Foreign Affairs LIVE With Ty McCormick
Foreign Affairs' Senior Editor Ty McCormick discusses his book, Beyond the Sand and Sea: One Family’s Quest for a Country to Call Home, which chronicles a Somali refugee family's search for a home while exposing the United States' broken and painful refugee resettlement system.
For further reading and to purchase a copy of the book, please see the Beyond the Sand and Sea book page.
Ty McCormick is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs. A former foreign correspondent in Nairobi and before that in Cairo, he has reported from more than a dozen countries in Africa and the Middle East. From 2015 to 2018, he served as Africa Editor of Foreign Policy, where he led a team of reporters that won a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for a series on African migration. He has also written for The New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, and National Geographic. His book, Beyond the Sand and Sea: One Family's Quest for a Country to Call Home, was published by St. Martin's Press in 2021.
Laura Secor is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications. She has served as staff editor at the New York Times op-ed page, reporter at The Boston Globe, acting executive editor of The American Prospect, and senior editor of Lingua Franca magazine. Her book, Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran, published in 2016, was a finalist for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award and the Lionel Gelber Prize. A past fellow at the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers and at the American Academy in Berlin, she has taught journalism at New York University, Bard College, and Princeton University.
Daniel Kurtz-Phelan - Introductory Remarks
Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is Editor of Foreign Affairs. He previously spent three years as Executive Editor of the magazine and served in the U.S. State Department, including as a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff. His narrative history of George Marshall’s post–World War II mission to China, The China Mission, was published by WW Norton in 2018 and named a best book of the year by The Economist and an editor’s pick by The New York Times Book Review. His writing has also appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Dan Kurtz-Phelan. I'm the editor of Foreign Affairs. It is always a pleasure to welcome all of you to Foreign Affairs LIVE, but it is a particular pleasure, given the speakers we have today, to have senior members of the Foreign Affairs editorial team, one of whom, Ty McCormick, published his spectacular first book this month. The book, Beyond the Sand and Sea, is powerful on a couple of levels. The first is in delivering in the way that the best Foreign Affairs work tries to deliver, which means it is a smart and sophisticated and enlightening examination of important and challenging global issues—in this case, refugees and migration as well as civil war and displacement and related issues. But it is even more than that a really deeply and richly human story about a young Somali, Asad Hussein, whom Ty first met when he was based in Nairobi serving as the Africa editor for Foreign Policy magazine where Ty worked for several years before coming to Foreign Affairs. It's a revealing and rich and moving account of Asad's life in a refugee camp in Kenya and his efforts to get himself an education and help support his family. And finally, his attempt to get to college in the United States first, before, and ultimately in the middle of the Trump era. It's a really remarkable book and that it offers that powerful human story about also elucidating the bigger policy and global issues. And it really brings together those two in a way that too few books do. So I cannot recommend it highly enough. One advantage of our doing this virtually rather than in person is that you can buy a copy from the website of your favorite local bookstore while Ty is talking. So make sure you do that at some point the next hour. Ty will be in conversation with Laura Secor, who has been at Foreign Affairs for the last few years, two and a half years, I think, really transforming our website into what it is today. She is also the author of an excellent book, this one about Iran called Children of Paradise. She's done great reportage and analysis on Iran for a bunch of publications, including Foreign Affairs, and most recently with a long piece in The New Yorker. Laura and Ty, it's a pleasure. Let me hand it over to the two of you. Ty, congratulations on the great book.
