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Embracing refugees: 'How can I not give back?'

Published: Saturday, Nov. 9 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Aden Batar, surrounded by his wife, Asho Hamud, center, daughters Lail Batar, left, Ilham Batar, right, and son Ibrahim Batar, (two older sons not pictured), Bater was himself a Muslim refugee in Utah before becoming head of the refugee program for Catholic Community Services, Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, in West Valley City.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For Aden Batar, a lifelong Muslim who is director of immigration and refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Services of Utah, tears are an occupational hazard.

“Please excuse me,” he said as he paused to compose himself, one of several times he did so during a recent interview in his Salt Lake City office. “These things … are so … important … in my life ….”

He was speaking of a Somali woman who came to Utah in 2002 as a refugee along with her six children. Through the efforts of CCS, which coordinates involvement and services from other Utah faith groups and charitable community services, the family was provided with a fully furnished three-bedroom apartment and food and was assigned to a case-worker to help them apply for documentation, food stamps, Medicaid and financial assistance while introducing them to educational opportunities for the children and job opportunities for the adults.

“It can be overwhelming for people who are here to escape war and tragedy,” Batar said. “There is peace here. People are kind to them. There is abundance. It is wonderful, but it is an adjustment.”

After a full day of orientation, the family was finally left to themselves in their new apartment. When Batar and others returned to the family the next day, they found that they had pulled all of the mattresses from the beds and brought them together in the front room of the apartment.

“This room is enough for us,” the mother told Batar, her voice edged with emotion and filled with appreciation. “You can bring someone else to live in the other rooms.”

“Unless you have been through what these people have been through, you have no idea what a blessing it is to be here,” Batar said. He paused and closed his eyes hard against the tears welling up in his eyes. Then he cleared his throat and continued.

“My creator has blessed me,” he said simply. “How can I not give back and share those same blessings with others?”

Civil war

The blessings to which Batar refers began 20 years ago when he and his wife, Asho, were trying to raise their two young sons while civil war swirled dangerously around them in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.

“At first, I stayed in my country because I was sure things would get better,” Batar says. “But things only got worse. All around us, people were killing each other. After four years of hearing bullets being fired and seeing dead people lying in the streets, I realized that the only way I could protect my family was for us to flee our country.”

Safety beckoned 750 miles away in Nairobi, Kenya. But to fly his family there would cost far more money than he had. Traveling on land was perilous, with roaming tribal bands always on the lookout for rivals.

“I couldn’t take my family with me when I fled to Kenya,” Batar said. “I wasn’t sure I could protect them on the journey. I wasn’t sure I could make it myself. So I had to leave them.

“That was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life … to tell my wife ….” His voice trailed off again, the fingers of one hand pressed to his eyes. “I told her, ‘If I don’t come back, move in with your family. Maybe they can protect you. But if I make it, I’ll find a way to get you and our sons out of here.’ ”

With only the clothes he was wearing and $200 hidden and carefully stitched into his trousers, Batar traveled carefully, cautiously to Kenya. He was stopped and searched numerous times. His watch and other personal items were taken. But thanks to the kindness of others who provided him with food and shelter along the way, he arrived in Nairobi three and one-half weeks after he left Mogadishu with his $200 still hidden in his clothing.

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