Happy Tuesday, y’all.
It’s a big week here at Bar\Heart. We’re talking to Mamba Hamissi about his journey to becoming an American — and I’m dropping the conversation two ways! You can read the highlights here or you can listen to our chat in the podcast version of this story.
I don’t have any experience editing or producing audio, but I wanted to try because I think it is important that you hear Mamba, in his own rich, resonant voice, intimately in your ear; not just flat words on the page. I kept the run time to about 30 minutes, so I hope you’ll listen. Please be kind; I recognize that this is a little bit like Fisher Price My First Radio.
I first met Mamba and his wife, Nadia Nijimbere, through their food. It was 2017, and I was a judge for Hatch Detroit, a small business competition that helps entrepreneurs open restaurants and retail shops in the city. Mamba dropped off a few dishes for the judges to sample, and I fell in love with their food. So did everyone: The pair won — beating out 160 other dreams for the $50,000 prize. During the pandemic they finally opened the doors to their restaurant, Baobab Fare.
But before they could bring the tastes of East Africa to Michigan, they had to escape their home country of Burundi. Nadia worked in nonprofits there, with children, and came across some information that was damning to some very important people. If word spread that she knew, her life would be in danger.
But Nadia couldn’t ignore what she found. She wrote a report exposing rapes and illegitimate children and then fled Burundi, seeking asylum in the United States. Mamba couldn’t get a visa, so Nadia had to leave him behind.
In 2013, she arrived at Freedom House, a nonprofit in Detroit that provides asylum seekers with legal counsel, housing, food, support … whatever persecuted people need to make a new life.
Two years later, Mamba finally arrived ... and met his twin daughters for the first time at the airport. Unbeknownst to Nadia, she was pregnant when she fled Burundi. She’d come to a new country, not speaking the language, and had to try and acclimate while also raising two babies by herself.
I started thinking about Mamba and Nadia again earlier this year as I watched the chaos unfold in Afghanistan. Even though the circumstances were different, I wondered what it had been like for them to come here as refugees. What did it take for them to build a life here. Did they think of America as home? And what advice would they share for the more than 100,000 Afghan refugees trying to rebuild their lives as new Americans?
Mamba agreed to speak with me, and I got him on the phone while he was driving to Baobab Fare.
I hope you enjoy the conversation! The highlights version is below or you can listen to the extended interview on Soundcloud. In that version we talk about learning English with Peppa Pig, what Mamba's childhood smelled and sounded like, why he fell in love with Nadia and so much more.
How different was Michigan from Burundi? What were some of the things that maybe surprised you?
For my first impression, everything in this country is big. Everything. Everything for me, from Burundi. Cars are big, roads are, big houses are big. Food are huge. Everything. Everything for me was big, big, big. That was the first impression. I was like why everything is big?
I came in November and the weather was brutal. We had an apartment on the street and I used to stay home alone because Nadia would work and the kids were in the daycare. I would watch in the window outside, and I don't see anybody. There’s not anybody. In Burundi there’s not that much people who has cars, you know. People walk to go to work or they bike. So then one day I asked Nadia: Are you sure we don't live in this area in this neighborhood alone?
You're sitting in this apartment by yourself. You're not seeing anybody. How did you get out and start meeting people?
I used to go to Freedom House. They had programs where you meet volunteers as language partners. You start practicing the language, talking to them. This is how I start meeting people. And here, people like to ask questions a lot.
Is that less common in Burundi?
Yeah. In Burundi everybody, we know each other, which is normal. So I didn't realize that. But here people ask a lot of questions. So I was like, OK, if you ask me questions, I ask you questions. My fellow Africans, they don't like that. They say, They ask a lot of questions. And I’m like, OK, if they ask you questions, they want to know who you are. So you ask them questions, too, so that you can know who they are. That tactic helped me a lot to open a lot of opportunities in America.
There was a lot of conversation then, as there is now, about immigration. Did you feel like people embraced you or did you feel any pushback?
Where we used to live, I would say, is very ignorant and very racist, racist area. These are people, generation to generation, that have never seen someone like me. Generation to generation, they can watch or listen on some news channel, you know, which is telling them different. They don't know anything. Is that ignorant? I don't think that is ignorance. That is lack of information. By the time they have the right information, you can judge them. I'm not saying that there's no bad people; there is a lot of bad people. But what is our responsibility to inform them to tell them who we are?
I feel like we should, as immigrants, we should put in our minds that we are coming in a country which does not belong to us. It's like you're coming into somebody's house, right? You need to build the relationship.
