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We Are Home: Becoming American in the 21st Century

Journalist Ray Suarez examines immigration policies in the United States while chronicling the lives of new immigrants across the country in his latest book.

WE ARE HOME by Ray Suarez. Copyright © Ray Suarez 2024. Used with permission from Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved.

Journalist Ray Suarez examines immigration policies in the United States while chronicling the lives of new immigrants across the country in his latest book.

Veteran journalist and author Ray Suarez traversed the country for his new book, speaking with new immigrants creating a new life in the United States.

In “We Are Home,” Suarez examines immigration policies while chronicling the lives of immigrants as they navigate obstacles but remain resilient through adversity.

Excerpted from WE ARE HOME by Ray Suarez. Copyright © Ray Suarez 2024. Used with permission from Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved.

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born in Mombasa, Kenya


I was already 20, and it was like you had won the Golden Ticket, right? I had family and cousins here, so I kind of knew a bit about it, like it wasn’t “the streets were paved with gold” type of thing. You’ll have to work.

My parents were born in Kenya and Tanzania during the colonial time, the British colonial time, so we were, I guess, second or third generation, and we were originally from Yemen. So growing up I was already an immigrant from birth. The way they spoke about Yemen, and especially their parents, my grandparents, it was always as if one day we’ll go back. So you felt Kenyan by upbringing, but sometimes, you know, going to school they tell you you’re an Arab. Go back home, right?” Figuring out just where home was would become the puzzle he would spend the next decades of his life solving.

Settlers and traders from the Arabian Peninsula have been moving south along Africa’s Indian Ocean coast for centuries. There are Arab settlements and towns from the Red Sea all the way down to what is today Mozambique. Swahili, the lingua franca of much of East Africa, is shot through with Arabic words and linguistic structures.

Samir, now in his forties, trim, compact, brown-skinned, brown- haired, brown-eyed, would look at home walking down countless streets in the Global South. From his youngest days he navigated multiple cultures and nationalities. After early childhood in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa, he moved to Saudi Arabia when his father got a job there, and then returned to Kenya at eleven. The reentry, he recalls, was not so easy. His Swahili was now accented after years abroad. His Arabic was shaped by the particular dialect of Saudi Arabia. “So I remember they teased me, even the other Arab kids did. I remember trying to fit in again.”

As Samir was trying to find his feet back home in Kenya, life took an unexpected turn. His parents divorced. His father returned to Saudi Arabia. An aunt, his mother’s sister, had moved to the United States and had entered Samir’s mother and the children into the lottery system for a so- called diversity visa. Unlike the other increasingly exacting parts of American immigration statutes, the diversity visa, created by a 1990 immigration law, is literally a game of chance. Every year the US government awards fifty thousand visas to applicants selected at random from countries with low rates of immigration to the US. Most applicants, and most winners, come from Africa.

Millions apply for diversity visas every year. As with state lotteries, the odds of a life-changing win are minuscule.

Samir’s mother won. She packed up her kids and headed to Maryland to live with her sister.

Samir knew he would have to work hard. And that it wouldn’t be easy.

“When I came here, even though I spoke English and I had a network, and support, I was really surprised how homesick I was for Kenya. There, I knew how to get around. I was popular. Now, I went to the suburbs of Columbia, Maryland, and it really felt like I was in a desert, very lonely. No cafés. People didn’t even know the neighbor’s name and stuff like that.”

Even in the midst of winning that lottery, there was heartbreak, and a difficult decision to be made. “One thing that broke my mom’s heart coming here was my brother was over twenty-one. He was in university in Kenya. My older brother. I’m the second out of five. And they told him that with the diversity visas she could only move with four out of her five kids. The oldest one had to be issued a separate green card.

“She cried a lot because it was the second time she left my older brother. When we moved to Saudi Arabia, my dad had left my older brother behind because he had already started school and was learning English. None of us (younger siblings) had started school when we moved. Now, all these years later, my mom was like, ‘I’m doing this again. I’m leaving him for the second time.’ She had never forgiven herself for the first one, so she was really torn about it. Then my aunt said, ‘Oh, it’s only going to take a year to get his green card.’ So we thought. It actually took fifteen years.”

