In the Absence of a Native Land: On Ty McCormick’s “Beyond the Sand and Sea”

May 2, 2021   •   By Kristen Schott

Beyond the Sand and Sea: One Family’s Quest for a Country to Call Home

Ty McCormick

TY MCCORMICK TAKES ON the plight of refugees in Beyond the Sand and Sea: One Family’s Quest for a Country to Call Home, which follows Asad Hussein and his kin on their years-long journey to escape the Dadaab Refugee Complex in Kenya.

The biography is well researched and beautifully depicted, blending objective facts with emotional moments that are both heartbreaking and inspiring. It’s a testament to McCormick’s expertise: he reported extensively on African migration in his former position with Foreign Policy magazine and is skilled in the style of his trade. But as a reporter, he also grapples with the deep personal relationship he has formed with Hussein.

What begins as unbiased research — a condition of ethical journalism — grows into benefactorship and human connection. “The more of his story that Asad entrusted me with, the less I felt like an impartial observer,” he writes. “And the more time we spent together, the more outraged I grew at the obstacles he encountered that were mostly invisible.” McCormick’s justification of his status occasionally informs the pages, perhaps to an unnecessary degree, as he shares Hussein’s journey and his own crucial role in it.

Consider the introduction. McCormick begins with a close third-person perspective of Hussein waiting in the immigration line at JFK Airport. Hussein recalls a line of poetry by William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate.” As the reader sees the world through his eyes, the poem is an empowering claim to a selfhood that his castaway status has never provided — the airport bustles with people holding legal records versus him, a 22-year-old whose life can be described as liminal, a Somali by blood with limited documentation of his existence but carrying a travel statement from the United Nations and a Princeton scholarship.

The narrative soon shifts to McCormick’s first-person voice as he brings himself into the story. He reveals how they met: McCormick read an article in The New York Times Magazine by Hussein, detailing his sister’s first return to Dadaab after being resettled in the United States more than a decade prior. Because the article was well written, he assumed that Hussein had obtained a study-abroad scholarship. He realizes his error when the two chat on Twitter and meet in person after Trump announces the travel ban. Hussein never attended college.

McCormick and his wife supplement a portion of Hussein’s tuition at one point. He and Hussein also meet regularly to discuss the “moral purpose” of journalism. It is enough to share these actions with the reader rather than verbally rationalize the situation as he does here and later in the work. But McCormick is right in his decision to test these “artificial boundaries,” much like those put on individuals by their personal histories.

The subtitle, “One Family’s Quest for a Country to Call Home,” speaks to that. Using the word call transforms the idea of home from the physical to the emotional. It can be argued that this is among the reasons why the refugee’s existence is built around resettlement in Europe, Canada, or the United States: “Kept alive but prevented from living, the residents of Dadaab have clung to one eternal source of hope,” the narrator says. But the subtitle is problematic and adds a layer to the book’s topics. Whose story is this, Hussein’s or his family’s? The introduction’s predominantly close lens on Hussein presents it as his, but the varying perspectives suggest otherwise.

The work is broken down into “Origins,” “Journeys,” and “Reflections,” and each part moves among Hussein, McCormick, and other figures. Take the first chapter, “Desert Macondo.” McCormick draws a parallel between Hussein’s experience at Dadaab and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of the worn novels that he reads while in Dadaab. It is his own Desert Macondo, and he needs to break free or be destroyed. Dadaab is one of the largest camps of its kind; 95 percent of the population is Somali. It is arid and cruel and lacks basic necessities. Hussein learns to spell in the sand.

While the passage begins with his family’s journey into exile a few years before Hussein’s birth, the focus quickly moves to the boy, delivered in McCormick’s unique style, which combines linguistic austerity with imaginative descriptions. Hussein was born in October 1995; the date was recorded as January 1, 1996, for “bureaucratic efficiency,” destabilizing his being from the start. He and his family (mother Kaltuma, father Sharif, older siblings Maryan and Ibrahim, two younger siblings Abdi Malik and Habiba, and 14-year-old cousin Ayaan) live in the Ifo segment and are part of the Ashraf clan, whose members are being rapidly resettled. During the required medical examinations, a male nurse, Goobe, asks for Ayaan’s hand in marriage. She refuses, presumably stalling their case. It is a joyless section, but the mood lifts as we learn about Hussein — the stammer he overcomes, his visits to the library to educate himself as he is pulled in and out of school, and his desire to teach others, earning him the moniker “The Professor.” The chapter borders on information overload, but it defines him as the protagonist.

Then a shift as the perspective switches briefly to Maryan’s. As the person who is closest to Hussein, her story is crucial, but the change is jarring. Later, McCormick also deviates from Hussein to Bekar, one of a trio of friends who teach themselves in Room 101. In “Journeys,” Sharif’s history is revealed; additionally, the narrative follows Dr. Susan Kiragu, a philanthropic educator, and headmaster Eric Mulindi, both of whom have a soft spot for Hussein. There is even a segment on fellow “outsider” Daniel Ngoria, with whom Hussein forms an affinity at Brookhouse, the boarding school he attends in Nairobi. The variations provide context for Hussein’s world, but at times feel disjointed.

Hussein’s journey mirrors Maryan’s in many ways, and this can only be revealed in a narrative that follows the siblings closely. They are smart; though Maryan doesn’t finish the childhood education she excels in, she ensures that Hussein keeps his mind active, letting him download ebooks with her credit card. They value hard work. Once resettled, she obtains her GED and gets a job at a hospital. And she has the courage to divorce her oppressive husband. The move is anathema to her father: he loves his children, but he also hails the role of women as mothers and wives.