I'm starting from that position with them and then I see people changing. I saw some people crying, you know, because they feel bad, because the way they are treating me is different. They feel guilty, you know. So instead of going in and say, Oh, this is what is happening, people are not impressing us, what are we doing? We have to come here with the mission. We have to make our own contribution first because if we are going, we have to tell these people that, hey, we are not bad people, we are good people, through the example we are showing and then they can make that judgment. And then after that we can start judging.
So what you're saying is to educate people about your background. That's a lot of work and energy on your behalf. Did it ever feel overwhelming or isolating?
No, no, no. For me is not overwhelming because it helps me to not feel bad when someone is treating me bad. In my mind it is like he doesn't know what he's doing, and that helped me to not feel like someone is being bad to me. I know that if you're being racist to me, you behave like that in front of me, in my mind it is like, I know that you don't know what you're talking about.
What advice do you have for the refugees coming from Afghanistan?
Learn the language. That is very, very important. And I'm not saying to be Americanized. No, no, no. That is totally different. But remember that you don't live in Afghanistan anymore. You live in America and this is where you want to call home. And then if you want to call this country home, you have to make your contribution for this country.
Another thing I can tell my fellow refugees who are coming in this country is to have balance. Everything in this country can go very fast. Everything. So be careful; keep the legs on the ground. You can get a lot of a lot of stress because of the speed of life is very high. You can get a lot of disease because what you eat. Control your sleep. Keep your spirituality is very, very important. When you get in this country, you may lose it. There is a lot of values you can keep.
How do you find that balance between what you keep and what you adopt?
Learn about everything. So then you can make your own judgment. I think this is what is helping me to keep balance. Listen to others and then you learn from there. I used to listen to a lot about LGBTQ community. I was very, very, very ignorant about them because again, as I said, that's how I grew up in Africa. Everybody say, no, no, no, no, no you cannot say hi to them. They are bad people. That is the education I got. You know what I'm saying? By the time I start talking to them, I was like, oh, okay, I'm learning something. So the consideration I have at that time is very different from now. If that makes sense.
That makes perfect sense.
There is a lot of people around here who are called ignorant or racist, but they don't have the information which can change them. They never exposed themselves to this information.
Which is why I want to learn. I want to talk. I want to I want to be in your head. I want to be in your body to understand. Take me in your body, take me in your head so I can understand. In this conversation you start, you know, seeing the world in another way. You have to build a bridge.
Do you feel like this country is home for you now?
Absolutely 100 percent. This is the only home I have.
Do you remember when that shifted for you? Even when I move to a different state, there's a journey for me being from Colorado to feeling like I belong in Michigan. What was that journey like for you?
For us, winning the Hatch was a sign that Detroit is home.
Because that was an affirmation sign that you belonged?
Yeah, people voted for us just after one year coming to the United States. They never see this food before. We don't have a background in any business. We are not from here. Nobody knows about who we are. Even the whole concept is new for them. Then people who are in final are people born here, people who are making a lot of contributions. People has friends here. People who are trying to make this city better than anybody. But they choose us. That is powerful.
How are your children settling in?
The immigrant thing, African thing ends with us. They are not going to be Burundian. We are preparing them to be African American because they are going to live here. They're going to call this country home.
Do they have American foods that they love that you just wish they didn't?
Yeah. Chicken nuggets. I eat them because of them.
In Burundi, what’s a celebration meal vs. an every day meal?
Oh, celebration meal is meat. The goat or chicken or beef. That's a celebration. Every day meals is rice and beans or fufu and beans. That is every day's meal.
And is that the same tradition for you now that you're here?
Every day in America is a celebration day. Every day in America you eat meat, every day in America, you drink pop.
I love it. You say pop. I grew up saying pop as well. What are some of the things that make you feel connected to this place?
I think opportunities, you know, the opportunities. There is a lot of opportunities here. I feel like that's what I love here in America is if you have a good idea, you are the master of it. In this country, you can dream big. There is a room of dreaming.
That’s it for this edition, friends. If you ever find yourself in Detroit, definitely stop by Baobab Fare and try the whole fish. Mamba says it's a crowd favorite. Got questions or thoughts? I'd love to read your comments below; I always try to respond.
I hope you’ll join me next week: I have a very special guest with a very special pandemic love story. Sign up to receive my free weekly emails — if you haven’t already — so you don’t miss it.
See you on Friday for Cocktail Hour, where I dish on everything I'm drinking, reading, eating and thinking. Plus Hank dog and other cute critters. Cheers! 🍸
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