now. And he said I might lose my leg if I don’t do anything about it. I tell him, what shall I do?
He told me he has the medication, but he is not sure whether it has expired. At the same time he was not sure how to get that medicine to me because we were not supposed to talk or to tell them that, you know, the other person is sick, he will not talk to the soldiers.
Kathy: So, what did you do?
Bashe: Well, what I told, tell him was he can throw the medication, wrap it with something and throw it outside. So, the only way, only time we can ask to get outside when we are getting, when they shave our hair and beard or to cut the nails. So, he threw away, throw out, throw the medicine. I told them the soldiers I need to get my hair shaven. So, I seen the place that was, the medicine was thrown. And I took the medicine. And that is how I have, you know, saved my leg.

Some of the prisoners had been lucky enough to bring something to read from the Hargeisa jail. One of Bashe’s friends had a copy of Anna Karenina.

About two years into their solitary confinement, the men started knocking the books they’d brought into the prison to share them with each other. At night, Bashe and the others would knock the Tolstoy masterpiece to the men in the cells next to them, letter by letter, word by word, page by page. Those men would then pass it on to the men next to them. And so on.

In this way, the men were able to live in a world outside their solitary prison cells. In this way, they were able to keep their sanity in the face of the torture of isolation.

Labataan Jirow today
Labataan Jirow today

What’s the most danger you’ve ever been in?

What have you had to do for medical care — what’s the farthest and most insane length you’ve had to go?

What’s the longest time you’ve been alone?

Delivery From Injustice

Bashe and his friends, who were arrested and tried in a kangaroo court in 1981 were released suddenly from Labataan Jirow in 1989. He would later discover they were likely let out because Hargeisa had been destroyed in 1988 in a bombing campaign planned and executed by General Samantar. The Barre regime no longer felt holding Bashe and his friends had any value. Honestly, it’s shocking they weren’t killed, but the U.S. government was also pressuring Somalia to release its political prisoners.

Bashe was able to escape the country through the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and then sought political asylum in the United States. In his words, “We were immediately given that.” The United States, knowing the horrors these mostly Muslim men from Somalia had been subjected to, made a place for them. We were not afraid of them. We knew we had a moral obligation as the land of the free to welcome them.

Bashe finally came to the U.S. in 1991. He worked in IT, raised a family, and eventually became a proud citizen of the United States. Many of his family members came here as well, where they have raised kids and made our country a better place.

 General Samantar years later in Virginia
General Samantar years later in Virginia

Years later, in 1997, General Samantar also came to the United States. He settled in Fairfax, Virginia, where he likely believed he would spend the rest of his life unaccountable for the crimes he committed against the people of Somaliland.

The Somali diaspora discovered he was in the United States and, hearing about the work the Center for Justice and Accountability had done bringing generals from El Salvdor to justice for their crimes, sought the organization’s help against General Samantar.

Bashe, his family, and members of his community were able to avail themselves of our legal system to force Samantar, a man who once had unquestioned and absolute power over them, to face them in a court of law. The United States not only gave them refuge, not only a home, but a system in which they were able to look Samantar and the eye and tell their stories. A Federal Judge compelled Samantar to admit what he had done and ordered him to pay $21 Million in damages to the families — money they will almost certainly never see.

Indeed, the purpose of the the trial was never about money. It was to force a criminal like Samantar, among the worst in human history, to face his crimes. For the world to see and hear what he had done.

Kathy and Bashe hug after their victory in court
Kathy and Bashe hug after their victory in court

What We Must Not Lose

When I hear those who support our current regime in the United States saying that the President’s unconstitutional executive order is not a “Muslim Ban,” it makes me deeply furious.

It is of course intended to ban Muslims. The (now) six countries it targets (Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Syria) are all 90+% Muslim. While it does not ban every Muslim on Earth, it certainly bans Muslims. But it does something much more insidious than that.

The countries targeted have all been subjected to terrible turmoil. And the United States has historically been a refuge for those impacted by that turmoil — including great Americans like Bashe Abdi Yousuf.

Imagine the courage, the strength, the personal power it must have taken to endure what Bashe endured at the hands of his own government. To then recount those stories, to spend years fighting in court in an effort to make sure that the world would know — it takes a special kind of courage. But it also requires a kind of love for humanity — a desire that we do better, that we resist men like Samantar whenever and wherever they show their faces.

The United States welcomed Bashe and those who were subjected to this sort of abject rejection of humanity. The United States gave them justice that was unavailable in their native home. Whatever your politics, this has been one of the greatest aspects of our national character, best captured by poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

Our President wants to unwind this legacy of our country. Our President wants to refuse those whom others have abused so terribly, and for now it is because of their religion, but who is to say where it will end? The assault is more sinister, more vicious than even a “Muslim Ban.” It is an assault on the very nature of our country, and no American of any race, religion, nationality or political affiliation should allow it.

This was some of Bashe’s story — the story of how he came to exemplify the American character. I am so proud my daughter has spent time in the company of such a hero. As she gets older, she will know he exemplifies the best of the country of her birth. I hope when she is my age, that great country will not be a distant memory, a hazy story for her to tell others of a time when America at its best was a home for the homeless and those without refuge, a land of justice for those to whom justice had been denied.

This was just some of Bashe’s story. What will ours be?

The Somali plaintiffs in Yousuf et. al. v. Samantar after their victory in court. Bashe is in the middle.
The Somali plaintiffs in Yousuf et. al. v. Samantar after their victory in court. Bashe is in the middle.

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You can read Bashe’s full testimony here.

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