SECOR: Thanks so much for that, Dan. And thank you to our organizers here at CFR for making this event happen this afternoon. I will second a lot of what Dan said and also say what a great pleasure it is to be any part of introducing this extraordinary book and its author to those of you listening. I first encountered Ty's work in Foreign Policy magazine in a series of stories that he was involved with about African migration to Europe. And I remember being struck by that reporting and banking his name actually thinking this is a person who, if he hasn't written a book, he should and it will be one to watch for and to read. So this is that book, and it really showcases many of the qualities that made his magazine reporting so remarkable. As Dan said, it is a deep dive into an issue that many of us maybe understand more abstractly and that is the international refugee system. It's also an intimate story that is told through reportage. It's deeply reported and intrepid and also really humane and finally, assert. One of the things that emerged to me from reading this book was a sense that there is a state of statelessness in the world today that we too rarely explore or consider. And that is really, in a sense, the subject of Ty's book and the condition of its protagonists. So although the story follows this one particular family and, in particular, the young man at the center, Asad Hussein, it also has folks that go out into different directions and that explore the experiences of different members of his cohort who maybe don't wind up in the same place that he does. So I don't want to say too much more about the content of the book because I think Ty's going to speak to that much more eloquently. And I think, Ty, you want it to open by reading a passage to give listeners a feeling for the quality of what you've done.
MCCORMICK: Yes. Thank you, Laura, for that generous introduction. And thank you, Dan, for yours as well. It's such a pleasure to be able to launch this book among friends and among colleagues that I get to work with every day at Foreign Affairs. I'm going to read very briefly from the introduction of the book, which takes place at JFK here in New York.
“As he stood in line for immigration at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Asad Hussein tried to recall the final stanza of a poem by William Ernest Henley. In front of him over the heads of a dozen disheveled travelers stood a row of glass cubicles marking the border of the United States. Unremarkable as it must have seemed to the other travelers that day, the sterile, fluorescent-lit gateway to America felt surreal to him. Years before in a desert refugee camp in East Africa, he had scrawled the poem on a slab of sheet metal he used to keep the sand from blowing into his tent. Henley's words had famously sustained Nelson Mandela during his long imprisonment on Robben Island, and Asad had sought in them a similar source of inspiration. He had hoped they would strengthen his resolve to one day reach the United States.”
“‘It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.’”
“How many times have he read those lines growing up a citizen of nowhere in the world's largest refugee camp, a sea of sand and thorn scrub and makeshift tarpaulin dwellings in the dry Badlands of northeast Kenya. The camp had been home to more than five hundred thousand people at one point, a city the size of Kansas City or Atlanta, except without electricity or running water. There were no paved roads, no two-story buildings, no permanent structures of any kind. Most of the refugees had fled the war in neighboring Somalia. But a growing number, like Asad, had been born in the camp and never seen their home country. Members of this new generation had spent their entire lives in limbo. Everything from the food rations that kept them alive to the arcane resettlement process that offered the only hope of a better future, hinged on the whimsy of distant powers.”
“In Dadaab refugee camp, no one is master of his fate.”
“Yet somehow, after twenty-two years of waiting, Asad had made it here. In his back pocket was an UN-issued travel document that contained the student visa. Tucked inside the document's light blue jacket was a form stating the impossible: He had been admitted to Princeton University and awarded a scholarship worth $70,000 a year. It was more than his entire family, perhaps his entire block in Dadaab had ever seen in their lives, and so improbable that he hadn't allowed himself to fully process what it meant. He didn't dare. Too many times he'd been on the cusp of breaking free from Dadaab only to have it re-ensnare him at the last moment.”
“There was the promise from the UN Refugee Agency of resettlement in the United States that had gone unfulfilled for thirteen years. The prestigious Canadian scholarship he had devoted his entire childhood to winning only to fall short of the grade, and the desperate attempt to smuggle himself out of the camp that had ended with him behind bars. Then came an executive order by President Donald Trump that shook Dadaab like an exploding mortar shell. Just days before his parents were scheduled for an interview at the U.S. Embassy in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, the final step in the arduous vetting process for green cards, the United States suspended all refugee admissions and banned travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia.”
“Now as the customs line inched forward, he felt sure someone would snatch this opportunity from him as well...But by the time he reached the front of the line and a young Latino agent with a crew cut beckoned with a pair of raised fingers, he could feel himself freezing up the hint of a childhood stammer creeping back into his voice. Just answer the questions the way you practiced, he told himself. Look the agent in the eye. Smile.”
