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

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

“I was not able to communicate with my wife at all during that time,” he remembers. “I had no idea if they were OK. I was going crazy not knowing.”

Eventually he was able to use a military radio to contact his wife through a neighbor back in Mogadishu. “I promised her that I would find a way to get her and our sons to Kenya,” he said.

It didn’t take him long to make good on that promise. Through circumstances that he insists were completely providential, he met a man who was the pilot of a little plane that transported medicine from Nairobi to Mogadishu for the Doctors Without Borders organization. Batar told his story to the pilot and then he pressed his much-traveled $200 into the pilot’s hand.

“I know you could get much more than this from others, but this is all I have,” he told the pilot. “If you bring my family to me, I will never forget you.”

Just hours later, Asho and their two sons, Jamal and Ahmed, were safe in Nairobi.

“That was the best day of my life,” Batar says simply.

A new life

With his family surrounding him, it was time to start building a new life somewhere. They contacted Asho’s brother, who had come to Logan, Utah, some years earlier as a student at Utah State University and who started working with Catholic Community Services, to help the Batar family migrate to Utah.

“I didn’t know anything about Utah,” Batar said. “To be honest, I didn’t really care where we were going. All I wanted was a place that was safe for my family. All I wanted was peace.

“Peace is the most important thing you can have,” he continued. “You don’t realize that until you lose it. Without peace you cannot do anything. I’ll give up everything I have for peace.”

Arrangements were made for the family to come to Utah, where they have sunk in their roots and become “more American than Somali,” Batar says.

“We have three children who were born here,” he said, referring to his third son, Ibrahim, and two daughters, Ilham and Laila. “Our two boys who were born in Somalia are both students at the University of Utah. They don’t remember anything about Somalia. We teach our children about our culture. We’ve taught them the language. They maintain their religion. But they are more American than anything else.”

And that’s just fine with Batar, who became a U.S. citizen in 1999 and boasts that he has voted in every election since then.

“This is a great country,” he says. “We are Muslims, I work for a Catholic organization, we have many friends who are LDS and nobody has a problem with any of that. This is what I love about America. Everyone sees you as a human being regardless of your background.”

And now, 20 years after being a refugee from a war-torn country himself, he is at the forefront of welcoming other refugees to Utah and introducing them to the peaceful promise of life in America.

Caring community

“Every year, Catholic Community Services settles around 600 refugees in Salt Lake County,” Batar said. “This includes a large number of children who are coming without parents — either their parents have been killed, or they were neglected or abandoned or trafficked. There are only about 10 programs around the United States that will take these children, and we are one of them. We have about 68 refugee foster care children in our program now.”

Batar describes Utah as “a caring community" that is filled with compassion and willing to give and work on behalf of suffering refugees.

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