Refugees tell their tales of terror and hope

Friday, Jun. 10, 2011
Refugees tell their tales of terror and hope + Enlarge
Among the entertainment at the Refugees: The Real Story event will be native Rwandan dancers performing traditional dances. Courtesy photo/Catholic Community Services
By Marie Mischel
Intermountain Catholic

SALT LAKE CITY — Fleeing war-torn countries and political persecution, refugees from all around the world come to the United States to find peace and to prosper. Through the years, 30,000 of them have been resettled in Utah.

On June 20 – designated as World Refugee Day by the United Nations – some of them will tell their stories at an event sponsored by Catholic Community Services.

"Refugees: The Real Story" will feature stories from a Rwandan refugee and a teenager who is in the refugee foster care program. Bishop John C. Wester, immediate past chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, will be a keynote speaker.

The event is intended to educate Utahns about their new neighbors, and give information about ways to volunteer or advocate for refugees, who are legal immigrants to the United States.

"The best way for the community to know about the refugees is hearing from the refugees – their stories," said Aden Batar, director of Immigration & Resettlement for CCS.

Batar knows first-hand the impact of such stories. The first Somali refugee to be settled in Utah through Catholic Community Services, he tells his story at schools and other venues, and "the response is always positive," he said. "It’s eye-opening for a lot of people."

In 1992, when civil war broke out in Somalia, Batar was a recent college graduate with a wife and son. Fearing for their lives, he and his family moved from place to place. "You have to make a decision within a second to decide where to go, because that could save your life," he said. "The next day, you don’t know where your meal’s going to come from or whether you will be alive or dead."

When their son died, Batar told his wife he would try to find a safe place for them and their second son, who at the time was only a few months old. He headed toward Kenya, walking across lands controlled by tribes that killed strangers who didn’t speak their dialect.

"If you’re not armed, you will be victimized," said Batar, who had nothing with him, not even a change of clothing. "All the odds are against you."

At one point, he was given a ride in a truck. A militia man stopped the truck and told the 10 passengers to separate themselves by tribal origin. Batar realized from the way the armed man spoke that he was a member of the same tribe as the others in the truck, so Batar joined the others, and the militia man told them to go on their way.

To cross the border from Somalia into Kenya, Batar squeezed himself into a cattle truck. The smell was horrible, he said, but he didn’t care; the cattle prevented the guards from seeing him.

Once in Kenya, he bribed an airplane pilot to bring his family to Nairobi. Two years later, a family member in Utah sponsored them to come to the United States.

Like Batar, many Rwandan refugees have suffered through war. The June 20 event is a way for CCS to reach out to the community "so we can get as much support as we can generate for refugees who are coming into our country," Batar said.

To that end, community leaders and legislators have been invited, said Janet Healy, agency volunteer coordinator for Catholic Community Services.

"Refugees: The Real Story" is one in a series of events throughout June, which is Utah Refugee Month. The month will include a variety of events, from a soccer tournament to art exhibits to a job fair. For information, visit refugee.utah.gov or utahrefugee.org.

"Refugees: The Real Story" will be from 4:30 to 6 p.m. on Monday, June 20 at CCS, 745 East 300 South in Salt Lake City. In addition to Bishop Wester, Aden Batar and the refugees, speakers will include Gerald Brown, director of Utah Refugee Services Office and Olga de la Cruz, president and CEO of de la Cruz & Associates. RSVP is requested by June 15 to volunteer@ccsutah.org.

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