Somalian families torn apart by war unite in Tri-Cities

By Jacques Von Lunen, Tri-City HeraldJuly 15, 2011 

PASCO -- Four tall women in flowing robes filed out of the security area Thursday at the Tri-Cities Airport. One of them clutched a boy's hand.

Their flight from Denver finally had landed after being delayed an hour by a hailstorm.

They surged toward a man and woman -- reuniting a family after more than five years.

Safia Jama and Bashir Gulet are refugees from Somalia who now live in Kennewick. Their children were torn from them in early 2006 by the civil war crippling their native country.

On Thursday, after years of struggling -- first through deserts, then through red tape -- a mother finally could sink into her daughters' arms and a father could hug his son.

Everyone in the family has survived incredible hardships.

Jama returned to her house in Mogadishu, Somalia, one day about five years ago to find her husband and children gone, pushed out of their neighborhood by warring factions.

Without any clues to where they had gone, Jama fled her country on foot, landing first in neighboring Ethiopia, then in the small island nation of Malta.

She met Gulet in the refugee camp there.

He had left behind a son with his first wife in Somalia and drifted through North Africa with his second wife and two children, looking for a future.

His wife and children finally took a boat to Malta but Gulet had to stay behind to save more money for his passage. The boat sank, killing his family.

Gulet and Jama met at the Maltese camp and grew close through shared sorrow. Jama's husband had been killed in the fighting back home, she found out.

Jama and Gulet married in Malta in 2007 and came to Kennewick with the help of the nonprofit World Relief.

Jama's four daughters and Gulet's son eventually were found, and in 2008 efforts began to reunite the children and parents. Their plight was featured in a Herald story in May.

Refugees are allowed to file for their children or spouses to join them in the U.S., said Scott Michael, director of the Richland office of World Relief.

The applications made their way from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services to the embassy in Ethiopia -- where the children were staying with a relative -- to the nonprofit International Organization for Migration, Scott said.

The process took years, but in March when it looked like everything was ready, a flight was booked for the children.

But new rules regarding security clearances for immigrants had kicked in and the reunion was put on hold -- until this week.

On Tuesday, Jama's four girls -- Laila, 18, Amina, 17, and the twins Asia and Sawda, 16 -- boarded a plane in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, together with Gulet's son, Osman, 9.

They had layovers in New York and Denver, the last one prolonged by Wednesday's Colorado storm.

Jama, through interpreter Bile Farah, said she had been cooking a welcome meal for the children since yesterday.

"A lot of food," she said, smiling broadly. "Food for a special occasion."

The house was decorated. Everything and everyone was ready. The plane had landed.

But even with their kids just seconds away, the reunion still seemed distant to the parents after these years.

"It's still a dream," Gulet said.

It's a dream that has kept them awake for a long time. "We never had good sleep," Gulet said. "We were waiting for the day when they join us here."

And then they did.

The young women -- their heads covered in scarves, elaborate ink designs on the back of their hands -- crowded around their mother.

"Oh my god -- they have grown," Jama said in Somali.

The girls expressed surprise about a change in their mother, too. They didn't remember her showing so much emotion in public.

As the women embraced and wiped away small tears, Gulet stood by, waiting for the initial emotion to ebb.

And while he waited, he never let go of the 9-year-old boy pressed against his hip.

-- Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com

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