Get It Right Next Time \ حاجز زجاجي

When I landed in Djibouti, August 1, the warm breeze was soft on my face. It reminded me of the warmer nights of Cairo. Walking towards the small international airport, in a country of only around 942,333, many of whom are refugees, I was excited by the opportunity to learn of the various narratives and perhaps contribute in developing programs with community organizations.

I confidently walked to the immigration officer, presented my passport and then mentioned my contact and pick-up person. I was taken outside near the pick-up location only to learn that whoever was meant to pick me up…wasn’t there.

I was only referred to as an Egyptian among the officers – égyptien. My name seemed secondary – almost an inconvenience to the officers’ native French tongue. Cast aside, seeing the numerous white-skinned European nationals pass without a glace, waving their passport’s front page, I remained quiet. A Yemeni, Mohamed, was in a similar situation and would become a friend. I learned that he came to marry an Egyptian after attaining refugee status in Sweden. He had golden brown skin and an infectious laugh. He spoke Somali to the officers, which intrigued me. At around 11:40 pm, Mohamed, myself, and another Somali friend were detained in the transit area – and our passports were taken. My attempts at getting back my passport failed – for the next 48 hours.

In the transit area, I spoke to people, determined to see the more positive side of things – I wanted to start my Watson year. One of the people there told me his story at 3 am, at a time when people are meant to sleep and dream well – but the tough metal chairs made it almost impossible to sleep. Hussein is a Somali refugee in Sweden who was taking his grandmother back to his homeland. He talked fast – and only in standard Arabic. English also brought us together and I asked him about his journey. He left before the war and at the age of 3 started learning Swedish. He loved making deals and was a person of great grit. He studied to become a mechanical engineer in Sweden and ended up starring several projects. Acknowledging his privilege, his humbleness was not only sweet but uplifting.

Hussein once met another refugee – let’s call him Mohsen – begging in Sweden. When Hussein asked him why he was begging, Mohsen responded that he couldn’t find work – “I’m too young.” Hussein told him to start cleaning shoes. Hussein and Mohsen made a trip, bought the necessary items, and Hussein helped him set up a station. Additionally, Hussein brought his family some food supplies. “Don’t beg, work – do,” he advised Mohsen. Keeping in contact, Hussein learned later that Mohsen was earning enough money after his younger brother was old enough to help out. Hussein smiled for a moment – seemingly feeling triumphant.

“The problem with our world is that people are not paying it forward – specifically, Muslims aren’t paying their zakah (زكاة). The world would be a completely different place if everyone paid their dues. The refugee crisis would be mitigated. Our hearts are in the wrong place,” Hussein proclaimed.

I thought about what he said until the morning when the officers came back for work. A group of us occupied the front of the glass doors – which I could easily climb over. With the doors locked and no officer caring about our calls, it was impossible to grab attention. Without Wi-Fi or a working cell phone around, I was at the mercy of the immigration officers. To them, I had no name, no reason for entry, and no one for me in Djibouti. I didn’t even have my passport.

Around 12 pm, August 2, I was handed the phone by the most polite Egyptian. I told him about my situation and luckily arranged a pick-up with my contact organization at 3 pm. Our group, which was mostly comprised of Somali refugees from Sweden, started talking about the cultural differences between Sweden and Somalia. They spoke of food, language, masculinity, fertility, and more. I sat among the conversation – understanding little of the Somalian conversation – and listened intently to the occasional Arabic translation by Mohamed, my Yemeni friend. But I could understand the conversation through their body language a little, and it was beautiful seeing the comfort in finding companions during this difficult situation. One by one, they left and I was the sole occupant of the area behind the glass doors.

I waved gently to get the attention of an immigration officer. After relaying the message, one of the officers opened the doors. I thought I could have my second phone call to call my contact. The chief waved me away, and I was escorted to departures. I was being deported from Djibouti.

I could not understand why at first. Then I reminded of my disadvantages – an Egyptian passport, no one (Djiboutian citizen, to be exact) to pick me up, and an unsupported claim of entry (no invitation letter). What was strange was that I had an outbound ticket, had solid contacts in Djibouti, and had already attained a tourist visa (which is meant to replace a letter of invitation). I got the news from an Egyptian. “They won’t let you into the country. You’ll fly back to Boston with us today at 6 pm.” My pick-up was about an hour away.

I hadn’t eaten this entire time, and thankfully munched on the tuna sandwich Gamal, the Egyptian, brought for me. His kindness soothed my anger – and the sandwiches quite frankly quenched my hunger. I wondered what else was beyond the doors – I saw the long palm trees outside and a cleaning lady chatting loudly with a friend, laughing. I wondered.

So, here is how deportation works:

  1. You go back to where you came from – DJB to BOS.
  2. You are charged for the ticket – unless the airline made an initial mistake leading to your deportation.
  3. But the most important fact is that your passport is withheld – almost like a hostage. Initially, I thought it a guarantor for me to eventually pay upon arrival to the original site. But no. Your passport is withheld for fear – for fear that you would tear up your passport and claim refugee status. I learned this from a member of Qatar Airways.

The systems in place are certainly cautious – but they are also systems of disbelief. Your word is not taken for granted – you are accused until your arrival. I don’t wish to participate in the systems of disbelief that exist – but rather to drive my collaborators to become beacons of hope. I want to help create systems of kindness and functionality. I am not saying to take every person at their word – but to exhibit some restraint of our fearful selves. What we don’t know, we fear – and that is, perhaps, our hamartia.

I would have never learned of these facts except by going through this experience. In my opinion, my Watson year is on the right track.

لا تكرهوا شيئاً وعسى أن يكون خيراً لكم

Maybe soon, I will return to Djibouti – but on that day, I’ll get it right and see what lies behind those doors.


To all those interested, my next destination is now Jordan, which has over a million Syrian refugees and a much greater number of Palestinian refugees (many of whom are now citizens). I will be exploring not only my original questions but also the question of intergenerational trauma. I will be there for August and September and am attempting to find organizations and people to collaborate with for my project. If you know anyone, please reach out. Although the turn of events was unexpected, I believe in the project and will see it happen – hopefully with your help.

As a side note, thank you to the Itani family who helped me during this tumultuous process. Your unwavering support is humbling and makes me eternally grateful.

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