As a child 30 years ago, Boyah Farah witnessed unspeakable atrocities in the civil war that devastated his native Somalia.
And then, almost magically, he and his family were transported by a rescue agency from a refugee camp to a three-bedroom apartment on Roberts Drive in Bedford, their first exposure to America.
Subsequent events – on the road, in college, in the workplace – revealed a society littered with systemic racism. The episodes and Farah’s response are central to his stark, poignant 2022 memoir, “America Made Me a Black Man.”
But despite the litany of indignities and barriers he encountered as an adult, Farah looks back on his three years in Bedford as close to bucolic.
And now that he is in charge of a new school in the Somalian city of Gawonde, Farah says, “I want to bring what Bedford did for me when I was a boy to the kids I left behind.”
Farah returns to Bedford High School on Thursday for a free 7 p.m. conversation in the library, sponsored by the Parents Diversity Council and open to all.
It’s not the same school library he remembers as a student from 1993 to 1996 – the current space is part of a subsequent expansion. But the school radiates with positive memories and influences, he said in a telephone interview, such as teachers John Reynolds and Ben Maxwell.
Farah recalled that Reynolds, as a Vietnam veteran, identified with his traumatic memories of war.
“He used to talk with me for hours. He said, ‘Your life is going to get better.’” Maxwell, he remembered, “told me that I’m a writer and exposed me to great literature.”
And Irene Parker, the Bedford schools’ METCO director for 20 years, gets her own chapter in the book. He writes about how she introduced him to the realities of American life for Blacks, through books like “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” “Mrs. Parker gave me books I didn’t ask for,” he said. “And she was a truth teller.” He told an NPR interviewer, “Black people were my first teachers about America – authentic teachers about America.”
Still, it was hard to reconcile that message with his daily experiences.
“I really became an optimist because of the people of Bedford,” Farah asserted. “The green grass of Bedford was a metaphor of America’s beauty.” He said he would like to find a way to take his initial experience in America – in Bedford – and “make that a reality in this country.”
Farah acknowledged that after escaping from war, “even a smile to me was absolutely beautiful. In war you don’t see anyone smiling. And then to come from that hellhole to Bedford – where you can actually get a pizza.” In the book he recounts a gratuitous warning from the owner of a former pizza place that the police station was close by; “at the time it didn’t mean anything.”
The family relocated senior year, and Farah doesn’t even mention where he finished high school. “I feel like I graduated from Bedford High.” He added, “Walking around Bedford High is the reason I’m trying to contribute favorably and project love. You’ve got to be able to project love to young people so that one day they can share that love with humanity.”
Last week, Farah did some reconnaissance, reveling in some favorite childhood destinations like the Minuteman Bikeway. Starbucks is now on the site of King Cycle, where he went for bike repairs. He has been back here before, as cited in an essay he wrote for Salon magazine in 2017. “It’s a lifetime journey,” he mused. “It’s a lot of memories.”
As vividly described in the book, Farah eventually encountered overt and subtle racism in his college dorm room, his place of employment, in random encounters with law enforcement, even in the office of his attorney. He feels like the only reason he avoided violent arrest was his obsequiousness. “When you are an immigrant, a piece of you feels like you are a guest. I was extremely apologetic.”
As an African immigrant, the story of U.S. racial discrimination became personal, he said, claiming that racism can be more dangerous than war. As a child, he was able to run away from war. Racism “follows you around like an invisible animal. I had to take medication to sleep.”
“At the same time, I cannot deny all the beautiful teachers who told me I can be a writer.”
“I wrote the book for America, because America upset me,” Farah affirmed. “But at the same time, I’m saying, ‘America, I love you. Please reciprocate that love.’” He added, “I really want America to look itself in the eye.”
Farah remarked, “I really want young people to read the book, and for the book to be visible in the American landscape. What I wrote is a very honest love for America and I want Americans to renew hope for each other. I want the American example around the works to be one of love.”
Farah started what is now the Abaadi Learning and Research Center (https://abaadi.org) in Gawonde in 2019.
“Basically, one day in Boston I bought some chairs, some laptops, some projectors off Craig’s List, put them in a container and shipped it there,” he recounted.
He unpacked, rented a couple of rooms and launched the school – “it’s very easy in Somalia because there’s no restriction on what you can do.” Farah and a couple of Kenyans did the teaching; he paid for everything personally, with help from close friends.
Enrollment was around 120 students when the government closed all schools in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020.
“We just had to wait,” he said. Now Farah is always looking for grants (“it’s very hard to maintain a school that does not make money”). He has reopened and is back to 60 students, girls and boys ages 13-24, who learn math, science, computer skills, and especially English.
The Abaadi mission statement says in part, “Because our primary focus is children and youth who are out of school or have had their education interrupted, we fully support diverse learning pathways as a means of addressing wider social inclusion. Our goal is to provide a sustainable platform for learning, health care delivery, and community change by equipping Somali youth with the skills needed to make positive contributions to their communities.”
One educational technique is storytelling, Farah said. “Somalia is a nation of poets, and anywhere there is poetry there is beauty. Somalians project poetry in everyday life. Life can be beauty, dance, and salvation.”
“It’s almost a legacy for me to write my history and put a school together and teach how to think – to think and question and better themselves,” Farah declared.
After 30 years, the scars of war still haunt Farah.
“I once had nothing, so now I have everything. I can work; I can get paid when I tell my story. I remember eating once a day in a refugee camp. So, my life is beautiful; I’m blessed.”