Somali Bantu woman reunited with her children in Burlington

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(Host) Chittenden County is home to a small community of Somali Bantu refugees. Their new life in Vermont is challenging, but far better than the life they left behind. For one woman, however, leaving Africa to come to the United States required a heart-wrenching “Sophie’s Choice,” when she had to leave two of her children behind.

VPR’s Steve Zind has this story of a refugee family torn apart and a Vermont couple’s effort to reunite them.

(Noriyo speaking.)

(Zind) Her name is Noriyo. She’s a small woman, barely five feet tall. She wears a Johnson State College tee-shirt and a dark blue skirt with bright red flowers. The tee-shirt is from her new country, America. The skirt recalls her old home in Africa. Noriyo thought of Africa constantly for the first three months she was in United States.

Speaking through an interpreter, she says on some nights she would step outside her Winooski apartment and stare at the sky, thinking about just how far away her two sons were.

(Noriyo, through interpreter) “And try to visualize where Africa is, and how far is it from here, and what is the shortest way to go if somebody was to walk all the way.”

(Zind) As a Somali Bantu, Noriyo and her family were among those who fled Somalia to escape civil war in the 1990s. They settled in crowded camps in nearby Kenya. The Somali Bantu are descended from slaves and even in camp where everyone is a refugee, they are persecuted, raped and murdered. That’s why the U.S. government is allowing 12,000 Somali Bantu to resettle in America.

After ten years in a refugee camp, Noriyo and her family were given permission to come the United States. One day last September, Noriyo and her six children, ranging in age from seven months to 18 years, were taken to the Nairobi airport to board a flight to America.

American officials in Nairobi are careful to make sure young men are actually members of the refugee family they’re with. There’s concern that terrorists could threaten or payoff families in order to masquerade as members and travel to the United States.

At the airport in Nairobi, one official took the two older boys, ages 18 and 16, aside. The course of their lives was about to be determined by what they had eaten for breakfast.

First the question was asked of Noriyo: “What did you give your boys to eat?” Her answer: “Rice with goat meat.” The boys were then asked: “What did you have for breakfast?” “Rice with camel meat” was their answer. The discrepancy was enough to convince the officials that the boys were not Noriyo’s sons. Noriyo was faced with an unimaginable choice.

(Noriyo, through interpreter) “They said, No, these are not your children. You have nothing to prove these are your children and you only have two options: you either remain with them here or you go without them.”

(Zind) The older boys urged Noriyo to take the four younger children and board the flight to the U.S. It would be a better than all of them returning to the dangers of the refugee camp. Distraught, Noriyo boarded the plane. She instantly regretted her decision.

(Interpreter) “She thought that was the last time she would see them and that she would never see them again.”

(Zind) When Noriyo’s plane arrived in Burlington, Kristen DeStigter was waiting. She and her husband Bob Hyams had agreed to host Noriyo until the family found a place to live. DeStigter remembers the anticipation she felt when she went to meet Noriyo’s plane.

(DeStigter) “Where I was expecting her to be very excited in this new land of freedom, she walked off the plane and sort of collapsed.”

(Zind) As days passed, DeStigter and Hyams found that Noriyo was so distraught over leaving her sons behind she was having difficulty caring for her four-month old infant.

(DeStigter) “She actually became more and more depressed. She really wasn’t eating. She wasn’t sleeping at night. She had one picture of the boys, she just looked at this constantly, always asking, ‘When can we find the boys? When can we find the boys?'”

(Zind) While Hyams helped Noriyo with the children, DeStigter decided to try to locate the boys in Kenya. The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program told her the odds of finding them were remote. The boys could have been sent back to the refugee camp, or they could be living on the streets of Nairobi. Noriyo agonized over both possibilities.

DeStigter says finding the boys seemed like a daunting task.

(DeStigter) “We really had no idea where they were. All we knew is that she’d left them at the airport in Nairobi.”

(Zind) DeStigter began making calls and writing letters. Some people told her she’d never find the boys. Others offered to help. She talked with government agencies in Washington and aid organizations in Nairobi. She recruited the help of Vermont’s congressional delegation. And she began to feel cautiously optimistic.

Then a call came from a State Department employee in Nairobi. The boys had been found. But there was still no proof they were Noriyo’s sons.

(DeStigter) “I suggested that the only way to prove that they were her sons was to do DNA testing.”

(Zind) Once again DeStigter ran a gauntlet of government agencies to make sure the DNA testing could be done – and done in a way acceptable to U.S. authorities. Blood samples were taken in Nairobi and shipped to the U.S. DeStigter and Hyams paid $3,000 for the tests. Then everyone waited. Five weeks later a letter arrived announcing the results. DeStigter received a call from Noriyo.

(DeStigter) “And this is a woman who doesn’t speak much English, and she’s screaming on the phone to me, ‘The boys are mine! The boys are mine!'”

(Zind) Late one night the two boys, Omar and Abdi Kadir, stand in the Burlington airport at the end of a long journey from Nairobi. They look tired. Between them, they have one small bag. When their mother appears they smile sheepishly. But she can’t contain her joy.

(Sound of their reunion at the airport.)

(Zind) Kristin DeStigter, Bob Hyams and a few others in the nearly empty airport look on as Noriyo and her sons are reunited after nearly four months. It’s a reunion many thought would never happen.

A week after the boys’ arrival, the family is settling in. The walls in the Winooski apartment are bare except for a calendar with a photograph of a huge bull moose. The boys stare at it as someone from Vermont Refugee Resettlement points to dates.

(Case worker) “So on this day you’ll go to see the doctor. This will be your first day of school….”

(Zind) Noriyo sits at a table in the small dining room. Once again, she tells the story she has told so many times before. But now it has a happy ending. When she finishes, she gets up to tend a steaming pot on the stove.

One of the boys, Abdi Kadir, says he has something he wants to say. He speaks some English, but feels he can better express himself in his native language. Interpreter Rashid Hussein translates. For someone who has spent his life living in a refugee camp, the kindness of DeStigter and Hyams is hard for him to fathom. He seems mystified that they would go through so much effort and expense to help people they hardly knew.

(Abdi Kadir, through interpreter) “I have never thought a human being could be helpful that much. He doesn’t know what type of human beings are these.”

(Zind) When Noriyo returns to the table, she says the only there is only one more thing she would want. That is to see have the children’s father here with them. Noriyo’s husband disappeared from the refugee camp last year and no one knows if he’s still alive.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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