“The first few questions were pro forma: What did he plan to study? Was this his first time to the United States? The agent swiveled in his chair to face his computer screen. His sullen expression gave no hint as to what he was reading. But as the minutes dragged on Assad was overcome with a feeling of dread. Then, without warning, a light above him began to blink red. ‘Would you come this way, please?’ the agent said, stepping out from behind his desk and gesturing down a dimly lit hallway at the end of a row of cubicles. ‘We would just like to ask you a few more questions.’”
SECOR: Thanks for that, Ty. I think I want to just sort of go back to the very origin of this story, which is Dadaab refugee camp. Can you tell us a little bit about the camp, its origins, how long it's been around, what it looks and feels like, and what are we to make of this as a point of origin for your protagonist?
MCCORMICK: Dadaab is this really fascinating and infuriating complex, a very difficult place to describe to people who have not been there. In the book I compare it to the fictional town of Macondo, which Garcia Marquez famously describes as “cut off from the rest of civilization by measureless swamps and forbidding mountain ranges.” And, of course, the only visitors to Macondo from the outside world are these traveling gypsies that come each year to sell their wares. Dadaab is also cut off from the rest of civilization not just by a vast semi desert, but by this kind of invisible web of restrictions that is designed to keep its residents not just physically there, but in a kind of extended limbo. And, of course, it also only has very few outside visitors since folks who live there are not allowed to travel. It's really just aid workers and journalists like myself that occasionally visit. And when you visit Dadaab you inevitably come by air. You take a UN flight because the road links are insecure and they would take several days to get there from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. And coming into Dadaab from the air is really kind of—it's something to behold. You're flying along over this vast nothingness. Then you kind of cross this invisible line and row after row after row of tiny houses, little huts extend to the horizon in every direction. And you come down to the ground, you land on the sort of the only strip of asphalt for miles, probably a hundred miles in any direction, and you can see these structures up close. And they are made from pretty much anything that refugees can get their hands on, whether it's scraps of plastic, a lot of thorn scrub. Some of the refugees have used, you know, they've made bricks out of the earth. And then you realize this camp has looked this way and these structures have looked this way for thirty years now. This is a camp that was set up in 1992 one year after Somalia collapsed into civil war and hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed into neighboring Kenya. By some estimate a third of Somalia's population was uprooted from their homes as a result of the war. Not all of them crossed borders but as many as a third lost their homes. And many of them, like the family I follow in the camp, ended up in Kenya and now a second and the third generation of them are growing up under the same conditions with the same limitations on their lives.
SECOR: That's an incredibly long time. I was struck in your book by the description of people whose whole lives are lived out within this refugee camp and generations born into it. Can you tell us a little bit about where, I mean, you say that this is a relic of the Somali civil war. Who are these refugees? Who lives Dadaab and how did they get there?
MCCORMICK: Yes, I mean, the vast majority of them are from Somalia or descended from Somalis. But as I said in the introduction, a huge number of them have now never been to Somalia. So it's zone culture contained within the camp. It's different than the culture in Somalia, and it's different from the culture in in Kenya. One of the reasons that I wrote the book was because I stumbled upon a statistic that just absolutely blew me away. It's a statistic on what the UN calls “protracted refugee crises.” Basically, it's just a crisis that lasts for six years or longer and doesn't have an immediate prospect of being resolved. In the mid-1990s, the average length for protracted refugee crisis was something like eight years. Fast forward to today, it's twenty-six years. And so another way of reading that is that many of these crises, certainly the one on Kenya's border next to Somalia, have just been frozen in time. There's been almost no movement. People haven't gone home. They have remained stuck. You know, undergirding all of our refugee policy is this assumption that these things are temporary, that wars will end and people will go home. The whole justification for encampment, for emergency responses like the ones that we field, oftentimes go hand in hand with restrictions for the refugees. You're not allowed to work. You're not allowed to integrate fully into the host community because the thinking goes when the crisis ends you'll be more able to return home and resume the life that you had before. For a whole variety of reasons, many of which had to do with the end of the Cold War, that just hasn't happened. The nature of conflict shifted. In some places we started to see more civil wars. It was kind of this birth of protracted instability, insecurity, kind of low-level grinding conflicts that didn't have huge body counts but that kept people from returning home and resuming their lives. And so I became fascinated with what does it mean to spend your entire life in this kind of limbo? What does it mean to be, you know, what I call a “permanent exile” in the book in one of these permanent, temporary cities?
