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Image: Brandon Hill

She sits outside the lobby of the Metropolitan Park West tower in South Lake Union, a short, lone figure in layered robes and a vibrant purple head scarf. Fatumo Guyo’s cleaning shift ended at 2:30am, but the first bus to her Fremont apartment won’t arrive until almost 5:30am. Her shoulders ache from pushing a trash can cart between cubicles and lugging a backpack vacuum across so many miles of office carpet.

Seattle is the third real home in Guyo’s 36 years, and despite the late hours, despite the transit woes, her middle-of-the-night musings contain a frequent refrain: “I thank God I am in America now.” 

She was born into the Oromo people in Negele Borena, a southern Ethiopia town of mud buildings and dusty dirt roads. Back in the 1980s no bridge crossed the river that bisected Negele Borena, so every year a few people and countless livestock were swept away during the summer rainy season. What the floods didn’t take, the ruling Ethiopian government did, its soldiers scouring the town for suspected terrorists.

“It’s not good,” Guyo says, struggling to describe her first home. Her English is broken but it’s not language that limits her; all she remembers is this: Her mother was dead, and her father disappeared. “They arrest him, I don’t know,” Guyo says. “I don’t know.”

One day, when she was nine, Guyo’s older sister sent her on an errand, and the soldiers came. Everyone scattered. “I see only that they come,” Guyo says. Neighbors grabbed her and ran. One distinct noise pursued them: Psh-psh-psh. The sound of gunfire. Guyo never saw her sister again. 

The group made its way to neighboring Kenya, to the Walda Refugee Camp and then Kakuma. Kakuma is, as refugee camps go, pretty famous: well known for its violence, for its sprawl, for its meningitis and typhoid, for its melting pot of 180,000 refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. Rows of mud-brick houses with tin roofs line the Kenyan desert, where temperatures soar over 100 degrees. Kakuma operates as a camp, but functionally it’s a city five times the size of Guyo’s hometown, trapping its residents in international limbo. The camp’s name is Swahili for “nowhere.”

When the neighbors who rescued Guyo got their ticket out, to the UK, she stayed behind and married at age 14. She had four children. Attacks still came, this time at night, this time by the Turkana people. “They come to kill,” says Guyo. She heard men enter the house next door one night, then a cry, then a shot. Kakuma operated by few hard rules, but this was one: “If you will scream they will shoot you and then they rape you.”

One distinct noise pursued them. Psh-psh-psh. the sound of gunfire.

Guyo’s innate business acumen and proficiency for languages—Swahili and Somali besides her native Oromo—helped keep the family alive: She set up a small store selling food and eventually upgraded their one-bedroom to a three-bedroom house. “When I got married, I don’t even have 50 cents,” she remembers. 

After 18 years of marriage, with three children and a fourth on the way, her husband announced that he wanted another wife. Polygamy is practiced in rural Ethiopia, but Guyo wasn’t interested. “I say, ‘You want to marry another one? Okay, go ahead.’ ” While he pursued another marriage, Guyo gave birth and requested a divorce, winning sole custody and responsibility for the children. She was not yet 30.

Leaving Kakuma is a waiting game. Refugees are overseen by the United Nations but sponsored by the likes of the U.S., the UK, Canada, and Australia, often with little choice of their eventual destination. It can take five, 10, even 20 years for families to learn where they’re headed with a one-way plane ticket, the cost of which they must repay within the first five years in their new home. For Guyo, a new life began in 2014 with two days of flying with a fussy baby to Detroit. They landed in February, with snow on the ground and wind gusts topping 50 miles per hour. 

Guyo’s oldest daughter suffered immediately in the frigid Michigan winter; Guyo scrunches her face in a facsimile of the girl’s pain. After only a month, a lifeline emerged: a friend from Kakuma who’d been relocated to mild Seattle. Guyo uprooted again.

Like so many Seattleites, her greatest trials have been with housing. First her family settled into a downtown women’s shelter, where the children didn’t understand the strict rules and regulations—it was nothing like the anarchic refugee camp, where the only unbreakable rules were made by men with guns. The family finally secured temporary housing through Muslim Housing Services, which set them up with an apartment in Fremont where Guyo can walk the little ones to the open fields of Gas Works Park. 

“I want [my children] to have fun in the freedom of their own house,” Guyo says. She also wants her own kitchen. She cried when she first arrived in the U.S., missing the flavors of East Africa, especially a corn porridge called ugali. 

Guyo’s picking up English slower than her kids—“I didn’t even know ‘hi’ ” at first, she says, laughing—but ESL classes help. She secured an internship at TRAC Associates, a job-search firm, to give her work experience, where she wowed the staff used to helping timid, culture-shocked refugees find their footing. Guyo was different.

“I’ve never seen somebody that’s so hungry to learn English,” says case worker Demitu Argo. The staff was immediately impressed with Guyo’s business savvy, her ability to bond with others and pick up new skills. “She connects with vibes, you know?” The janitorial job, with its heavy over-the-shoulder vacuum and isolation, is a welcome paycheck but a bad fit.

Guyo’s goal now is self-reliance. Her three oldest are thriving in Seattle schools, and Guyo gives a happy laugh, unbelieving, when rattling off their lofty career goals—pilot for her son, doctor and lawyer for the girls—and her teenage daughter’s insistence on college before marriage. Her own goals are smaller; she wants to learn to drive so she won’t have to take the bus.

In Fremont, her children see fathers with the neighbor kids and ask about what they left behind. “The small one, she keep ask me, ‘Where’s my daddy?’ ” says Guyo. “I tell them, no problem! Your daddy will come.” It’s the only way she can comfort them.

When Guyo slides the sleeve of her robe up her left arm she reveals the only thing she has left of Ethiopia: a scar, round and uneven. She caught her arm on something sharp—she’ll never know what—as she ran from the gunfire that day in Negele Borena. The scar is a lifelong reminder of the last day she ever saw her family.

But Guyo doesn’t look back. Keeping in touch with friends back in Kakuma is too hard—not logistically but emotionally. She fingers the head scarf she bought in Seatac’s Somali Bakaro mall, her hands painted in henna to observe Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan. She wants to start a business selling clothing like this, imported from Dubai for Seattle’s still-growing East African community. She prays to God for permanent housing, the end to her stress. “I need to start my life. My new life.” 

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