Sudan refugee finds home in Tri-Cities

By Kristi Pihl, Herald staff writer November 27, 2010 

KENNEWICK -- Mohamed Abdalla of Kennewick has been trying to bring his new Sudanese wife to the Tri-Cities since he married her in April.

His new bride is the cousin of his late wife, who died suddenly and unexpectedly four years ago, leaving him to raise his two sons -- then an infant and a toddler -- in a foreign city where he didn't speak the language.

In his culture, men typically do not take care of children.

But "how can I live with my kids alone?" he asked.

Abdalla came to the United States in 2004 as a Sudanese refugee through World Relief, an international organization that helps resettle people fleeing persecution or war.

The 39-year-old, who works as a cook at Pasco's Red Lion Hotel, said after his first wife Arafa died, he almost took his family home to Kassala, a city in Sudan.

But his family in Sudan encouraged him to stay here and he met Shirley Mellick of Richland, who served as a mentor and helped him learn English.

In Sudan, Abdalla said his first wife worked with foreign aid programs, which the Sudanese government did not like. She was jailed, and after she was released, she went to Egypt to escape the government. Abdalla, who sold livestock in Sudan, followed her, and they were married in Egypt in May 2003.

Abdalla said he isn't sure why Arafa, 27, died. She had complained of pain in her back, and went to doctors in the Tri-Cities, who told her that she had dried blood in her skull left from a childhood injury.

Arafa was having lunch with a friend and their two sons, Ashraf, then age 2, and Amjed, then 10 months, when she collapsed on July 26, 2006, Abdalla said. A neighbor called police, and she was taken to a local hospital and later to Spokane.

However, because he didn't speak English well, Abdalla said he didn't understand what doctors were saying when they asked him to sign a paper to approve an autopsy after her death.

Abdalla has worked hard to learn English since then. He said he had difficulty finding a class that worked for him until Mellick helped him start the English language learners' program offered at Richland's West Side Church. He started taking classes there about three years ago.

Mellick also has been helping Abdalla in his quest to bring his new wife, Maryam, to the Tri-Cities. He first had to become a citizen.

That meant he had to wait until he qualified for citizenship. Refugees have to live in the United States for five years before they can apply.

Last December, Abdalla became a U.S. citizen. In April, Abdalla said he returned to Sudan and married Maryam, 19, who is Arafa's cousin.

Maryam remains in Sudan while Abdalla and Mellick work to get approval for her to immigrate.

When Abdalla was married in Sudan, the government office where marriages are recorded was closed because of tension from the presidential election. Abdalla said he had to wait to have his marriage recorded until the office opened, a month after his marriage. One of his family members registered the marriage for him.

But the government used the date the marriage was recorded, May 17, when the couple actually were married April 18. It made it look like he was married when he wasn't even in the country. So Mellick said the paperwork had to be fixed before Maryam could come into the country.

Abdalla said he was told it could take from five months to a year to get Maryam here.

Abdalla said he also needs to apply for citizenship for Ashraf, 6, who was born in Egypt. His younger brother, Amjed, 5, was born in the United States, and now that his father and younger brother are citizens, Abdalla said Ashraf wants to be one too.

Mellick said she's impressed with how well Abdalla has handled these challenges.

"He is doing a wonderful job being mother and father," Mellick said.

Abdalla takes his children to day care each morning before he goes to work. The boys attend Westgate Elementary in Kennewick. When he gets off work, he picks up the boys from day care and goes home to their apartment. After getting them dinner, taking care of them and getting them to bed, he does chores.

His oldest son tells him he will help out when he's older so his dad does not have to work so hard, Abdalla said.

When Abdalla went to bed with a headache one day, Ashraf was so worried he called 911.

When police showed up, Ashraf told his father he would called for an ambulance, not the police, because his father was ill. Abdalla said the police officer was kind and understood, and Abdalla hugged Ashraf and Amjed to him. Ashraf told him that he was worried because he remembered how his mother died.

Abdalla said he hopes once Maryam arrives that he will be able to work more, so he can afford a house for his family.

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