SECOR: Your protagonist takes this really unusual journey to remove himself from that situation and has to really persevere through all kinds of setbacks. But sort of putting him to the side for just a minute—we'll return to him—what would be the, sort of, predicted path for somebody like Asad Hussein, who is born into a camp like Dadaab? What are the steps that he would be informed that he should take and do they work?
MCCORMICK: Yes, unfortunately, there's actually a pretty good answer to that in the book itself in the person of a character named Becker, who is Assad's best friend growing up. The spoiler in the intro is that Assad ends up at Princeton and in that he is extremely lucky and unrepresentative of his refugee cohort. I think his family in some ways is representative of this phenomenon of permanent displacement because it took them thirty years to reach the United States. And, of course, they're still not fully reunited in the country. They still have three siblings that are stuck living undocumented in Kenya with relatively little prospect of coming to the United States. Maryan and his sisters are still working very hard to try to get them here, but it doesn't look good. Becker, Assad's best friend, has all of the same interests, the same drive. Together they kind of make this pact to devote their childhood to winning a scholarship. And in some ways, Becker looks more likely to succeed at certain points in that journey. He scores quite well on the national exam. He wins a scholarship from the German government to go to university in Kenya, but because of the laws in Kenya that forbid refugees from working, he's very qualified, but he's no more able to work in the eyes of the Kenyan government. And so he's stranded there.
There are very, very few options for people who are born in the camp. You can wait in the queue for UN resettlement. But, you know, there are about twenty-four million registered refugees around the world and less than 1 percent of them are resettled every year in the camp. It's enough that people still organize their whole lives around waiting for resettlement. The family in my book does. It's sort of the subtext of every conversation between Maryan, who's in the United States, and the rest of the family. It's this question mark that looms over them for their entire lives: When will they get to come here? But for the majority of people that remains out of their control. There's nothing you can do to advance your case or make it more likely to succeed. And, in fact, because of the various bureaucratic hurdles, the bigger your family is the longer you wait and the more likely that case is going to fall out of sync in some way. You have medical exams that have to be current. You have security vetting that has to be current. You have all of these stages and when you have a family of eight or twelve or fifteen people, inevitably some of those peoples' status falls out of sync or it expires and the whole case gets delayed and people get left behind. So the reality is that most people end up like Becker's and very few people end up like Asad's.
SECOR: So let's go to Asad, then. Would you tell us a little bit about how you discovered him and what kind of a person he is and maybe, without spoiling the whole plot of the book, a sense of how his journey unfolded the way that it did?
MCCORMICK: Asad is one of the most remarkable people that I've ever met. In fact, we met because of the Trump travel ban. At the time I was the Africa editor of Foreign Policy, and it was a story we needed to cover, like any other story. And so I had actually stumbled upon a piece of writing that Asad had done before, a short piece in the New York Times Magazine, and never in a million years that I think that he was still in the camp. He had written about his sister's return but because he was writing in the Times, I thought for sure he was one of the lucky few who had gotten out. I filed his name away. I thought, you know, maybe there's an opportunity to have him write for me at Foreign Policy. A few months go by, the Trump travel ban happens, and this is the opportunity. So I reached out to him, and I asked if he would be interested in tracking down families from Dadaab who were directly affected by that executive order. And he wrote back to me and he said, you know, “This is the story of my family. It seems like the whole world is working against us,” he said. And he ended up writing this beautiful, kind of, heart-wrenching piece of writing for me at Foreign Policy, which sort of told part of his family's story, the thirteen years that they had been waiting in the camp since they had been told and promised they would be resettled in the United States, which happened in 2004. So that was how he came into my life.
