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In 'Deep North,' Burlingtonian Abdihamid Muhumed shares his decades-long journey from Somalia

A photo of a man in a hat and blue sweater smiles while sitting against a wall of books, and he holds a book with a blue and black cover, with the title, "Deep North"
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Abdihamid Muhumed, 57, is among the many people forced to escape Somalia when the government there was toppled by armed opposition groups in 1991. He now lives in Burlington, and shared his story in the book "Deep North."

The Green Mountain State has become home to many people forced to escape Somalia when the government there was toppled by armed opposition groups in 1991.

The crisis forced a mass exodus of people who often had to leave their homes without their belongings, hoping to find a safe place beyond Somalia's borders.

The fighting left behind a generation of refugees, including 57-year-old Abdihamid Muhumed, who now lives in Burlington.

Abdihamid recently visited the Vermont Public studios with interpreter Mohamed Abdulahi, himself a Somali refugee who learned to speak English in a Kenyan refugee camp. Both men spoke with Vermont Public's Mitch Wertlieb. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Abdihamid is one of three Somali authors who shared their stories in a book published this fall called Deep North. It’s edited by Vermont author Brad Kessler, who also published a novel in 2021 based on what he learned from speaking with a Somali asylum seeker.

More from Vermont Public: 2021 Vermont Book Award Finalists Announced

But what the people in Deep North went through to get to Vermont tells a tale as harrowing as any work of fiction.

Before he became a refugee, Abdihamid says he guided his family's herd of camels from village to village, selling the animals’ valuable milk.

It was a nomadic existence, in a land where Abdihamid saw more animals than people each day.

Abdihamid Muhumed, as translated by Mohamed Abdulahi: So, it's a very beautiful land where you don’t see any other stuff than animals. The way he state it, you hear him saying elephant … 

Mitch Wertlieb: I did hear…

Abdihamid Muhumed, as translated by Mohamed Abdulahi: Giraffe, camel, they all together there …

Abdihamid Muhumed: Buffalo.

Abdihamid Muhumed, as translated by Mohamed Abdulahi: Buffaloes. So, all this place is very quiet, outside any – it’s not close to any roadway or car or anything goes. No sound. The only sound we hear is the animals' sound.

A photo of two men smiling together outside with evergreen trees in the background
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Abdihamid Muhumed, right, stands for a portrait with Mohamed Abdulahi.

Mitch Wertlieb: But the war soon put an end to that way of life.

Mitch Wertlieb: When the soldiers came, did you lose any family?

Abdihamid Muhumed, as translated by Mohamed Abdulahi: Yes. My mom and my dad.

Abdihamid Muhumed: My dad and brother.

Abdihamid Muhumed, as translated by Mohamed Abdulahi: One brother. I lost those three people.

Mitch Wertlieb: I’m sorry.

Abdihamid Muhumed, as translated by Mohamed Abdulahi: I have some injury here – a little injury in my neck.

Mitch Wertlieb: What was that from? What happened? 

Abdihamid Muhumed, as translated by Mohamed Abdulahi: That was that same time they were killed, you know. It was a knife.

Mitch Wertlieb: Abdihamid fled with the surviving members of his family and some others he met along the way, heading west toward Kenya.

But getting there involved making a terrifying choice: Roam through the brush country and risk being attacked by animals, or venture into a town or village, where encountering another human could also prove fatal.

Abdihamid Muhumed, as translated by Mohamed Abdulahi: The problem is, you don't know who you’re gonna trust. If someone comes to you, you’re gonna say, “Oh, this is the person who’s gonna kill you.” So, you don’t know who you can ask which or who you can run to. So it’s kind of at this time, it’s like, you better to go to a bush where there’s no one and you can run out of there. It’s very difficult even to ask someone where to go – you will say, “Oh, this is the guy who’s gonna kill you, this is a bad guy?” You don’t know.

Mitch Wertlieb: In Deep North, Abdihamid says of his choice: "Between the men and the lions, we chose the lions."

It turned out to be the right decision. Abdihamid estimates it took about a month for him, his brother, and his brother's family to make it to a huge outdoor refugee camp in the western part of Kenya, called Kakuma.

A photo of two hands holding up a book cover which has the title "deep north: stories of somali resettlement in vermont." the book cover is black and blue, with the silhouette of a tree and a camel.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
"Deep North," which Abdihamid Muhumed helped author and share his story for, came out this fall.

Mitch Wertlieb: How long did you have to wait in the refugee camp before you came to Vermont?

Abdihamid Muhumed, as translated by Mohamed Abdulahi: About 20 years.

Mitch Wertlieb: 20 years?

Abdihamid Muhumed, as translated by Mohamed Abdulahi: So, at that place, in the refugee camp, I can’t say it’s still safe.

Mitch Wertlieb: There was violence in the camp, and Abdihamid says his brother was shot several times, requiring surgery. He describes the camp as an open air prison that he wasn’t allowed to leave during the 20 years he lived there.

His asylum application was eventually processed, and he came to Vermont in 2009. I asked him if there are difficulties living here, like adjusting to a much colder climate, not having a full grasp of English, or having to pay rent – which he never had to do before in Somalia.

Abdihamid Muhumed, as translated by Mohamed Abdulahi: Compared to what I come across, and what I experienced, this is nothing.

Mitch Wertlieb: Abdihamid says his neighbors in Burlington have been kind to him, and that kindness extends beyond the state’s borders.

Abdihamid Muhumed, as translated by Mohamed Abdulahi: So he’s giving you an example… he went back to Kenya, and then he went back to JFK airport, and his flight left before he got there. 

And [Abdihamid] was worried a little bit, because I didn’t know how to go around and get next flight, and now they told me that “your flight will be next, long time.” And when I came from Kenya, I never brought with me anything. 

So I was sitting there so worried about – and this lady Nancy come to me, and she asking me: “Where are you going?” And she said, “I’m going to Vermont.” She was from Vermont. So once she said, “I’m Vermont,” it’s like, I got my sister. 

Abdihamid Muhumed: My sister.

Abdihamid Muhumed, as translated by Mohamed Abdulahi: So she run around, you know, she feed me now, I worry less. And she taking care of me, she was very kind, she kind of like, now I don’t even worry about flight anymore. 

And that’s the example I’m giving you, that’s how they’re kind. Even out of Vermont if they see you. So I cried, really joy-crying. So that is what I can tell you, Vermont, even out of the town, out of the state, that’s how they even taking care for me. So that’s why I’m saying Vermont is kind of the best home that I have.

"Vermont is kind of the best home that I have."
Abdihamid Muhumed

Mitch Wertlieb: Abdihamid regrets that he has since lost track of Nancy, and he would love to thank her again for the kindness she showed him.

So Nancy, if you happen to be listening, please get in touch and we’ll help you two meet up again.

Now well-settled in Burlington, Abdihamid takes daily strolls to replace the walking he did with his camels back in Somalia. And he enjoys voting in local elections, something he never did in his homeland. He also says he has no intention of leaving.

He had a chance in 2015 when his surviving brother, wife, and children decided to move from Vermont to Minnesota. They asked him to join them, but he declined, he says, for a simple reason:

Abdihamid Muhamed: I love Vermont. Thank you.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Corrected: December 22, 2023 at 10:27 AM EST
This story has been updated to clarify that while Brad Kessler edited the three stories collected in Deep North, Abdihamid Muhumed is one of three authors of the book.

Vermont Public originally posted audio for this story on Dec. 21, and after learning we included some inaccuracies, we took it down. It was re-posted on Dec. 26.
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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