Exiles on Main Street

Roughly 4,500 refugees will resettle in Texas this year, but few will have a tougher time adjusting than Ali Mohamed and his family. When they arrived in San Antonio from Africa in February, they didn’t know how to speak English. Or read or write. Or use a telephone or an electric stove. And in a few months they would have to start paying the rent.

TO ANY CONNOISSEUR OF HUMAN HAPPINESS, especially in its more hidden forms, this was an occasion not to be missed, the sort of modest moment from which an entire people’s history might someday be made. It was nine-thirty on a Thursday night in February, and the last flights of the night were arriving at San Antonio International Airport: families coming back from a late-winter vacation, men in cowboy hats whooping at the sight of friends who’d come out to greet them, three chattering blond women in tight blue jeans pulling their rolling suitcases across the floor to the elevators, and behind them, unnoticed, a young black couple and their four children, all but the mother wearing new white Keds and gray sweatshirts with “ USRP” printed on the front.

The man was small, compactly built, and he was obviously and openly exhausted. His name was Ali Shidad Mohamed, and his wife’s name was Madina. She was tall and dressed in a wrap of blue and red and yellow, and a yellow and orange and brown head scarf; she carried her youngest, still a baby, in a sling on her chest; she wore a dazed and solemn expression; and she was so profoundly beautiful that she looked like God himself had brushed up against her on his way to some other errand. The six of them said nothing, even when their caseworker and their translator waved to them from behind the security barrier, even when they were led through the airport parking lot and into a large blue van, even as they pulled out into the bright lights of Texas’ second biggest city. They were tired, bewildered, overwhelmed, and silent. They were Somali Bantu, among the world’s most mistreated people; they had just flown 9,300 miles from Kenya, where they’d been living in a

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