I grew up knowing that my mother’s family was from East Africa and had left in the late 1960s, but we never talked about the circumstances leading up to their departure. In the spring of 2004 I was in New Jersey visiting my parents and my uncle Yash. Just a few months earlier I had started working as an asylum officer — a position for which I felt an immense sense of passion and duty. I spent several hours that evening telling my family about my work and the impact that the people I was interviewing were having on me.
As a natural pause arrived in the conversation, my uncle got up, went to his room, and returned with a weathered, brown, hard-sided Samsonite suitcase, slightly bigger than a briefcase, which had carried a few pairs of clothes and notebooks of poetry — the only possessions with which he fled Uganda three decades earlier. As we sat together in his living room in Princeton, some seven thousand miles away from the place he once called home, my uncle unlatched the suitcase and carefully lifted out papers, letters, photos, and cards. These were his most prized possessions now — pieces of his story about his journey to the United States as a refugee.
Over 30 years earlier, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, declared that Africa was for Africans — black Africans — and that the country’s 80,000 Indians, or Asians as they were known in East Africa, who lived there had to go. Amin’s deadline for the expulsion of all Asians from Uganda was midnight on Nov. 7, 1972. Those lucky enough to hold British or Indian passports were told they could relocate to those countries, but those like my uncle, who considered themselves Ugandan citizens, suddenly found that their passports no longer held any value.
They were suddenly stateless.
My great uncle, the patriarch of a large joint family, had heard rumblings of trouble to come and had sent my great-aunt, my grandparents, and all the children — a total of 20 between his family and my grandfather’s family — to India and the United Kingdom in 1969. He now wrote to Yash, who was running the family mines in Mbarara, Uganda, informing him that it was no longer safe him to stay — he had to find a way out.
Upon reading the letter, Yash began making preparations to make his way back to Kampala to secure passage out of the country. On his last day at the mines he walked around thanking the local workers in Swahili and paid them their last wages. After enjoying one last meal with the Ugandan miners whom he had come to think of as family, he gathered his belongings and boarded a bus to Kampala.
A little more than 80 miles from Kampala, the bus approached a police checkpoint. Uniformed officers with guns strapped across their chests boarded and began asking people for documents. When they reached Yash, the only Asian on the bus, they ordered him off without even checking his papers. Once outside, the soldiers pushed him to the ground and ordered him him to kneel, close his eyes, and pray to his god. It was a cool evening, but as he knelt, his breathing shallow, sweat dripped from his brow and down the back of his cotton shirt.
“Sise apana taka damu! (We do not want more blood!),” Yash heard. He opened his eyes and saw a Ugandan police commander walking towards him. The commander stopped in front of Yash and looked at him for a moment before telling the officers to “let him go.” He helped Yash stand up and looked him in the eye as he told him to leave the country and never return. Unable to speak, Yash nodded and shakily walked back to the bus, climbed the stairs, and returned to his seat, the metallic taste of adrenaline in his mouth. Ugandan women on the bus silently cried as the bus pulled back onto the road toward the town of Masaka.
After stopping at his cousin’s home in Masaka for a few days, Yash finally arrived in Kampala to find the city of his childhood in a state of chaos. People lined up at embassies around the city, seeking refuge in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Local Asian businessmen closed up their shops and packed what they could, certain that their exile would be short-lived, and they would soon return to their homes and businesses and back to life they had enjoyed in Kampala for generations.
Because his passport was no longer valid and he was stateless, Yash made his way to the American Red Cross office, obtained temporary travel documents and was told that he would likely go to a refugee camp somewhere in Europe. He was asked to pay £150 British pounds for the ticket. Yash was fortunate and had money my great uncle had left him, and after paying for his own passage, he promptly distributed the remaining money to his neighbors and friends so they too, could buy safe passage out of the country.
Despite following up often, the Red Cross was unable to provide Yash with confirmation about his date of departure or provide him with a guaranteed seat on a flight out of Uganda. Early on the morning of Amin’s deadline, Yash made his way to Kampala’s Entebbe International Airport with hundreds of other Asians with only the money in his pocket and one small, brown, suitcase containing all his belongings. Without a ticket in hand, all he could do was show up and hope to get on a flight.
At the airport he was met with chaos as families crowded in to the main hall. Those with tickets huddled in groups, waiting for their flights to be called. While those, like Yash, without a confirmed departure, waited in lines, trying to secure a flight out before the midnight deadline. After several hours, Yash was given a hand-written ticket for a seat on Ail Italia. He took the ticket, found a place to sit in the hall, and waited.
