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Somali refugee’s first trip home in 20 years stirs mixed emotions

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SALT LAKE CITY — When Aden Batar fled war-torn Somalia in 1992, he spent three days riding among cattle in a livestock trailer en route to Kenya, where he would eventually reunite with his wife and child.

This spring, in his first trip to his homeland in more than 20 years, Batar and his mother traveled by plane, eventually landing at an airport in Mogadishu. That alone represented remarkable progress for a country attempting to rebuild after decades of conflict, said Batar, who along with his young family were the first Somali refugees to be resettled in Utah.

“It was a blessing and an opportunity to see some of my relatives while I still could,” said Batar, who is director of immigration and refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Services of Utah.

It was also heartening to him that education is considered such a high priority for both boys and girls, he said.

“I counted 13 universities open. We didn’t have that many when we had the old country,” Batar said, referring to the period before Somalian President Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown in the civil war in the early 1990s.

But the militias were indiscriminate about laying waste to buildings in Mogadishu. It didn’t seem to matter whether a structure was a place of worship, a hospital or a school.

“It was unbelievable what the militias did to the city, like they didn’t care. It was like World War II the way the buildings were destroyed,” he said. “That whole area needs to be rebuilt from ground zero.”

While few landmarks from Batar’s life before the war remain, the anguish of the death of his 2-year-old son, Mohamed, lingered.

As the civil war raged, Batar frequently moved his family about Mogadishu in an attempt to keep them safe from warring factions. They were internally displaced “urban refugees” who shared living space with other families.

One day, as the families prepared a meal outdoors, Mohamed was severely burned when he tripped into a pot of boiling water.

“There were no doctors, no hospital. He only lived five days after that,” Batar said, pausing to wipe back tears.

Following their son’s death, Batar and his wife made plans to leave Somalia for Kenya. He set out on his own, telling his wife to remain in Mogadishu until he could contact her.

With just only a few hundred dollars in his pocket, he found his way to Kenya, traveling part of the time among cattle loaded in a livestock trailer.

En route, Batar was stopped by police who threatened to return him to Somalia. He pleaded with the officers to let him continue. The man who was helping him escape bribed the officers, and Batar eventually made his way to Nairobi.

About two weeks after leaving Somalia, he was able to contact his wife by radio. He went to the airport and introduced himself to a charter pilot and told him his story. The pilot agreed to help him.

“Normally, people would pay thousands of dollars to get their family out. He was able to bring my family for $200,” Batar said.

Once they reunited in Kenya, Batar, his wife and two children (their third child was born in Kenya), eventually were resettled in Logan.

The family spent two years in Cache County while Batar attended Utah State University and worked nights at a fitness machine manufacturing company. Earlier, Batar had graduated from Somalia National University with a law degree.

In 1996, Batar was hired by Catholic Community Services in refugee resettlement. In 2001, he became the program's director.

Batar and his wife, Asho, have now five children, their youngest 11 years old.

As director of refugee services for CCS, Batar said his primary goals are to help refugees successfully adjust into their new lives, find meaningful employment and encourage children and adults alike to make the most of educational opportunities.

Life in Utah is a world away from the violence and destruction that was commonplace in Somalia. But Batar was pleased to report that life is improving there.

“People are ready to rebuild the country. That’s not what I saw when I left the country. People were killing each other,” he said.

Where before there were few opportunities for women, “I see them in parliament, as teachers, police, in the ministry, media — well, everywhere,” he said.

As Utah pauses to observe World Refugee Day on Saturday, Batar contemplated the collective path of refugees.

No one wants to be a refugee, he said. That status means a person has been displaced from his or her home because of war, famine, genocide among other reasons.

Those fortunate enough to be resettled face many hurdles learning a new language and adjusting to a vastly different culture and social mores.

“You have to accept whatever challenge comes your way,” Batar said, softly laughing as he described his first winter in Logan, which was the first time his family had ever seen snow, let alone the anxiety of driving in it.

"But compared to what I went through, it's nothing," he said. "I can deal with it."

* * *

World Refugee Day events

Saturday at Liberty Park

9 a.m. — 5K fun run; $25 registration fee includes T-shirt.

9:30 a.m. — Wristband sales begin; $10 wristband includes unlimited entry to bounce houses, snow cone, cotton candy, slice of pizza and a soft drink.

10 a.m. — Opening and naturalization ceremonies, featuring Thurl Bailey, state refugee ambassador.

10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. — Bounce houses, global market and food vendors.

Noon — Soccer game.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com