He, I think, having been born in this place where his whole world was this, you know, camp of almost nothing that we take for granted in our day-to-day lives. For whatever reason, he was born with this just insatiable curiosity to push his frontiers outward and to learn about that outside world. I think part of it was his sister, Maryan, who had memories of Somalia before the war. Of course, his family told him about Somalia when he was growing up in the camp, but then when Maryan went to the U.S. she told him stories about how in America you can be anything you want to be. This is a place where many other immigrants from Somalia and elsewhere had come and thrived and, very importantly to him, many writers had come and thrived. And he got access to this tiny, little library in the camp that had some volumes that were donated by Western charities. And in there he essentially discovered the outside world. He read about all of these things that he had never experienced in his real life.
And, you know, he told me later that it resulted in these kinds of bizarre fantasies because he had none of the kind of ideational building blocks to imagine what he was seeing. The first time he read The Yacoubian Building by Egyptian novelist, Alaa al-Aswany, he had a really hard time imagining the setting, which is this Cairo apartment block, a very kind of, you know, normal day-to-day setting that you or I would have no problem understanding. And for him, conceiving of, as he put it to me, conceiving of something that lies almost entirely out of your realm of experiences is impossible. So he imagined two of the flimsy huts that he grew up in stacked on top of each other as the first and the second floor of this apartment building. So that just gives you, I think, an idea of sort of what remarkable curiosity he must have had to keep pushing his frontiers outward and keep exploring beyond the next boundary and ultimately end up at a place like Princeton.
SECOR: You mentioned the Trump travel ban. Can you speak to the effect that that had on people like Asad and others in places like Dadaab? How important were those policies to the fortunes of refugees?
MCCORMICK: I think it's hard to overstate the devastation of the Trump years for places like Dadaab. You know, this is a place, as Asad writes, that people spoke about America like they speak about the Hereafter. Arguably, Dadaab was on a per capita basis more affected by the travel ban than anywhere else on the planet. There were fourteen thousand people at some stage of the resettlement process to come to the United States the day before or on the day that Donald Trump issued the travel ban. In 2018, just eight people were resettled from Dadaab to the United States and just fourteen people were resettled the following year. So almost overnight the entire humanitarian apparatus that was geared around giving people new lives, better lives ground to a halt overnight. And despair set in very quickly. I wrote about one young man that ended up taking his own life in the wake of the travel ban. It wasn't a sort of direct correlation that led to his suicide, but it was one of many setbacks that ultimately led to a young man who had much of the promise—you could imagine him ending up in a place, as with so many of the characters in the book, tragically, you can imagine them all ending up where Assad ended up. You know, he did very well in his courses. His classmates had elected him student leader so many times in a row that they took the calling him Gadhafi because he had been their leader long enough to be a Middle Eastern despot. So, you know, he was one of, I would say, a handful or a half dozen or so suicides that I know of in Dadaab. There was a spate of, I think, six or seven in Kakuma refugee camp, which is on the other side of Kenya on the South Sudanese border that happened within a fairly short period after the Trump travel ban. And when I traveled back to Dadaab in 2019 as first part of the research for the book, it was very clear that the atmosphere was much changed by the lack of movement on resettlement, you know, something that had been, you know, common enough that it was a source of hope, but still uncommon enough that it was kind of seen as a golden ticket. That quality had sort of dissipated, and there was a sense that this was an impossibility and that this once beacon of hope had now kind of turned its back on the people of Dadaab.
SECOR: And now with the new administration there's been some talk of a change policy. Have you seen significant change since the Biden administration has come in and, if so, is it positive change? If not, what sort of changes would be constructive?
