Teenage refugees overcome obstacles to graduate in Utah

Published: Tuesday, June 5 2012 7:55 p.m. MDT

Refugees eat lunch at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City Wednesday, May 30, 2012. Catholic Community Services hosted a graduation cookout for 15 teenagers who overcame odds and are graduating with high school diplomas. All are participants in CCS's Refugee Resettlement Program.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Only child Favor Mbaogu, 18, survived seven bullet wounds to begin his journey north from Nigeria to Algeria to Morocco to find the journey end in Salt Lake City in January 2012.

Mbaogu evaded police, endured the Sahara Desert and avoided capture, which would have meant being taken to the landlocked country of Mali in West Africa.

"You would see human skulls, human skeletons, people who were dropped there (in Mali) and died," he said. 

Despite the tremendous challenges, Mbaogu's journey would end in Salt Lake City, where he's receiving an education thanks to assistance from the Catholic Community Services Refugee Resettlement Program, an organization that provides foster services and education to unaccompanied teenage refugees.

There are approximately 25,000 refugees currently in Utah with 99 percent of them residing in the Salt Lake Valley, according to Gerald Brown, the director of the Refugee Services Office of the Department of Workforce Services.

Last year, 836 refugees came to Utah, a drop from an average of 1,100 a year in 2009 and 2010. So far this fiscal year, the department has received 485 refugees.

CCS has about 70 refugees in its program, which is celebrating the achievements of 15 teens in the program this week as they graduate from different high schools along the Wasatch Front. All have stories similar to Mbaogu, who joined his graduating friends at a Liberty Park cookout last week to honor their accomplishments.

Mbaogu expects to graduate next year.

After Mbaogu's father was murdered, due in part to his connection with the Liberian military, and his mom died of a stroke in 2010, Mbaogu was left alone and he decided to begin his journey north. He recalled escaping torture when he attempted to flee Algeria. Once in Morocco, he said he ran from a woman who was attempting to sacrifice him by practicing witchcraft on him. In the process of escaping, he said he was shot seven times in his stomach, left side and back.

"I ran like (I'd) never run before," Mbaogu recalls with relief in his face.

After running for some time, the wounded teen said he remembers waking up in a hospital alone, after an unidentified person dropped him off. He still has a bullet stuck in his lower back that has not been removed because of its positioning. 

And that is where his connection to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops began. While he was in the hospital, he was visited by Catholic missionaries who visited to pray for the sick. The CCS receives cases from the USCCB, which works with the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

He would not forget those missionaries, he said. And when he was in Morocco a few months later, he was informed of United Nations refugee programs and was given refugee status. He immediately started learning French. Since he was underage, he qualified to further his education in a European country, but his desire was to go to an English-speaking country. 

"They said they didn't have any contacts with English-speaking countries (United Nations), it's only Europe and when you go to Europe you learn a different language and that would be difficult to go to school," he said. "I said I'll be praying, telling God my problem. And I was praying and praying like I never prayed before."

Three months later, he was granted an interview with U.S. Immigration. Mbaogu now has one year remaining until he graduates from Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, which is part of the Salt Lake City School District. Mbaogu said he now has a positive attitude toward life and is focused on finishing his high school equivalent.

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