Hussein follows a similar path. He defies his father’s edict that he will marry young. It is a crucial time in his schooling, with the possibility of education in Canada looming. He flees Dadaab and attends an underserved school in a small town in interior Kenya, a precarious place for a refugee of Somali descent — many Kenyans did not trust Somalis and considered them to be terrorists. Still, he pushes on; he begins submitting work to newspapers, a stepping-stone to McCormick, and earns scholarships to Brookhouse School and then Princeton University. And many of the articles that he pens defend women. In one, he writes about a young woman forced into an arranged marriage. She reminds him of his sister, who has sacrificed everything — her finances, health, and relationship with her children, relying on the kindness of friends and acquaintances — to get her parents to the United States. She is successful, in the nick of time: Trump’s second travel ban goes into effect shortly after her mother arrives. Her perspective is a counter to Hussein’s, and it takes a reporter with McCormick’s skill to share what she went through.

Maryan’s vantage point sheds light on another element — the dichotomy between Dadaab and the rest of the world. In an airport, she sees an escalator, “a glass-encased staircase that appeared to be collapsing.” In Nairobi and Eastleigh, Hussein is overwhelmed by the tall buildings and traffic. He may read books and communicate on social media, but novels or digital interaction are no substitute for reality. Cultural values also come in for questioning. When Maryan takes an ESL class, she learns about the tailgating traditions of university life and finds the process absurd. Hussein is appalled at the waste he sees at Brookhouse — students order buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken while free food sits uneaten in the dining hall; they leave their iPhones around carelessly.

The most striking disparity comes via the US college admissions process, where the forms offer no option for statelessness. On Princeton’s application, Hussein is asked to write about his favorite memento. It’s an impossible question for a person with next to nothing, who values belonging far more than material possessions. Hussein even risks his life to visit Somalia to form a memory of his own, despite his father and sister’s descriptions of its bleak environment. These incidents force Western readers to gaze inward. While living in Richland, Washington, Maryan generally feels accepted — though growing debate over the travel ban and her appearance occasionally draws attention in the predominantly white town. A white woman at the playground asks Maryan if she feels alone because she is different.

Only at Princeton does Hussein become aware of his Blackness. He came “from a place where ethnicity and religion had been the dominant cleavages, not race,” writes McCormick. “Whereas in Kenya he had been a Somali and a refugee, at Princeton he was suddenly an African, and a black man on a campus that was still very much the domain of whites.” He doesn’t have a backstory, a place in the “American project.” He is linked to the refugee camp, despite its attempts to destroy him. “You are always from Dadaab,” he says. It is a moment of acceptance in the book, and the fact that it is a direct quote makes it particularly poignant.

Here, McCormick inserts himself after remaining fairly absent. But it is imperative to tell this portion of Hussein’s story from a different perspective for what it reveals: the reader must recognize Hussein’s fragile status — how one wrong move could destroy everything. When Hussein writes to The New York Times after learning about Kenya’s latest attempt to close Dadaab, McCormick admonishes him but feels guilty. “Self-interested decisions like the one I was counseling surely helped to explain the continued existence of places like Dadaab,” he writes. McCormick realizes his own accountability in a broken system — a revelation we could not have seen from Hussein’s viewpoint alone.

It can be reasoned, then, that Hussein, McCormick, and Maryan can claim this story. Among other things, McCormick visits Dadaab with Maryan in an attempt to discover why her family had been left behind. These pages are heartrending. McCormick and Maryan learn of suicides (a result of the devastation of Trump’s ban), interview victims of a system complicated by multiple agencies (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, US groups), and witness discrimination by unethical but powerful individuals, including the male nurse, Goobe. An investigation was ongoing when McCormick finished the manuscript.

Then Maryan and McCormick are in a United Nations guesthouse near the barebones camp of her past. McCormick asks Maryan if it feels strange to be there. “[T]his place is supposed to be for refugees,” she responds. “They are supposed to hear our voices, but they can’t hear our voices over their walls.”

The final chapter, “A Sense of Belonging,” unfolds at a baseball game in New York City on July 4, 2019, the first anniversary of Hussein’s arrival in the United States. McCormick uses the two teams, made up of players largely born outside of the country, as the backdrop to his argument — that Hussein should seek asylum because it will support him in his goal to be a novelist and build his future. McCormick gets heavy-handed as he describes the evening, and while it creates a lovely sense of place, it is also distracting. Similar episodes occur elsewhere; McCormick’s language is overtly foreboding when Hussein and his family wait for their medical examinations. It is best when McCormick lets the facts and emotion stand alone, such as when he presents Hussein’s consideration of a country that is battling political upheavals and a president who only incites more outrage.

Hussein weighs his choices at this game, with no clear answer. The book ends with an elusive quote from him: “America, it’s not perfect. Never has been, never will be. But to us at least, it has been very kind.” It’s a pointed move by McCormick — he ends with Hussein’s story. In leaving us here, he doesn’t claim to know what Hussein’s next steps will be. Yet it gives the reader the impression that Hussein has found a semblance of belonging in the United States.

His journey has been a miracle. He is the first person born in Dadaab to be admitted to Princeton. He breaks boundaries of identity, citizenship, and birthplace. He finds his voice. While Hussein continues to walk a path that will not be easy, it is a new beginning. And that, at least, is a starting point.

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Kristen Schott is the editor of PhiladelphiaWedding, a publication of Philadelphia magazine. A child of Orange County, California, she now lives in Arlington, Virginia.