Uganda to Louisville
When Omar Abukar Omar, 22, was at the hotel, he received medication from the International Organization for Migration. He knew this was one of the last steps before he could board a plane for the United States.
“If you’re not healthy, they are going to take you back,” he explains through a Somali interpreter. “That’s why you worry a lot, because you may get sick when they give you all this medication.”
He was alone in a hotel in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. He left his mother, siblings, and nieces behind in the Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda. Because of his age, his case was separated from his family’s and he was booked to travel first. His family was told they would fly within weeks or months of Omar’s flight.
“When you’re at the hotel, you’re going to worry a lot,” he says. “There are a lot of reasons they could stop your flight.”
When Omar was a young teenager, about 13 or 14 years old, an Islamic militant group controlled their village in Somalia. Some men from the group visited Omar’s home and attempted to forcibly conscript his father. He refused. They beat Omar’s mother. The family fled and found shelter in Uganda’s Nakivale refugee camp, where they have lived for the last nine years.
In Uganda, Omar said he had goals for himself. “My expectation was to learn something, to be a better person, help my family,” he adds. His feelings changed after seeing what life was like in the camp. New thoughts of How can I leave this country? How can my family get help? filled his mind.
They applied for resettlement.
“People in the refugee camp, they are always thinking about coming to America,” Omar says. “They know there is free education and welcoming community.”
Omar became one of the few refugees who is ever resettled in another country. UNHCR states that there are over 22.5 million refugees worldwide, and less than one half of one percent are ever resettled. When including people displaced within their country of origin, there are over 65 million displaced people worldwide.
After taking the medication at the hotel, Omar did not get sick. He was ready to leave. He had received his exit visa from Uganda. He had passed his security interviews.
“When you take that interview,” he says, “it is failing or passing. If you fail, you have no other hope that you are going somewhere else. You have to go back to your camp or wherever you come from.”
Refugees are the most thoroughly screened individuals to enter the United States. Even after passing these hurdles, he did not believe he was going to make it.
“I thought they were going to take me back,” he says. “The happiest day was when I met my caseworker at the Louisville airport, and she told me, ‘I am your caseworker. Welcome to Kentucky.’,” he explains. “That was the happiest time in my life, because even when I was in Chicago, I wasn’t believing I was going to America.”
Preparing for Family
Omar dove into his new life in Louisville. He learned to ride the bus, started English classes, made friends, and began looking for work.
He regularly called his caseworker at KRM for updates on his family’s travel.
He had to leave behind his mother Sahro, the only parent in the family. With her are her daughters Asha, 23, Ruqiya, 20, Rahmo, 18, Deqo, 16, and son Masla, 11. Also with them was Sahro’s granddaughter, Lul, 9. Lul is the daughter of Sahro’s oldest son who had disappeared years earlier. Omar has another sister, Fatuma, 20, who was also there with three young children all under three years old.
In June, there was news.
“When I heard my family got the [exit] visa, I was very excited,” Omar said. Everyone but his sister Fatuma and her children were scheduled to arrive in Louisville in July. Their case was separate due to her age, he explains, but he expected them to come soon, too.
He began counting the days until their arrival date. They’re going to come this day, they’re going to come this day repeated in his mind. He told his new friends in Louisville the news.
When he learned that KRM was able to rent a home for his family, he went to the address, took pictures, and texted his family the photos of their new U.S. home. They were able to talk every day while they have been apart.
He found work at Amazon’s distribution center, and he began saving money to prepare for his family’s arrival.
The Final Steps
Omar’s family received their travel information. They sold their belongings and gave up their house at the refugee camp. They made their way to the city of Kampala. International Organization for Migration set them up in a hotel. After they arrived in the hotel, they were given the medication Omar received.
“I told them this was the final steps,” Omar says. “That night, I was worried a lot. They were worried, too.”
Later that evening, their plans changed. “Somebody came to their hotel and said, you need to head back. You’re not going,” Omar explains.
Sahro, her children, and her granddaughter had no recourse. They were not granted exit permission. They did not know the reason.
They called Omar. He called KRM. They were told to leave the hotel and return to the camp, but they had no more money to pay for their way back. They didn’t have a home waiting for them.
“As soon as I know that something was wrong with my family, I was shocked,” Omar says. He sent them money for transportation back to the camp. They returned and were able to get another place to stay in the camp.
They were told to wait and that they may be able to come again. Later, KRM learned the delay was due to a spelling error in the name of Omar’s 11-year-old brother.
Omar continued working full-time at Amazon, saving money and sending support to his family. He was also paying his own bills for rent, utilities, food, and transportation. He was hopeful they could still come soon.
The family received welcome news in late August. They were re-booked to travel to Louisville in September. KRM secured a co-sponsor team to provide extra support to their family. The co-sponsors began collecting household goods and furniture for their home. It would be a different house than the one Omar saw; the landlord could not hold it.
“I was happy,” Omar says, “even though there was a lot of damage in my heart.”
Although he still worried, he returned to counting the days until he could see his mother and family again.
With their second travel date approaching, the family again sold what belongings they had, gave up their spot in the camp, and traveled to Kampala. They stayed in the hotel and were ready to board their flight the following day
Omar received news. They were told they could not come. What little luggage they had was placed outside the hotel. They didn’t receive any news about when they could be re-booked. They didn’t understand why this was happening again.
