Refugee mother of seven longs to see husband and sons again

Mother flees Somalia after men in family are kidnapped, relocates to Salt Lake City with her five daughters.

Story and photos by ANNA STUMP

Halimo Ismail was living with her husband and seven children in Somalia when their lives unraveled. One night, Halimo woke to discover that her two sons and husband were missing. She quickly realized that they had been kidnapped, but had no idea by whom or whether they were still alive.

Halimo and her five daughters fled to Egypt in 2011, where they spent the next five years in a small apartment just in view of the pyramids. Her youngest daughter, Asmaa, was just shy of 6 years old. The other daughters were ages 7, 8, and 9.

In February 2017, Halimo Ismail and her daughters resettled in Salt Lake City.

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A family who lives in the same complex as Halimo Ismail and her family decorates for Halloween.

Asmaa, now 12, sits beside her mom in a two-bedroom townhome in South Salt Lake City, where the smell of incense fills the room with a musky aroma. She agreed to help translate for her mother, who speaks Somali and Pashto but is not yet conversant in English. Communication seems to be a problem outside of the interview, where Halimo finds herself too timid to converse beyond the small Muslim community she is a part of. Young Asmaa translates her mother’s responses to a reporter’s questions in her own words.

“My mom says sometimes she feels people are better than her because they can talk together,” she said.

Asmaa is comfortable communicating due to her inclusive public schooling and speaks in short and well thought out sentences. She is now attending middle school, and has a group of friends who teach her customs that did not exist in Somalia or Egypt. Her middle school offers a variety of extracurricular activities that she takes part in, her favorite being basketball.

“I guess I’m pretty good. I don’t know,” she said with a bashful grin as she gazed down at her feet.

She said her elementary school in Egypt offered no games for the children to play. “It was not as good, the schools. The schools here are better.” Asmaa added that she and her sisters feel welcome in Utah, despite their cultural differences.

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Children play on a fence in the complex where Halimo Ismail and her daughters live.

The same is not true for her mother, however, who mostly interacts with those who speak in her native tongue. There is a small Muslim population in Salt Lake City, and they support one another like family. It is a tight-knit community and holidays are often spent together. During the last day of Ramadhan, on the holiday known as “Eid al-Fitr,” all of the men get dressed up and the community gathers for dinner. Halimo misses her husband and sons deeply, but still enjoys the sense of unity that surrounds her during religious gatherings.

Gerald Brown, the state refugee coordinator and assistant director of the Refugee Services Office, says it is important for those within the mainstream to become friends with refugees like Halimo, who struggle with seclusion after a long journey through the refugee resettlement process. “I know people who have been here for 12 years and don’t have any American friends,” Brown says.

Volunteers can have a positive impact on the lives of refugees. The Refugee Services Office offers a Refugee Family Mentor Program that helps “guide refugee families in areas such as education, health care, [and] accessing local services and resources.” Brown understands the impact of this program from firsthand experience.

“And even if the refugees can’t speak any English, just having somebody across the table who smiles at them from the mainstream is real important,” Brown says.

His wish for Salt Lake City is for more people to become involved in the lives of refugees through volunteer programs. “To get integration, though, you’ve got to have mainstream [people] getting to know [and] befriending, refugees. Which is why our volunteer program is probably the most important thing that we do,” Brown says.

Nine volunteer agencies operate throughout the country, each of which have affiliates across the US. One organization is the Catholic Community Services. Adan Batar, the director of immigration and refugee resettlement for CCS, says women who are at risk are a priority for Utah.

“Every year, I fill what we call a capacity survey, so I tell them what type of cases I can take — what language, what religion, the mix of the cases,” he said. Utah seeks to take in single mothers with children who are escaping violence, like Halimo and her daughters.

As for Halimo, however, her heart is set on reconnecting with her husband and two sons. She is less interested in becoming an integrated part of Utah culture, and more determined to reunite her family. After five years of uncertainty, she received news upon her arrival in Utah that her husband and sons are alive and currently living in Belgium.

When asked if she believes if her family will be whole again, Halimo Ismail responds in Arabic.

“Insh’Allah.” God willing.

 

 

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Source Citations:

 

“Get Involved.” Get Involved | Salt Lake City – The Official City Government Website, http://www.slcgov.com/get-involved.

 

“Home.” Catholic Community Services of Utah, http://www.ccsutah.org/.

 

Saber, Latifa. “6 Words Everyone Should Know: Muslim Slang 101.” Mvslim, 24 Apr. 2017, mvslim.com/6-words-everyone-should-know-muslim-slang-101/.

 

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