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World Relief DuPage-Aurora helps reunite family after 10 years apart

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Updated: July 7, 2013 12:53PM

As time dragged on, Berhe Fisuh only slightly altered his position in O’Hare Airport’s International Terminal Wednesday afternoon.

Should he hold the red carnations steadily in front of his chest, or at his hip, or behind his back for a surprise?

Berhe, a refugee from Eritrea in East Africa, had been waiting for 10 years for this moment — the moment he would see the faces of his wife and four children again.

But two hours into his wait Wednesday at the airport, it appeared Berhe’s wait would be longer still.

“They aren’t on the plane?!” Catherine Norquist, director of immigrant services at World Relief, asked a case worker on the other line.

Berhe couldn’t understand what Norquist was saying, but it didn’t look good.

Through translator Tewolde Tesfaye, she told him the news.

His face dropped.

Ten long years

Berhe first left war-torn Eritrea for an Ethiopian refugee camp 10 years ago. Amid the chaos, the family was separated, and he hasn’t seen his wife and children since.

Three years ago, with the help of World Relief DuPage-Aurora, a faith-based non-profit devoted to serving immigrants and refugees, he emigrated to the United States.

As Berhe came to the United States in 2010, his family landed at the same time in a different Ethiopian refugee camp. The family narrowly missed living in the same country again.

Of his eight children, only four made the journey to America. The couple’s oldest child fled to Israel and three others have died, one during that journey to Israel, two others from illness.

Since landing in the U.S. in 2010, Berhe has tried to bring his family to America. He filed a Refugee Reunification Application in February 2011. That would be the first of two immigration applications that were denied by the office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. There were many barriers, Norquist said, including a significant lack of documentation, a language barrier and more.

“Proof of birth or marriage can be difficult to obtain or hold onto while fleeing a country,” said Jennifer Stocks, spokeswoman for World Relief DuPage-Aurora.

And in the post 9/11 era, the United States government examines immigration cases through its own lens, Norquist said, requiring documents that may not exist in other countries, and that aren’t a top priority for those fleeing for their lives.

Berhe knows he was born in 1952 but does not know his exact birth date. He has been married to his wife Haimanot Fisuh for more than 30 years.

With the help of World Relief lawyers, the family underwent multiple interviews and DNA testing to prove the family living in Ethiopia was Berhe’s. World Relief staff filed affidavits on behalf of the family and resubmitted the application.

The big day

Berhe was warned he may be waiting four hours or more at O’Hare’s International Terminal Wednesday, but he never took his eyes off of the gate for long.

In the end, the frantic phone call was a false alarm, caused by a mistake in the International Organization for Migration’s records.

“Now they are coming, they are coming,” Norquist said through the cell phone, pointing toward Berhe. This time, no translation was needed.

In the end, it wasn’t the face that was most familiar — wife Haimanot — that Berhe recognized coming out of the gate. It was his youngest son, 11-year-old Samuel, a baby when Berhe fled, that he saw first.

Samuel was followed by older brother Okbit, 13, and two older sisters, Fithawit, 17, and Hiwet, 20, and their mother Haimanot. The two hadn’t spoken since early May. Berhe learned just Friday that his family would finally arrive this week.

Berhe hugged his wife and children, who were visibly exhausted from their two-day journey to the U.S.. He helped World Relief employees pack his families belongings — two luggage carts of suitcases and duffle bags, remnants from their Ethiopian tent city life — into a World Relief conversion van. Berhe moved out of an apartment he shared with a roommate and into a three-bedroom apartment in Wheaton ahead of his family’s arrival.

Norquist said the separation from his family, and the trials to reunite that ensued, have been emotionally traumatic for Berhe. When he landed in the U.S., he underwent counseling for depression caused by isolation, she said.

And bringing a family here he hasn’t seen for 10 years brings a lot of unknowns. He is unsure that his income at the Aurora Packing Company in North Aurora will be sufficient income to support his family in the United States.

He is unsure how much English his children understand. His wife does not speak English.

He is unsure who will cook dinner tonight.

But he knows his family’s reunion was destined, he said.

“I can’t do anything. If something good happens, I believe it’s up to God,” he said.

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