Calm in the storm

A former refugee is redefining what it means to be a new citizen of the West

When Somalia’s civil war erupted in 1991, Aden Batar was in his early 20s and married. He’d just finished law school; he and his wife had recently welcomed a baby boy. Overnight, everything changed. “The government collapsed, all the infrastructure was gone, the running water, the electricity,” he says, recalling the earliest days of the conflict that led to the death of more than half a million Somalians. “There was no place to buy food … everything was in chaos.”

In addition to a wife and baby to provide for, Batar was also caring for his widowed mother and elderly grandparents. For almost two years, survival meant staying in motion. He and his family would move to one part of the country, thinking it was safer, only for the war to spread to that area — forcing them to flee again. Though the war would eventually lead to the displacement of over two million people, there were no services for the internally displaced at that time. 

At first, emigrating was unimaginable to Batar. His hometown of Baidoa was known as janaay in Somali — just a letter off from the original Arabic jannah, meaning heaven. Baidoa was lush, spotted with waterfalls, the towers of mosques pointing like fingers towards the sky. 

He’d grown up there among a large extended family of aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and cousins, passing the days playing soccer with his friends. 

But then, amid all the moving, Batar’s two-year-old son was injured, burned by an accident in an overcrowded home. “There was nothing we could do to save him,” Batar says. “There was no adequate medical care at the time. None of the hospitals were functioning; they were only taking care of wounds and so forth. He only survived about a week.”

After standing over his son’s grave, he knew it was time to leave Somalia. 

Three decades after escaping war-torn Somalia, Aden Batar is a leader of the region’s muslim community, now estimated at 60,000 and growing. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Refugees find a sympathetic ear in Batar, who knows firsthand how emigration can be like a sort of death, how it often means giving up a language, a hard-fought-for education, a budding professional life.

Concerned that he, his wife and their second son — Jamal, a baby boy just a few months old — wouldn’t survive the journey, Batar told his wife, “Let me try the road to see what it looks like. And if you don’t hear from me, you know that I didn’t make it.” But if he reached safety, he promised his wife, he would get her and their surviving child out of there.  

It took him several weeks to make the journey to Kenya. There were military roadblocks and he had to pass through different tribal lands, putting his life in danger, but he knew multiple dialects and pretended to be a local. 

He mostly traveled under the cover of night, in part because the weather was so hot. When he finally reached the Kenyan border, he was without any documentation — no ID, no passport, no visa, nothing. But he had hidden money on his body. And so he bribed his way into the country and then rode in on a truck transporting livestock, hiding in the back among the cows. 

There, in a town near the border, he found a military radio and sent word back to his wife, who was waiting anxiously at a relative’s home outside Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu, that he was alive. 

Once Batar made it to Nairobi, he arranged for a small airplane that was departing from Mogadishu to pluck his wife and their baby son out of the war-town country and bring them to Kenya. “That day was the happiest in my life,” says Batar. “To reunite with my family.”

Two years later, the family was on another plane — this one was headed to Salt Lake City.

Emigration often means giving up a language, a hard-fought-for education, a budding professional life. It means losing one’s identity. But it also means gaining a new story. 

Thirty years later and the world continues to struggle with many refugee crises. Somalia, which still grapples with outbreaks of violence, is plagued by drought and hunger; people stream out of the land, which is, itself, home to refugees from Yemen, other African countries and the internally displaced. The United States’ sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan triggered a governmental and economic collapse that continues to create waves of refugees today. There’s Ukraine, where conflict with Russia has spurred millions to leave. There’s the Rohingya who have been victims of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. 

Since 1975, the United States has opened its doors to over three million refugees. Of those who made their way to the Intermountain West, most ended up in Arizona, Colorado and Utah. Today, Utah is home to approximately 60,000 refugees and the state ranks in the top half nationally for refugee resettlement. But refugee resettlement plummeted under President Donald Trump and Utah’s numbers reflected the national trend. In 2016, the state took in 1,555 refugees; in the four years that followed, just under 2,084 new refugees arrived. 

Mark Owens for Deseret News

In 2021, the Biden administration raised the national cap on refugees to 125,000. The amount of those who have actually managed to resettle in the United States in recent years, however, falls far below that line. In 2022, the United States took in about 25,000, meaning that 80 percent of the spaces allocated went unaccounted for. Experts say that the Trump administration’s policies decimated the country’s immigration infrastructure and continues to impact our nation’s ability to absorb newcomers. By early 2022, Utah had taken in 900 Afghan refugees. It was estimated that the state would take in about 300 refugees from Ukraine, as well. 

