This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.
Subtitled "An Immigrant Story," this book tells of how an Eritrean woman, writing under the pseudonym of Wudasie Nayzgi, single-handedly took on the challenge of bringing her family to the USA. The thing is that this isn't what her initial plan was. She had only wanted treatment for her daughter, 'Titi', who had a heart defect, and her mother had not the first inkling back then, that this would embark her entire family upon a journey that would, all told, take ten years and thousands of dollars to finally get her daughter treatment and knit her family back together again. I don't doubt though, that had she known this from the beginning, she would still have undertaken this journey. There is a companion book to this, Dreams of Freedom, written by her husband 'Yikealo', describing his own experiences during this time.
This is simultaneously a heart-breaking, nightmarish, horror-story and the ever-hopeful narration of an exceptional and strong woman who would not let anything get in the way of doing what needed to be done for the health and integrity of her family. I am not sure, I confess, why the author needed a co-author. By the time this book was written she was perfectly fluent in English, a language she already spoke before she ever had any idea of leaving Eritrea. But speaking English well is by no means a guarantee that the speaker can writer it engagingly.
The problem with that is that while I do commend this story as a worthy read, it was not written well despite having another author onboard. The use of English was perfectly fine, but the flow of the story was another matter. At times it was so vague that it was hard to tell what was going on. There seemed to be gaps where things happened without them being related, and so they became a surprise when I read of them later. For example, one of the problems she had to contend with was losing her job, then a lot of time passed with no mention of her working, and suddenly she apparently has another job, but I don't recall ever reading how, where or when she got it. It felt like part of the story was missing. On that topic, note that the cover picture is not the author - its a misleading stock photo and probably not even an Eritrean.
There were large gaps in the narration when an amount of time, often quite large, passes within the space of a few words, which makes it hard to keep track of how much time is passing in the story overall, so although it took ten years to get this accomplished, the narration makes it seem like it was much shorter. On top of this, there is a lot of detail about life in Eritrea, but much of it seems superficial, while other things that appear to be customary in Eritrea aren't mentioned, leaving questions. I'd like to have learned more and in greater depth.
A lot of the story is about 'Wudasie's' worrying over what was going to happen, and it occupied so much of the story. While this is in a way understandable, it is also something that anyone who has had such problems, even if they were nowhere near as critical as 'Wudasie's' were, can readily understand. It's something with which we are familiar, and became a little tedious to read repeatedly. Life in Eritrea, on the other hand, is something that was worth learning about, and it's something which few people - including most everyone who hasn't lived there, can grasp. It would have been nice to see more of the latter, and a little less of the former.
One thing which was confusing was the names. I understand there may be a need or at least a desire to protect family, but it was unnecessarily confusing. The youngest of her two daughters was named 'Natsanet', but when in an afterword we see her graduate from high school, her name is given as 'Natsanet Yikealo', not 'Natsanet Nayzgi'.
Her husband's name is consistently given as 'Yikealo', so I had assumed this was his first name; then why is their daughter named so? The companion book is attributed to Yikealo Neab. That latter name is never mentioned in the book except as the author of the companion novel, so why isn't the daughter named 'Natsanet Neab'? Is 'Yikealo' a last name? if so why does she call her husband by his last name all he time and why isn't the author named 'Wudasie Neab'?
If 'Wudasie' is married why is her last name different from both her daughter's and her husband's? I later learned the these are pseudonyms, presumably aimed at protecting the privacy of the the author and her family, which is perfectly fine, but it lacked consistency. If the explanation for all of this is through some sort of Eritrean custom, it would have been interesting to hear of that, but as it was, it looked like this was really sloppy writing, and it leeches credibility from the story.
It just felt strange that something like that had never been gone into, especially given how much talk there is about filling out forms and verifying marital status and listing children and so on. You'd think at some point during that, this would have come up, but I don't recall it ever being addressed. You'd think a co-author would have asked these questions and offered explanations, which is why it begs the question as to why a co-author was used here. Maybe others will not be concerned at all over things like this, but for me, when I read about another country in a book like this, I really like to really learn about that country as part of the author's experience, otherwise why bother reading a story like this?
