When my sister, Maryan, came to Kenya to visit us in the Dadaab refugee camp last spring, it had been 11 years since we had seen her. Our family arrived a quarter-century ago to escape the war in Somalia and has been here since. I was born in the camp, 21 years ago. But in 2005, when I was 9, Maryan and her husband and son were accepted for resettlement in the United States.
My family was also considered for resettlement, but our case has been pending all this time for reasons we don’t understand. Every year, we told Maryan we were coming soon. But after a decade apart, she finally purchased a plane ticket to see us.
Over the years, my sister and I kept in touch online. Her messages often expressed nostalgia for Block A4, the section of the camp where my family lived before she left. Every A4 notebook she acquired, she said, every A4 page she printed out, reminded her of her time here. A year after she left, a heavy flood washed our makeshift houses to the ground, and we were evacuated to Block N9. But to Maryan, Block A4 was still our home.
Because Maryan left when I was young, she was always a bit of a mystery to me. My memories of her were scattered like a broken string of beads, and before she arrived I tried to gather them together. The photos she sent me somehow obscured my sense of her. I knew she had had four more kids in the United States; I understood she had been away for a very long time. But when I finally saw her, a tall, lean woman with smoky eyes, I barely recognized her.
During our reunion, I tried to learn as much as I could about her. I searched through her clothes to discover the color she loved the most. I listened to the songs in her playlist to find out the music she preferred. I eavesdropped on the conversations she had with our parents to hear the phrases she liked to repeat. I stood beside her to see how tall she was. Still, I wanted to know more. And so four days after her arrival, when she asked me to go with her to Block A4, I happily obliged.
It was a bright morning, and the sun was hot. The wind howled, sending clouds of dust in its wake. Maryan filled her water bottle from a yellow jerrycan in our compound and fastened a drenched cloth around her head. She held her tablet in both her hands and photographed everything she saw on the way. Block A4 was far away. We strolled across Block N8, past the food distribution center, past an enclosure filled with acacia trees and out into a playing field. I have lived here all my life, and to me it was routine. But Maryan saw everything with the curiosity of a child.
Once we got to A4, my sister could see it had expanded greatly. More than a quarter million people reside in the five camps that make up Dadaab, making it the largest refugee camp in the world. In May, the Kenyan government said it would close the camp in six months, claiming in part that it had become a hide-out for militant groups. Some people have already gone back to Somalia. As ever, we do not know what will happen to us.
Block A4 has even changed names; it is now called A2. And just as I had been startled by Maryan’s appearance, she could hardly recognize the place. She said it seemed like a thousand years had passed.
The trees she planted many years ago were long dead. What was once our courtyard had disappeared. The playground where Maryan played had turned into a settlement, and other people now called it home. The water tap still remained, but the green tamarind tree that once stood behind it was now a skeleton. The new residents demanded answers. Who is this woman? Why is she taking photos of our homes? Maryan was a stranger at the place of her childhood.
Standing there, Maryan began to cry. She hugged the old tree and sobbed. I hugged her, tightly. I then noticed I was also crying. I had learned something else about my sister, the strongest person I knew. Even Maryan cries, I thought. So what could anyone expect from the rest of us?
Asad Hussein is the pen name of Mohamed Hussein Hassan, who is 21. His family’s case is on hold with the Resettlement Support Center Africa, part of the United States Refugee Admissions Program.