All of Utah’s refugees pass through Salt Lake County, making the area a sort of way station. Many refugees end up congregating in West Valley City or western Salt Lake City where, at Catholic Community Services, they find a sympathetic ear and a helping hand in Batar, who knows firsthand how emigration can be like a sort of death — how leaving one’s country isn’t just about leaving the land and the family that sprung from it. Emigration often means giving up a language, a hard-fought-for education, a budding professional life. It means losing one’s identity. But it also means gaining a new story. 

Batar regularly speaks on behalf, and in support, of immigrants in the region. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

Utah wasn’t entirely foreign to Batar. When he was in high school, he’d met some folks from Utah State University who had come to Baidoa to do some agricultural projects with locals. Batar had been studying English at the time and was keen to practice with native speakers; he’d spent some time with the USU crew. So he knew Utah by name. But he was unprepared for what he saw when he got off the plane: a land so different from his own. 

“Luckily, we didn’t come in wintertime,” he jokes today. 

That spring, Catholic Community Services helped resettle the family. Case manager Lina Smith remembers the first time she saw him, in a conference room with his extended family, which numbered, she estimates, 17 people. 

She could tell he was the backbone of the family, despite his youth (he was still in his 20s) that he was “the leader of the group.” She also noticed immediately a silent strength about him.

Unable to use his law degree in the U.S., Batar’s first job in Logan was at a factory, assembling exercise equipment, including treadmills. What was this strange land, this land of plenty, where people needed machines to exercise? Where people ran in place, inside their houses? This place with such bitter cold, with no mosques, no call to prayer setting the rhythm of his day, punctuating his worldly concerns and helping him keep his thoughts trained on God. 

In his role as a director at Catholic Community Services, Batar speaks out about the importance of racial equity in policing. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“He knew what they needed because he had just gone through it. He knew what they needed without them telling him.”

No matter, Batar was happy to be here, to be safe, to have a job and to support his family. He worked hard during the day and took college classes at night. As more Somali families arrived, Smith asked Batar to serve as an interpreter. “He was very confident but had such a kindness, such a loving heart,” Smith says. He had a calming effect, imparting this same quiet strength to those around him. She soon offered him a job as a case manager. Batar accepted and started the job immediately, beginning with a group of Somali families who came to the office that very day. 

His deep understanding of what it means to flee one’s home and to find oneself, suddenly, in a new country enabled Batar to meet refugees’ needs, even those that went unarticulated. “He knew what they needed because he had just gone through it,” says Smith. “He knew what they needed without them telling him.” This wasn’t just true of the Somalis whom Batar helped resettle but of the Bosnians, Vietnamese and Sudanese who characterized immigration to Utah in the ’90s.  

For Batar, working with refugees has been part of an attempt to pay back “this community that welcomed me and gave me my life back and provided all the support my kids and my family needed.” 

Finding employment is one of the most frustrating aspects of the resettlement process, says Kearstin Cantrell of Catholic Community Services. Refugees are eager to immediately start reinventing themselves and building a life here but have to jump through many hoops to get authorization to work. And then they have to find the job itself. But Batar and other staff  — many of whom are former clients, notes Cantrell — are there to help. In 2021, the organization managed 607 resettlement cases; most of which were families. 

Batar offers more than bureaucratic help, of course. Before the paperwork begins, the refugees benefit merely from being in Batar’s presence. In Batar they see a shining example of who they might become here in America. Not only has Batar successfully reinvented himself by embracing his role at Catholic Community Services of Utah, he has been a leader of the region’s Muslim community — estimated at 60,000 — playing a critical role in its growth. As president of the local Islamic Society, he’s overseen the building of a mosque and the creation of a Muslim cemetery. 

Mark Owens for Deseret News

His family has thrived, as well. His eldest son, Jamal, is an engineer who graduated from Columbia University and lives next door to him. Batar’s other son has a bachelor’s degree and is working. Batar’s two daughters are educated as well, and one is becoming a pharmacist — something that would have been impossible had Batar stayed in Somalia, he says. 

There are things, though, about his first home that are irreplaceable. Batar lost his father when he was just five years old and there — in his hometown of Baidoa — everyone had known his father. The elder Batar was legendary — he’d been one of the city’s first police officers after the Italians left Somalia. And everywhere the young Batar went people recognized that he was his father’s son. When he left Somalia, he left behind all those people who knew his family and his history. 

But now, it’s Batar who is legendary — known for his calm, for imparting to all who cross his path, that here, in America, in the Intermountain West, everything is going to be OK. 

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.