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Embracing refugees: 'How can I not give back?'

SALT LAKE CITY — For Aden Batar, a lifelong Muslim who is director of immigration and refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Services of Utah, tears are an occupational hazard.

“Please excuse me,” he said as he paused to compose himself, one of several times he did so during a recent interview in his Salt Lake City office. “These things … are so … important … in my life ….”

He was speaking of a Somali woman who came to Utah in 2002 as a refugee along with her six children. Through the efforts of CCS, which coordinates involvement and services from other Utah faith groups and charitable community services, the family was provided with a fully furnished three-bedroom apartment and food and was assigned to a case-worker to help them apply for documentation, food stamps, Medicaid and financial assistance while introducing them to educational opportunities for the children and job opportunities for the adults.

“It can be overwhelming for people who are here to escape war and tragedy,” Batar said. “There is peace here. People are kind to them. There is abundance. It is wonderful, but it is an adjustment.”

After a full day of orientation, the family was finally left to themselves in their new apartment. When Batar and others returned to the family the next day, they found that they had pulled all of the mattresses from the beds and brought them together in the front room of the apartment.

“This room is enough for us,” the mother told Batar, her voice edged with emotion and filled with appreciation. “You can bring someone else to live in the other rooms.”

“Unless you have been through what these people have been through, you have no idea what a blessing it is to be here,” Batar said. He paused and closed his eyes hard against the tears welling up in his eyes. Then he cleared his throat and continued.

“My creator has blessed me,” he said simply. “How can I not give back and share those same blessings with others?”

Civil war

The blessings to which Batar refers began 20 years ago when he and his wife, Asho, were trying to raise their two young sons while civil war swirled dangerously around them in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.

“At first, I stayed in my country because I was sure things would get better,” Batar says. “But things only got worse. All around us, people were killing each other. After four years of hearing bullets being fired and seeing dead people lying in the streets, I realized that the only way I could protect my family was for us to flee our country.”

Safety beckoned 750 miles away in Nairobi, Kenya. But to fly his family there would cost far more money than he had. Traveling on land was perilous, with roaming tribal bands always on the lookout for rivals.

“I couldn’t take my family with me when I fled to Kenya,” Batar said. “I wasn’t sure I could protect them on the journey. I wasn’t sure I could make it myself. So I had to leave them.

“That was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life … to tell my wife ….” His voice trailed off again, the fingers of one hand pressed to his eyes. “I told her, ‘If I don’t come back, move in with your family. Maybe they can protect you. But if I make it, I’ll find a way to get you and our sons out of here.’ ”

With only the clothes he was wearing and $200 hidden and carefully stitched into his trousers, Batar traveled carefully, cautiously to Kenya. He was stopped and searched numerous times. His watch and other personal items were taken. But thanks to the kindness of others who provided him with food and shelter along the way, he arrived in Nairobi three and one-half weeks after he left Mogadishu with his $200 still hidden in his clothing.

“I was not able to communicate with my wife at all during that time,” he remembers. “I had no idea if they were OK. I was going crazy not knowing.”

Eventually he was able to use a military radio to contact his wife through a neighbor back in Mogadishu. “I promised her that I would find a way to get her and our sons to Kenya,” he said.

It didn’t take him long to make good on that promise. Through circumstances that he insists were completely providential, he met a man who was the pilot of a little plane that transported medicine from Nairobi to Mogadishu for the Doctors Without Borders organization. Batar told his story to the pilot and then he pressed his much-traveled $200 into the pilot’s hand.

“I know you could get much more than this from others, but this is all I have,” he told the pilot. “If you bring my family to me, I will never forget you.”

Just hours later, Asho and their two sons, Jamal and Ahmed, were safe in Nairobi.

“That was the best day of my life,” Batar says simply.

A new life

With his family surrounding him, it was time to start building a new life somewhere. They contacted Asho’s brother, who had come to Logan, Utah, some years earlier as a student at Utah State University and who started working with Catholic Community Services, to help the Batar family migrate to Utah.

“I didn’t know anything about Utah,” Batar said. “To be honest, I didn’t really care where we were going. All I wanted was a place that was safe for my family. All I wanted was peace.

“Peace is the most important thing you can have,” he continued. “You don’t realize that until you lose it. Without peace you cannot do anything. I’ll give up everything I have for peace.”

Arrangements were made for the family to come to Utah, where they have sunk in their roots and become “more American than Somali,” Batar says.

“We have three children who were born here,” he said, referring to his third son, Ibrahim, and two daughters, Ilham and Laila. “Our two boys who were born in Somalia are both students at the University of Utah. They don’t remember anything about Somalia. We teach our children about our culture. We’ve taught them the language. They maintain their religion. But they are more American than anything else.”

And that’s just fine with Batar, who became a U.S. citizen in 1999 and boasts that he has voted in every election since then.

“This is a great country,” he says. “We are Muslims, I work for a Catholic organization, we have many friends who are LDS and nobody has a problem with any of that. This is what I love about America. Everyone sees you as a human being regardless of your background.”

And now, 20 years after being a refugee from a war-torn country himself, he is at the forefront of welcoming other refugees to Utah and introducing them to the peaceful promise of life in America.

Caring community

“Every year, Catholic Community Services settles around 600 refugees in Salt Lake County,” Batar said. “This includes a large number of children who are coming without parents — either their parents have been killed, or they were neglected or abandoned or trafficked. There are only about 10 programs around the United States that will take these children, and we are one of them. We have about 68 refugee foster care children in our program now.”

Batar describes Utah as “a caring community" that is filled with compassion and willing to give and work on behalf of suffering refugees.

“All of us work together — church groups, community groups, government groups — and lives are blessed as a result,” he said. “If we ask each (Catholic) parish to take care of a family, the whole parish volunteers to help that family, teaching them how to live in an apartment, how to use mass transit, how to get jobs — everything they need to know to survive in a place that is very different from the places they left.

“We take them to (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Day Saints's) humanitarian center, where they learn certain skills and get training. We get them into housing subsidized by the state. Doctors and dentists from different faith groups volunteer their services. It is a united effort from so many people, with the goal to have each family independent and completely on their own within two years.”

Batar draws heavily from his own refugee experience in working with refugees new to this country, and he encourages staff members and volunteers with similar experiences to do likewise.

“When I talk to people, I tell them, forget about looking behind you — you can’t do anything about that,” he said. “I tell them to go forward. The great thing about America is, if you work hard you can do anything. I tell them they need to take advantage of that — for themselves and for their children. Don’t waste the hardship you went through. Take advantage of the sacrifice.”

Which sounds a lot like the advice he gives to his children.

“I tell them every day to remember that journey we took to get here,” he said, his eyes growing misty again. “I tell them that I took that journey for them. I tell them, ‘Don’t waste it.’ ”

And yes, there is a tear in his eye when he says that.