Gifts from strangers and a second reunion lead to a new life in America for Sudanese family

Published: Monday, Sept. 9 2013 7:45 a.m. MDT

Samuel John and Catherine Sese hug outside of their home in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. The siblings had not seen each other in five years until Samuel's arrival in Utah the night before.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The scene was what you'd might expect of a reunion of a wife and mother long separated from her husband and children.

A lot of hugs. Steady streams of tears. Expressions of thanks. More tears. More hugs.

In less than a month's time, Edana Gama, an asylee from Sudan who lives in Salt Lake City, went from a household of two to a family of 10.

Gama, came to the United States in 2008 to seek surgery for Catherine's cleft palate, left the family behind in war-torn Sudan. Catherine has since undergone seven corrective surgeries through Operation Smile.

Gama had always wanted to reunite her family in the United States but it was financially out of reach. Thanks to the gifts of friends and strangers, Gama's "dream," as she describes it, became reality.

Now comes the challenge of building a life together in America.

In early August, Gama's two daughters and two granddaughters arrived in Salt Lake from Uganda. They were joined by her husband and three children late Friday night.

Friday was the culmination of a dream to also reunite with her husband John, teenage daughters Carlina and Rose and son 9-year-old Samuel.

“They are all here. Some were small (when I left)," Gama said, through her tears.

The reunion was made possible by the private fundraising efforts of Phoenix Ostermann, who befriended Gama through the Salt Lake office of International Rescue Committee's family mentor program.

As Ostermann, her husband Mike Bates and their children Oscar, Ruby and Mabel, learned more about Gama's experiences, they wanted to help her reunite with her family.

Initially, their fundraising efforts involved reaching out to family and friends through personal appeals and Facebook. Last winter, women from Gama's church helped host what Ostermann describes as an "African feast" to help raise money. Proceeds from those efforts were used to relocate Gama's family members from Sudan to Uganda, where they would be safe until their entry into the United States could be approved.

But living in Uganda was challenging, too. Gama recounted some of the heartbreaking telephone conversations she had with her son Samuel.

"Samuel would say 'Mom, I’m hungry and there’s no food,' or 'I’m sick and there’s no money to go to the hospital.' "

Next, Ostermann launched the online giving website, which raised the airfare for Gama's daughters Nelly and Lina and two granddaughters to fly from Uganda to Utah. They arrived Aug. 9.

The next goal was to bring the remaining family members to Salt Lake City by the end of the year.

Adam Miles, founder of Bridges to America Inc., moved up the timetable.

Miles, who had been touched by media reports about Gama's situation and Ostermann’s efforts to help, contributed $3,000 through the Park City nonprofit organization bridgestoamerica.org to pay their airfare from Uganda.

“Phoenix was me 10 years ago,” Miles said of his earlier volunteer efforts to reunite African families with family members in the United States, which evolved into founding Bridges to America Inc.

“I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve been separated from my family for so long, not knowing when we’d see each other again,” Miles said.

Donors large and small have helped made the reunions possible, Ostermann said.

One of the early supporters was a friend who is a single mother who works as a window washer.

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