There was no peace in my country. And here, my life is safe. I have a good place for my family to live. It's a pleasure for me to become a citizen. —Justin Beradje
SALT LAKE CITY — Violence was storming in the streets of the Central African Republic, and Justin Beradje's wife and children were nowhere to be found.
Beradje, 44, had gone to work in another town that morning in 2003. He later returned to find an ongoing skirmish in the streets and his home vacated. Many of his neighbors had fled the village to find refuge in the bush.
The same horrific scene was unfolding in other parts of the country. Militias loyal to Ange-Félix Patassé, the country's president at the time, were seeking retaliation against a coup led by Gen. François Bozizé that tried to overthrow Patassé's administration.
"Both of these guys, if they find you, they can kill you if they find out you support the other guy," Beradje recalled.
Beradje left the village and headed west to Cameroon, not knowing whether he would ever see his family again.
Months later, he met a man from Douala, a city in western Cameroon. The two conversed, and Beradje said he was returning to his village to search for his wife, whom he knew was struggling to care for their son who had hydrocephalus. The man told Beradje of a refugee group that had gone to Douala and that a boy with hydrocephalus, named Eugene, was with them.
Eugene was Beradje's son.
Beradje went to Douala and was overjoyed upon finding his family after a search that lasted a year and a half.
"I love my family. I love my son," he said. "I cannot leave them."
After several attempts to leave Africa, the family received authorization to come to the U.S. in 2009. Beradje knew his life would never be the same.
"Since I've been here, my life has changed," he said. "I'm so happy."
Beradje says he's most grateful for the opportunities of education and health care now available to his children — opportunities he seldom had as a child.
The transition from speaking French to speaking English has been rough. Beradje would often carry a French-English dictionary with him wherever he went, but the book could not ease the loneliness that comes with broken communication.
"I don't (know) anybody (from) my country in Salt Lake City," Beradje said. "So I'm here by myself."
Loneliness suddenly turned into frenzy one day when Beradje's wife got sick. The two struggled as they went from bus to bus, trying to negotiate their way to a hospital. After exchanging basic words and signs with multiple bus drivers, Beradje finally was able to find medical help for his wife.
Some challenges have been less controllable than others.
"You don't have winter in Africa," Beradje said. "Here, there's winter, and it's so cold."
But Beradje says his family has learned to conquer one thing at a time. His children attend school, his wife is learning to read and write, and he was able to obtain a job at the Natural History Museum of Utah.
Saturday's oath of citizenship marked one of his greatest achievements, he said.
"It's a very big accomplishment for me," he said.
Beradje says he wanted to become a U.S. citizen because of the peace that he feels in a land where there is respect for the law.
"There was no peace in my country. And here, my life is safe. I have a good place for my family to live," he said. "It's a pleasure for me to become a citizen."
Simple acts of kindness, he says, have also gone a long way.
"Everybody in Salt Lake City, they are so kind, they are so good," he said. "They smile. If you need help, they are ready to help you. Here in Utah, it's good for the kids."