“They had nowhere to live,” Omar explains. They had sold their home in the camp. They stayed in the city. They had a friend in Kampala who was able to find places where they could stay; the family separated into three different homes. Omar again sent some money to his family to help however he could.
In Kampala, they couldn’t afford to send the children to school. They could barely feed themselves. With a friend’s help, they were able to reunite under one roof in someone else’s home.
Ruqiya, Omar’s 20-year-old sister, became restless. She began talking to her family about journeying to Europe. They heard about paying smugglers to help refugees get to European countries where they could apply for asylum status, find work, and support their families from afar.
“She said she’s going a different way to a better life,” Omar explains.
He says one of the ways she could go would be through Sudan and to Libya, where refugees can find smugglers. She would have to pay money for the passage.
The siblings began looking online for more information. They came across many stories.
“If they catch you, they’re going to ask you for a lot of money,” Omar says. “They torture you, rape you. They ask you to call your parents while you are crying. They ask for $10,000. They may let you go. They rob you, beat you up… you’re barely walking when they let you go.”
Another one of his sisters discovered videos depicting what happens to refugees as they make their way to Europe– and how they are treated once they arrive. Videos showing violence and harassment.
“She showed my sister, saying, this is what is going to happen to you if you migrate by yourself,” Omar explains.
They couldn’t go back to the camp. They didn’t have a home of their own in Kampala. They hadn’t lived in Somalia for years.
Omar’s mother Sahro became sick. She has diabetes and high blood pressure. She entered a local hospital.
Ruqiyo decided to stay.
“She would have left a long time ago,” Omar says, “but when my mom got sick, that’s what stopped her.”
After the second time they were removed from flying, the administration in the U.S. issued another travel ban and refugee ban. Foreign nationals from Somalia were again on the list of people who could not come into the U.S.
Waiting for News
Omar calls his mother on his mobile phone. They connect easily through Wi-Fi apps. She’s in the hospital surrounded by her family. He asks for Ruqiyo, and a chorus of “Ruqiyo!” erupts on the other line.
“She is the one who speaks English,” he explains. He chats in Somali with his other siblings while he waits. Ruqiyo’s English is crisp. She quickly advocates for her family.
“We have too much problems. My mom is sick and she needs care. We had problems two times,” Ruqiya says. “Still, they are not answering them. We have not been given any information. Still we are waiting.”
She returns to her native Somali, speaking more quickly. Through a KRM interpreter, she explains more.
“That day, I was interpreting for my mom,” she says of the second time they were told they couldn’t travel to the United States. “We were crying that day. I was the first one to cry.”
Another executive order in October suspended refugee travel for individuals from 11 different countries, including Somalia. Omar and his family have lived in Uganda since 2008, however because their country of origin is Somalia, they would be temporarily barred under this order. In early 2017, the first travel ban and refugee suspension received widespread attention and airport protests. The latest executive order in October is not as well known. It followed a summer of judicial back and forth with the refugee program.
There is quiet on the phone. Ruqiya did not know about this new order affecting Somali refugees.
“I don’t have time to listen to all the news,” she explains. “I have a lot of problems. My mom is very sick. My family is struggling with what to eat, how to live.”
Ruqiya says she can’t find work because she couldn’t finish her schooling, and now they can’t afford school in Kampala.
“We live here without a father,” she says. “We are vulnerable. I don’t want to lose my mom, too.”
They aren’t the only ones in this position, Ruqiya explains. “There was a lot of refugees– same as us, who are living here,” she says. “We have no hope for education, food, life, movement. We would like to get help from anybody who can change or do something.”
When the suspension is lifted, they still hope to come. “Inshallah,” she says. God willing, in Arabic. Ruqiya says goodbye for now. Omar knows he will talk to them soon.
“I would like the United States to change this order,” Omar adds. “There are a lot of people suffering outside of this country.”
When the refugee suspension ends, Omar’s family still faces the newest security vetting. Their clearances may have expired, and they may have to repeat steps in the process before being approved again. Because Somalia and other countries listed in the executive order have areas controlled by Islamic militant groups, refugees from these countries are subjected to more intensive screenings in addition to the existing vetting. They escaped the militant group in Somalia, but they are still affected by their existence.
Omar is worried his family will lose hope the longer they remain in Uganda. Or that Ruqiya or another sister will attempt the journey to Europe. He is struggling to support himself while also sending them money. He wants to be able to improve his life, to finish his education, to find a career.
“Even now,” he says. “I still believe if my family comes, I can change myself.”
He needs his family, and they need him. Quietly, he adds, “I miss my mom. You can see my face. I miss her.”
As we gather with loved ones this holiday season, we at KRM are also thinking about who is not with us.
Each time a family has arrived in Louisville this year, it has been an achievement. Multiple executive orders in the United States have been keeping families like Omar’s apart.
On December 23, a federal judge partially blocked the most recent order, opening the possibility for families to reunite.
We thank you for your efforts in 2017 to welcome refugees and immigrants to Kentucky. As we begin 2018, we invite your continued advocacy and support for our newest neighbors– and for those who are still waiting for peace.
For further resources on the executive order, read KRM’s What the Latest Executive Order Means for Refugees, and HIAS’ Tracking The Refugee Ban. The portrait above of Omar Omar is by Portia Watson.[This story was originally posted in December 2017.]