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

Published: Monday, Sept. 9 2013 1:06 p.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.

"A month later, her two boys showed up at my doors with these jars full of coins. It was obviously money they had been saving for something else," Ostermann said.

On Friday night, Gama's emotions vacillated between joy and the weight of responsibility of feeding and housing 10 people. Presently, she is the only adult in the household who has a job. Although her older daughters are eligible to work, a clerical error on one of the daughter's documents likely cannot be rectified for six months, which means she can't seek a job.

"It means a person who is willing and able to get a job can't. It's totally frustrating," Ostermann said. "Coming to a county to make a better life, it's not easy."

Ostermann said it is unclear where the family of 10 will reside. Gama has a two-bedroom apartment but she really needs a house where the family can live together.

Because Gama is the only family member presently employed — she showed up for work as scheduled Saturday morning — she's worried about taking on more than she can handle financially.

"She has a lot of integrity. She does not want to take on something she can't do," Ostermann said.

Ostermann said the immediate plan is to allow the family to rest from their journey, make temporary housing arrangements, help enroll the newly arrived children in school and obtain work permits for the adults so they can seek jobs.

The online fundraising website Sudan to Utah, will remain up for the time being, Ostermann said. "Any gift from today forward will go into the hands of this family to help with rent for a bigger place, winter clothes, groceries, etc," the website states.

How you can help: : A fundraiser for Bridges to America, which provided airfare for the second wave of Gama's family reunion, will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. today at Alex and Ani in City Creek Center. Fifteen percent of sales during the three-hour event will benefit Bridges To America. Members of Gama's family plan to attend.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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