Anyway, 'Wudasie' was planning on getting treatment for her daughter's condition in Ethiopia since her own country, Eritrea, did not have the medical facilities to accomplish what needed to be done. The problem was that Eritrea had claimed its independence from Ethiopa only a few years previously, and not every abrasive surface had been sanded smooth between the two nations, both of which had seemed to become more radicalized and authoritarian since the breakup. The situation deteriorated when a new war broke out between the two nations, and deteriorated further still when her husband was forcibly-conscripted into the Eritrean army during a business trip he was making.
'Wudasie' didn't see him for six months until his basic training was over and wasn't even officially notified what had happened to him. She had to dog for that information herself. He was luckily re-assigned to a military base in the town where they both lived. All this time she was fighting to get her daughter's condition treated, and failing or being stone-walled every step of the way, through no fault of her own. The thing is that Eritrea is an oppressive, authoritarian government - or it was back then - and seemed completely indifferent to the suffering of its citizens, even if they were children. This book will really put your own problems into perspective: every step of the way it was like two steps forward and one step back for this mom.
Your daughter can be treated by visiting surgeons from abroad - but they find other children that have crowded into the waiting room for treatment to be more needy than your daughter. You can get her treated in the USA, but doctors there discover she has three conditions, not one, and are willing at her age to treat only two. You can leave the country to take your daughter to the USA for treatment, but you must leave your other daughter behind in Eritrea. You can bring your other daughter to the USA, but you cannot also bring your husband, even though travel regulations require an adult to accompany a child so young. Your daughter finally arrives in the US, but looks painfully thin and it has been so long since you saw her that she is unbearably shy around you, and stand-offish, treating you like you're a stranger, not like a mother. You can bring your husband over, but it's going to cost and take a year to do it.
Every single step involved the massive weight of indifference, bureaucracy, and the need to supply little (or a lot) of cash - to grease the wheels, some of which disappeared without bringing a thing in return. Everything involved almost interminably long waits which were often followed by setbacks because some more paperwork was needed, and the wait for that paperwork meant a deadline was missed on some other process, which then needed to be restarted as well. This wasn't just on the Eritrean side, but also on the American side.
It was depressing to read how often she fell back on her faith, which didn't do a thing for her. No god helped 'Wudasie', yet she often ascribed 'miracles' to the work of a god, denying herself credit for what was solely her own tireless and unstinting efforts. The fact is that everything she did was through her own strength, grit, determination, and a flat refusal to let anything stand in her way of getting treatment for her daughter and reuniting her family. The author, it would seem, despite appeals to her god, would agree with me. She wrote:
No one is going to hand you what you think you deserve just because you won the right. You have to go get it if you can. You have to grasp it and hold onto it, and then wield it like a sword. And you can't let it go if someone tries to wrestle it away from you.”
A miracle would have been if her family had gone to bed the night after her daughter's initial diagnosis, and awoken the next morning in the USA, as full citizens, with her daughter cured. That's what a miracle is. Fighting tooth and nail for ten years, suffering endless delays and setbacks, and spending a fortune on corrupt officials isn't a miracle. Nothing happened that she did not go out there and wrestle into submission with her own two hands, and make happen for herself. She is heroic, and everyone who thinks their own petty problems are insurmountable needs to read this book and find out what real problems are like.
She is immensely lucky too, to have gone through this before the current president got into the White House on the coat-tails of Russian hackers. Had she tried all this now, she would never have left her (and I quote that same president) "shithole [African] country" and been accepted here. She would have been written-off as a rapist and a drug smuggler, faced a flat denial that these children were really hers, been accused of being an actress purveying fake news, and she and her family deported back to the nightmare she left behind her, assuming her kids didn't die in the custody of the ICE, that is. That's where huddled masses are re-directed these days from one of the most wealthy, best-off, and most pampered countries on the planet.
Despite these problems, I commend this book. I think it should be required reading.