How a 23-year-old reaches Minneapolis from Somalia

Yussuf, 23, is trying to get to Minneapolis from Somalia. His route here isn’t what you might think.

Tim Rogers, of Fusion, is tracking the global immigration patterns and has found that Panama is a “key bottleneck” in the route from South to North America. That’s where he’s found Yussuf and the Somalis.

Due to evolving global immigration routes, this remote patch of boscage has become a bizarrely cosmopolitan crossroads for people from all over—including folks from as far away as Nepal, Bangladesh and Somalia. The leader of the Kuna community I was staying in told me that several groups of Somalis had wandered out of the jungle and into his village last month. I hoped I’d be lucky enough to be there the next time it happened.

How does a young man from Somalia, trying to get to Minneapolis, end up in detention in Panama?

Yussuf said his father had been a camel trader in Somalia. When his dad died he inherited the family herd. Earlier this year he says he was approached by a Somali guy who promised to get him papers to emigrate to the United States. Since his parents were dead, and Somalia isn’t exactly an up-and-coming spot for a young man with aspirations, Yussuf decided to pull up stakes and try to find his cousin in Minneapolis.

The young man said if you have a chance to leave Somalia, you take it. And the inherited camel herd was his ticket out.

Yussuf said he sold his family’s remaining camels for $13,000 and then forked over $5,000 to the coyote who promised to get him to the Americas. He said the African-trafficking network facilitated him with a fake passport and paperwork to get to “Bolivia” via South Africa. At the Johannesburg airport, just prior to boarding the plane, Yussuf said he handed off his false passport to a mystery man loitering in the departure lounge, then boarded the plane without any documentation.

When he arrived—in whatever country it was that the plane landed— he handed immigration officials a pre-prepared letter in Spanish asking for asylum. He says the officials, in turn, gave him a safe-passage permit that gave him five days to leave the country—enough time to continue his undocumented journey north. The details of his travel through South America are a bit fuzzy, perhaps due to exhaustion, or language, or by design. Maybe all three.

He had been on the road for 11 weeks by the time Rogers found him crossing a stream in Panama. He and others in his group were lost.

He told Rogers that if he’d known how difficult the journey would be, he wouldn’t have made the trip. He figures it’ll be another month yet before he reaches his destination.

The Panamanian police can’t deport him; he’s too far away from home. So they let him go, ordering him to get out of the country.

As the Somalis prepared to depart, I told Yussuf I’d like to look him up someday in Minneapolis to see how he’s adjusting to his new life in the U.S. They were awkward words of departure, intended partially as encouragement and partially because I meant it. Yussuf nodded and gave me his Facebook name and instructions on how to find him. I did the same.

“I’ll send you a friend request,” I promised. “Accept it when you get to Minneapolis, that way I’ll know you made it.”

(h/t: Than Tibbetts)

Related: Minneapolis Somali community shocked by latest homicide (MPR News)