I held it together until she spotted them and she got down on her knees. —Phoenix Ostermann
SALT LAKE CITY — After one glimpse of her daughters, Edana Gama dropped to her knees Friday to thank God for bringing her children to their new home.
Nelly and Lina were teenagers the last time she saw them. They are now young women with daughters of their own.
Gama, a political asylee from Sudan, left most of her family behind five years ago when she came to Utah seeking surgery to repair her then-8-year-old daughter Catherine’s severe cleft palate.
On Friday, the mother was reunited with two of her children, and for the first time, met their children — her granddaughters.
As the women locked eyes, no words were exchanged. A steady stream of tears flowed as a mother and daughters held one another tight.
Nearby, some 40 well-wishers — family, friends, fellow Sudanese immigrants from their church — held signs, sang songs, cheered, wiped tears and embraced one another at Salt Lake City International Airport.
“Can you imagine?” said Ruby Ostermann, whose daughter, Phoenix, was largely responsible for the reunion, raising nearly $8,000 through private fundraising for their airfare and other expenses.
The fundraising effort is ongoing because four other members of the family — Gama's husband, John, a son and two daughters who have been approved to enter the United States — are waiting in Uganda.
Phoenix Ostermann met Gama through the International Rescue Committee’s family mentor program after she had become interested in the growing number of refugees in the Salt Lake Valley. Some 50,000 refugees have been resettled in Utah since the end of the Vietnam War. Most live in Salt Lake County.
“I would see them walking the streets, and I thought, ‘How can I get to know these people?’ Then IRC came into my life,” she said.
At first, IRC offered Ostermann and her family the opportunity to mentor a family of two adults and three teenagers. But she declined because wanted she wanted to be paired with a family with children who were closer in age to her own.
A few weeks later, Lyn Spataro, volunteer coordinator for IRC’s Salt Lake office, called Ostermann about Gama’s family.
It was the first time in her position that Spataro had paired two families through the mentoring program.
“To have it unfold this way is beyond expectation,” she said Friday, after witnessing the reunion.
What is customarily a six-month commitment as a family mentor blossomed into an ongoing friendship.
“Phoenix did not come just to be my friend and to help us. This is my sister,” Gama said.
As Ostermann explains, “It all worked out the way it supposed to. I was waiting for Edana.”
As Gama and Catherine became better acquainted with Ostermann, her husband, Mike Bates, and their children, Oscar, Ruby and Mabel, Gama started to share more about her life in Sudan and the difficult choice she made to leave Africa to join family members in Utah in 2008.
But once she arrived, arrangements were made for Catherine to have surgery through Operation Smile. She underwent her seventh surgery on Monday.
Gama and Catherine were granted political asylum in 2010.
Ostermann said Utah Health and Human Rights and IRC have also helped Gama learn English and join the workforce. Their help meant a lot because asylees receive far less resettlement assistance as refugees, she said.
Gama has also received assistance through the Christ for the Nation Church, which is largely attended by Sudanese immigrants.
Tatjana Micic, an accredited immigration specialist for IRC, has helped Gama and Ostermann through the maze of paperwork required for the family's entry. She also deserves credit for making the reunion possible, Ostermann said.
“The paper trail for eight people has been really hard,” she said.
Gama and Catherine, who have experienced homelessness since relocating to Utah, now live in a modest apartment in the central city. Gama has worked low-wage jobs and has been sending a part of her wages to family members who remain in Africa.
These hardships pale in comparison to the horrors of civil war in Sudan. She witnessed the murders of her parents. Her brothers and sisters were killed as well.
Gama was held captive for five years. As a teenager, she was raped by a soldier and she gave birth to a son. Her daughters who rejoined her Friday were also raped by soldiers within six months of each other.
“What happened to me, happened to them,” Gama said in an interview prior to her daughters’ arrival.
Another of her husband’s relatives was murdered this past week.
“There is no safe place there,” she said.
Gama was relieved that half of her immediate family was safe in Utah Friday afternoon.
“I’m so happy,” she said, her cheeks stained with tears.
“Finally!” Nelly said.
Ostermann wept tears of joy, too.
“I held it together until she spotted them and she got down on her knees,” she said.
Ostermann said her goal is to raise another $7,000 to bring the rest of Gama’s family to Utah by December.
Last December, Ostermann organized what she described as an “African feast” as a fundraiser. A number of Gama’s friends from Sudan and their church cooked.
Although friends and family were very highly supportive, Ostermann said she soon realized she would need to make a broader appeal to pay airfare for the entire family. So she created a website, From Sudan to Utah, to appeal online for help.
“This is going to take more than my network of friends and family,” she said.
Ideally, Ostermann would like to raise the entire amount so the airfare can be purchased in advance.
“Instead of paying $2,000 apiece for a ticket, which is about what we paid here, we’re looking at $900 each. If there’s anything extra, we’d use it for resettlement,” she said.
Ostermann’s mother, Ruby, for whom her granddaughter is named, marveled at the reunion and her daughter’s role in making it happen.
“I’m so proud of them. She worked so hard. I just hope she can make the rest of it happen," she said. "She will.”