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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Patience Sweeney, right, reunites with her mother, Janet Dean Richards, at Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City Thursday, May 3, 2012. The two had been separated for 20 years.
It wasn't intended for us to stay this long, but the war started and people couldn't go in and people couldn't go out. —Patience Sweeney

SALT LAKE CITY — Patience Sweeney came to America for a visit when she was 6 years old. When civil war broke out in her native land of Liberia, immigration laws kept her from seeing her mother again for more than 24 years.

"It wasn't intended for us to stay this long, but the war started and people couldn't go in and people couldn't go out," Sweeney said. Her mother, Janet Dean Richards, who was going through a separation from Patience's father when the child came to America, outlasted attacks by the rebels, lost her home to arsonists and spent many days running, sometimes without food or water.

"All these years she has held on basically because of us and wanting to see us," Sweeney, 31, said. Over the years, there were countless nights filled with tears for both of them. "As time went on, I just kept believing that one day, we would see each other."

On Thursday, the two rocked back and forth while they held each other and wept with joy for what seemed like several minutes at Salt Lake City International Airport.

"I don't have words to express it. I just say to God, 'Thank you. After 24 years, thank you, God,'" Richards said. "I had a feeling that I would see her again. I looked forward to the day I would see her."

Through the years, Richards has missed many important events in her only daughter's life, including college graduation, marriage and the birth of three grandchildren — twin girls who are nearly 4 and are named after their two grandmothers, and a 2-month-old baby boy.

"It seems like a burden has just been lifted," said Sweeney, who was raised by a grandmother during the absence from her mother. "It was the one thing that was always eating me up, thinking when will I see her again."

Since Sweeney and her older brother unintentionally overstayed their visas, government officials have been less likely to award one to their mother. The process of reuniting Richards with her family has taken several years, including outlasting the more than 15-year civil unrest in Liberia in West Africa.

Richards will remain in Utah until at least September, when her visitor's visa expires. The family will then again begin the arduous task of jumping through bureaucratic hoops to be together again.

"She's always been talking about wishing that her mom was here," said Jefferson Sweeney, Patience's husband of more than five years. "It has probably been a weekly thing where she talks about how she misses her mom and wishes she could be here."

The family has much to talk about and Sweeney said there are plenty of pictures and "a lot we want to show her."

And they're not wasting any time. They'll be attending Saturday's Jazz game and have plans to cook African food together, and reminisce about all that has transpired since they've been apart.

"She can't wait to see the girls and do their hair and dress them up like she did with me when I was little," Sweeney said. "I couldn't imagine being away from my girls the way my mom was."

Thursday's reunion has been on her mind since 1988, even to the point of being part of vivid dreams. "I wake up and it is not real," Sweeney said. In a way, it has given her something to look forward to and work toward.

"I got to the point where I gave everything to Heavenly Father and just tried to live life as normal and as best I could, to make her proud of me," she said. "I always tried to stay out of trouble in hopes that it would make a difference and somehow allow me to see my mom again. There were lots of prayers."

The now "Americanized" Sweeney said she felt an instant connection with her mother Thursday. With a hand clenching a tissue and held over her heart, she gazed at her 63-year-old mother and said, "She looks the same. She looks good."

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com Twitter: wendyleonards