Arts & Culture

‘Warehoused’ film tells Minnesota Somali family’s story of separation, struggle

WILLMAR, Minn. — Imagine living in a one- or two-room house made of mud bricks. The bricks are a terra cotta color, as is the dust that rises from the dirt path outside your door.

Your closest neighbor probably lives only feet away in a community of a half million people, smashed into an area originally intended for 90,000.

There’s never enough to eat, and, sometimes, the little basic food you have is the currency used to obtain “luxuries” like tea, or underwear. You’d like to have a job but that isn’t allowed.

Your entire family may be with you, or just a part of it. Or, you may be alone, with no family members nearby.

If you are a boy, you have a 50-50 chance of attending a primary school, about a 20 percent chance of going on to secondary school. The numbers for girls are much lower.

That is life in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. The name symbolizes several sprawling refugee camps that surround the Kenyan city of Dadaab. It is one of many such refugee camps that have developed in Kenya, Ethiopia and other countries during the 25 years of Somali civil war.

Now, contrast that with Willmar, with its quiet streets and green, leafy trees swaying in the breeze next to a lake reflecting a blue sky.

These are the two main settings in the newly released documentary film “Warehoused.”

The film follows the struggles of the Mohamed family from their arrival at Dadaab through the years it took to make their way to the United States and finally to Willmar. Much of the story is told through the voice of elder son Liban Mohamed and his brother Abdihalim. Liban Mohamed had to stay behind when his mother, brother and sister were resettled in America. Abdihalim Mohamed is a graduate of Willmar Senior High School.

Through the story of this one family, the filmmakers hoped to illustrate the plight of millions of people who have been forced to flee their homes because of civil war, genocide, famine or other situations beyond their control.

The film premiered worldwide June 20 on World Refugee Day. A free showing at the Willmar Education and Arts Center drew more than 600 people to the auditorium. The crowd shared in traditional food from the Somali Star restaurant afterward.

In the film, experts describe the living conditions of the camps and the various organizations that work with the United Nations to provide for them. The U.N. provides food and clothing, but refugees accepting food are not allowed to work.

The title, “Warehoused,” refers to people who have been in the camps for as many as 25 years, many with little hope of ever being resettled. Less than 1 percent of Dadaab’s residents are resettled each year. In some families, generations have been born in the camps.

Liban was prevented from leaving with his family because they had started the intensive refugee screening process while he was out of the camp.

Still a young boy, he sneaked away from the camp after his father’s death with a plan to get a job and support the family. Instead, he was enslaved for months in Nairobi, washing dishes in a hotel kitchen he couldn’t leave. When he escaped and returned, he was not allowed to join his family after missing the initial interview. He waited more than eight years to join his family in Willmar.

In the film, Liban often spoke of joining his family in America and getting a job to help support them. It finally happened, and the film shows the family welcoming him at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and closes with Liban gazing at a clear Willmar lake.

The crowd gave the movie sustained applause, and many people said they found it interesting, informative and moving.

“We enjoyed it a lot,” said Sheldon Groff, a retired missionary who used to serve in Bolivia. “It gives us a better understanding.”

For Nagi Abdullahi, a Somali immigrant who works as a cultural liaison for the Willmar Public Schools, watching the movie brought back some difficult memories. While she never lived in Dadaab, she does recall her family fleeing to Ethiopia and not having enough to eat, she said. The story of family separation made her think of her own mother still in Africa.

She spoke of the culture shock and her surprise at the cold weather when she arrived, she said, but she concluded, “We are in one of the greatest countries in the world.”

People come out to see “Warehoused” on June 20, at the Willmar Education and Arts Center in Willmar. The documentary about refugees was screened at the WEAC auditorium on World Refugee Day. (Briana Sanchez / Forum News Service)

Abdullahi’s friend KerriAnn Mahon said she appreciated the movie but had found it difficult to watch Abdullahi “knowing how much she misses her mother.”

Mahon, a pediatrician, said, “I think Willmar is such a remarkable place,” with ethnic businesses and schools where students from different cultures are friends.

“This is how it can work,” she said.

Willmar Vision 2040 plans to show the film at least four more times. The times and dates are still to be determined.

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