In addition to being Amin’s deadline for the Asian expulsion, November 6, 1972, also happened to be Diwali and Eid — the Hindu and Muslim new years. It was rare for the two holidays to fall on the same day — usually one followed the other and each community held grand celebrations in Kampala every year. But there was no celebration in Entebbe Airport that day, and the only wish people had for the new year was to get out of Uganda safely before midnight.
Around midday, the low hum of voices in the airport was interrupted by the sound of sirens in the distance. As the sirens grew louder, people near the windows watched in horror as Amin’s motorcade came into view as it approached the airport. As word began to spread through the hall, Yash sat in his chair, holding his small suitcase, worried that Amin, notorious for his changing moods, would move up the deadline and that all those remaining in the airport would be disappeared by his military, never to be heard from again.
The motorcade stopped in front of the airport and a six foot four Amin climbed out of his vehicle, looked around, and flanked by his guards, briskly walked into the airport which, despite being filled to beyond capacity, was nearly silent, the air thick with fear. After speaking with some of guards near the door, Amin entered the main hall and approached a short, balding Gujurati man sitting with his wife and children, a small baby in his arms. Amin stood there, towering over him for a moment. He then held out his hand and smiled broadly. The man, holding his child in one arm, shakily extended his other arm as Amin quickly grabbed it and began shaking it vigorously.
“Happy Diwali!,” Amin bellowed still holding the man’s hand and clapping him on the back.
He let go and stepped back and began walking around, smiling and shaking hands and wishing everyone a happy Diwali or Eid Mubarak — wishing the refugees a happy new year as though he were greeting friends at a party, not people he was expelling from the country simply because they were of a different race. Though the whole thing lasted only a few minutes, for Yash and many others in the hall that day, it was as if time had stopped and they were suspended in a surreal version of hell where new year’s greetings from a madman seemed almost normal. After Amin left the crowd sat in stunned silence, fully aware of how narrowly they had escaped death that day.
At a few minutes before midnight, Yash sat strapped into his seat on the very last flight out of Entebbe Airport that night, mentally willing the pilots to take off. It was only after the pilot announced that they had cleared Ugandan airspace that Yash finally allowed his body to relax and fell into the deep slumber of a man who hadn’t slept in weeks. He woke up several hours later as the plane began its descent into Rome where the Red Cross put my uncle and the other refugees up in a hotel for one week as they worked out the arrangements to send them on to various refugee camps. My uncle was sent to a refugee camp in Bari, Italy, and two months later on Jan. 4, 1973, he arrived at New York’s JFK International Airport to start his new life in America.
He was 22.
Within another two months he would return to JFK every day for one week, standing on the upper balcony, watching people enter the receiving area after clearing customs. Yash had learned through letters from other family members that my mother would be arriving with her new husband sometime that week — so he showed up every day and waited. I once asked my mom what it was like to see her brother there, waiting for her upon her arrival in America. She said that when she saw him she was flooded with relief because she didn’t know what had happened to him after she and the rest of the family had left for India. But, as a new bride she was shy, and having known her new husband for just over a month, she wasn’t sure how he would react, so she played it cool, while inside her heart cried tears of joy.
My dad on the other hand loved family, and after embracing Yash and getting the particulars about his living situation in New York, which was less than ideal, invited him to come and live with my parents in Boston, where my dad was getting his masters in chemical engineering. Within a week Yash packed up his things, and hopped on a bus to Boston, and a few years later he became a U.S. citizen. Yash would go on to serve in the U.S. Navy, work on construction crews building new homes, become a homeowner, a business owner and an employer of other new Indians relocating to the United States. Though he traveled the world for many years, he never again found a place with the temperate climates and rolling green hills of his childhood homeland, but he did find home.
I’ve thought of my uncle’s story often over the years when I had the privilege of bearing witness to the stories of other refugees. I would think about how the person sitting in front of me was someone’s son, daughter, uncle or parent. They had families and dreams for their lives and the lives of their children. I often wondered who approved my uncle’s request for resettlement and helped him start a new year free from persecution. — though I’ll likely never know, I was, and continue to be, humbled by the stories — not only of hardship and pain — but of resilience and a desire to fight on another day.
In addition to being inspired and humbled, this year my heart has also been heavy.
I have been struggling to reconcile how a country that has championed human rights and opened its doors to the most vulnerable people in the world, has done so while systematically persecuting an entire segment of its own population for generations, solely on the basis of their race. And I use the word “persecute” intentionally, because that is exactly what it was, and continues to be.
So today, as we celebrate the resilience of the brave men and women who fled their homelands with nothing more than what they could carry and the promise of a better life in a new land, we must continue to stand up and fight to create an America where every black, indigenous and person of color born in this country enjoys the the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the same way that these rights and privileges are enjoyed by white Americans across the United States.
Only then will this country fulfill the promises and ideals upon which it was built, and truly be able to offer shelter those who seek protection and better life in America.