Samir reassured his mother, telling her she had done the right thing. He had just finished high school. A younger brother was in high school, a sister was in middle school. The family crowded into a townhouse in Columbia, Maryland, with Samir’s aunt and her family, until the five of them could rent a townhouse of their own nearby. It must have been head-spinning. Mombasa is a picturesque old port city melding Arabic, African, and British colonial influences. Warm breezes from the Indian Ocean waft aromas from spice markets and open-air food stalls. Through the day the muezzin’s call to prayer ricochets through the ancient streets.

Seven time zones away, Columbia, Maryland, was a planned development, a model city meant to pioneer a new kind of medium-density urbanism for America’s metropolitan areas. Developer James Rouse wanted to demonstrate a kind of development that would combat sprawl, while making room for employment, housing, recreation, and medical care all within easy distance. It is hard to
think of two places less alike than Mombasa and Columbia. To hear Samir
tell it, he took it all in stride.

“It wasn’t hard to assimilate quickly. Get a job. I worked at McDonald’s and Wawa. One of my first jobs at Wawa was at the deli counter. I spoke with a Kenyan accent. Most people when they move here, they think Americans speak fast. You almost don’t hear half the words. They’re saying what? But all you hear is wa, wa, wa, right?

“I didn’t know all the different cheeses! And people were very particular. They want tuna on rye, with this, but not that. I thought, ‘Oh my God, how many cheeses do these people have? These are the things that stick with me. I remember, you know, the guy’s watching me. It’s kind of like a Subway setup. He’s watching me make his sandwich and I’m panicking. And what the hell is relish?”

In the United States for just a few weeks, Samir was working two full- time jobs at two very American businesses, Wawa, the mid-Atlantic convenience store chain, and McDonald’s. He wanted to enroll in college, but hesitated, even as he worked those crushing hours. His aunt offered to lend him the money to register. “But I felt very restless. And I was scared that I was going to squander the money. That I wasn’t going to be a good student, because the college was right across the street. And that wasn’t college how I envisioned it. I wanted to go to Animal House college. But this was a community college. I was going to be living at home. Taking the bus. It was not fun.”

We were sitting in a Cuban-style coffee shop in Maryland’s District of Columbia suburbs as he told me his story, full of gentle self-deprecation and frequent references to American pop culture…television, movies, music. Yet even when the family had just unpacked in its new home, the young Kenyan did something audacious.

He joined the United States Army.

“I got into this country in May. By August first I had already signed up to go into the military. I was watching reruns of Seinfeld or something at night, and they were showing the recruiting commercial ‘Be All That You Can Be.’ And make college money! I was like, ‘Oh, what is this?’ I told my aunt to take me to the recruiting station.

“A few years earlier I had seen A Few Good Men, and I really liked that uniform. You know, I fancied myself as Tom Cruise, so I walked into the Marine section, it was a joint recruitment station, and I think not a lot of people just walk in because they were kind of surprised to see me.

“I was like, ‘Is it okay if I come in?’ And they’re like ‘Oh yeah, sure! Come in!’ And then I talked to them about what jobs they had. I told them I want college money. But I think back, and a couple of things were driving me. We were comfortable, middle class, in Kenya. We had house help. We had maids. We had stuff, and coming here and seeing my mother take the bus to go to the mall, Columbia Mall, really killed me. She worked at JCPenney. She sold shoes. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, she’s going and fetching shoes for people.’ To me, it felt beneath her. But I knew we needed the money.

“I thought, ‘What am I doing? I can’t go to college?’ And at that point I had wanted to go to law school. I thought, ‘My God, I’ve got to go to four years of university, and then three years of law school, and all that time my mom’s going to measure people’s feet and touch their feet?’ It just killed me.

“I didn’t tell her this, because I didn’t want her to feel bad. And she didn’t seem to mind. She was happy. She had always been a housewife and stuff, and here she learned how to drive. She was taking computer classes. She enjoyed it.

“One of the reasons I went into the military was this: I was like, okay, I’m going to help provide. I’m killing two birds with one stone. I’ll make school money. I’ll get out of the suburbs. And help my mom.”