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.
On the other side of Africa, Ugandan native Nowella Mukeshimana fled her home country four years ago when her parents died due to disease. She was just 16 when she arrived in Utah in September of 2008 with her four siblings. Now 20, Mukeshimana is graduating from East Shore High School in Orem.
Mukeshimana, who arrived under refugee status, qualified for the United Nations program for minors because of the death of her parents.
When her mother died in 2004 and her father died in 2005, Mukeshimana took charge of the household in Uganda and became the caretaker for her four younger siblings who now live with her and their foster family in Lehi.
"It's kind of a hard experience, but I had to try to see how to survive, (to see if) we are getting enough food to eat and having to take care of my little siblings to see if they are not just crying around in the street," Mukeshimana said. "My mom had to teach me how to be a grownup. I see what she is doing. If she is cooking, I helped her. I had that kind of experience when she was alive."
With a high school diploma, Mukeshimana is now setting her sights on higher education. She is interested in becoming a flight attendant, but she is keeping her options open.
Maria Sanchez, 19, also wants to turn her new high school diploma from Horizonte into something more. Her journey began in Guanajuato, Mexico, when at 17 she decided to leave her parents and six brothers and make the journey alone from Mexico to Arizona.
"We were poor where I used to live and I just wanted to make money to send to my parents," Sanchez said, "(so we could) have a better life."
When immigration agents picked her up, they gave her two choices: "Go back to Mexico (and come back in) five years (or) stay there (in Arizona) for nine months and have the opportunity to get my green card and then (go into) foster care."
Sanchez did not speak English when she first arrived in Arizona; however, she is now a fluent English speaker and is assimilating the American culture. She will be attending Salt Lake Community College to study criminal justice.
Other refugees from Central America who are graduating with help from the program have also experienced difficult situations, including being victims of human trafficking and escaping from gang life and poverty.
Buu Diep, the refugee foster care case manager of CCS, has overseen various refugee cases and knows the stories of many different teenage refugees. The 15 who graduate this year came from seven different countries.
"They are really resilient, they are great kids, and they try so hard to succeed," Diep said. "They always think about their parents and their families back home, what they can do (to help them). So they are not only taking care of themselves, they will try and take care of their families."
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