MCCORMICK: So it's still obviously very early and the Biden administration is dealing with a lot of, you know, pandemic and other issues at the same time. But it has been slow to change. And a lot of the policies that were, sort of, hallmarks of the Trump era are still in place. I think for people who live in Dadaab the most relevant of them is that the annual cap that the president is able to set on refugee resettlement admissions remains where Donald Trump set it at fifteen thousand at the end of his administration. The Biden administration indicated on the campaign trail that they were going to raise it up to one hundred twenty-five thousand, which would be higher than it ever was during the Obama administration. It would be, by historical standards, quite a generous cap. And he also indicated early on in his presidency that they were, at least, strongly considering raising this year's cap. He also has the discretion to do an emergency revision to this year's cap. That hasn't happened. The administration, sort of, did all the paperwork, and then it never got signed. It was clear that parts of the administration were expecting this to go forward because the State Department went ahead and booked flights for at least seven hundred refugees that it assumed would be able to be resettled under this elevated cap and then rather embarrassingly had to cancel those flights at the last minute. And so I think there's still hope among people who are advocates for, you know, reviving the settlement system that this will eventually get resolved. I think there's a fear that this has become intertwined with the issue at the border and with, you know, a surge in migration from Central America in particular and a feeling that the optics would be maybe not very good for an administration that faces attacks from Republicans over this particular issue and a fear that these two things will get conflated. I think on a policy level, they're totally different issues. Refugee resettlement is, you know, it's run through the UN. It involves an extraordinarily level of vetting. I mean, the people that are getting resettled have endured just an incredible amount of scrutiny over many, many years. And so, you know, concerns around security, I think, are much less well founded when you're talking about resettlement for the UN. Asylum claims at the border are a different kettle of fish. And even, you know, even more different from that are questions of economic immigration and people who come either for temporary purposes or here to work in an undocumented capacity. But all of those things, I think, have contributed to the sluggish response of the Biden administration to change some of those Trump-era policies.
SECOR: Your book makes clear just how important the role the United States has historically played in refugee resettlement. I was staggered by the numbers that you deliver, I think, early in the book as to the proportion of refugees that have been resettled in the United States.
MCCORMICK: Yes, the United States, I think, a lot of people don't realize just how many people the United States has resettled since 1980. Of course, I think, when you look at the broad sweep of American history, the country has a real checkered record here. You know, I think that there are, you know, stains on American history of the periods when we turned away, you know, Jewish immigrants in the 1930s, Jewish refugees, and we turned away refugees from South Vietnam in the 1970s. Kind of over and over throughout history there have been waves of refugees that had been turned back. Since 1980 and since the 1980 Refugee Act, which kind of formalized our refugee resettlement process, before that presidents would what's called “parole” refugees into the country and it was more an ad hoc kind of basis that people were brought here. Since 1980, it's been pretty regularized and the United States has resettled three out of four refugees that have been resettled anywhere in the world. It's three million out of about four million people. So in any given year the U.S. is resettling more people than the next sort of thirty-five or thirty-six designated resettlement countries combined, countries like Canada, the UK, and Australia. That of course changed during the Trump administration. For the first time the U.S. relinquished its status as the global leader in refugee resettlement and on a per capita basis, Canada is now putting us to shame in terms of resettling refugees.
Should the Biden administration be able to lift the cap? You know, I think that in some ways this would register as a blip historically. In other ways, I think, you know, as anyone who works in resettlement will tell you, it's extraordinarily disruptive to have the whole system shut down. It's like shutting down any piece of heavy machinery. If you shut down an oil pipeline overnight, it's extraordinarily expensive to keep it from damaging the infrastructure. The same is true of a resettlement pipeline. And, you know, dozens of agencies, possibly even hundreds of local agencies, have had to shutter their doors during the Trump years. They're understaffed. They're under resourced now. There are very few refugees actually moving through the system. So all of that stands in the way of actually realizing—even if Biden were to say tomorrow we're raising the cap to a hundred twenty-five thousand, I'm not sure that we would be able to get to that by the end of the year. There were concerns even during the Obama administration. I'm forgetting the exact figure, but I think it was maybe around a hundred ten thousand that some people were advocating for and there was discussion of raising the cap to that level. There were people who worked in resettlement, who were in the resettlement agencies, who said, “We don't have the capacity to get there. We would need more resources to do so.” And so, you know, those problems are being acutely felt today in the wake of this really abrupt shutdown of the system.
SECOR: I think that concludes the time that we have for the program. I want to thank everybody for coming today. And a big thanks to you, Ty, for taking the time to speak about your book.
MCCORMICK: Thank you, Laura. This was a lot of fun.