The waiting is the hardest part

A Sudanese refugee's quest to reunite his family has dragged on for years

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click to enlarge SURVIVOR: Mogtaba Maki, a Sudanese refugee, is waiting for his mother and two siblings to join the rest of his family in Tampa. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
SURVIVOR: Mogtaba Maki, a Sudanese refugee, is waiting for his mother and two siblings to join the rest of his family in Tampa.

Mogtaba Mokhtar Maki must be the most patient young man in Tampa.

He's waited for his country's civil war to end. He's lingered in a refugee camp for years, waiting for his chance at freedom. And for the last eight years — almost a third of his life — the Sudanese refugee has waited for the moment his whole family would be reunited.

But on a recent Sunday, Maki, 25, sits relaxed on a black leather chair in an East Tampa apartment, talking calmly about his tumultuous past and hectic future. Quick with a smile, he shares his thoughts on his new life in America and the sometimes 18-hour days filled with work and school. And he gives no indication of the pressure affecting him, until asked.

"The stress is crazy," he admits and forces another smile.

Maki's story begins eight years ago in Khartoum, Sudan's capital city of over a million residents, nestled at the point where the Blue Nile and White Nile rivers meet. He was attending Omdurman Islamic University, studying to be a dentist, when the government conscripted him to fight in the country's bloody 21-year civil war. The military gave him two weeks to report for duty.

"I did not want to fight," says Maki, who was 16 at the time. "I had a lot of friends who go for a week and you don't hear anything from them. They are dead."

Maki already had some experience with the corrupt government. His father, who had worked in the previous government, had been arrested and tortured by the new regime and fled in exile to Ethiopia a few years earlier. So when he returned home that day, Maki loaded up a backpack with food and clothes, and left in the middle of the night.

For the next two days, he traveled 1,000 miles, walking, sneaking onto trains, hiding from officials and eventually stowing away on a ferry until he reached Sudan's border with Egypt. It took him three more days to reach Cairo, where he heard that a camp outside the city accepted Sudanese refugees.

But the camp was little relief. Refugees lived in squalid conditions and slept in close quarters on the dusty ground. Those stricken with diseases like malaria received little or no medical attention. Maki could not work or attend school.

"You go there and you just wait," he says of the refugee camp. "Either you get out of that refugee camp or you stay there forever. It was hopeless."

For two years, Maki waited, until finally Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services sponsored his journey to the U.S. He had still not heard from his family when he arrived in Tampa on Jan. 31, 2001.

"I heard of Florida," Maki says. "I never heard of Tampa."

Maki says his new life in Tampa was daunting. Although he spoke three other languages — Swahili, Arabic and a traditional Nubian dialect — he didn't know any English. At first, intimidated by the bus system, he would walk several miles to campus and work. During the day, he worked full-time in a warehouse; at night, he attended English classes. He tried to call home to Sudan, but his mother and five siblings had fled their home in Khartoum.

Maki tried to keep up hope.

After several months, Maki received his GED and started attending classes at Hillsborough Community College. A neighbor taught him how to drive. After graduating with his associates degree, he transferred to the University of South Florida-Tampa, majoring in biomedical science. He still had visions of becoming a dentist.

"I wanted to study," he says. "I wanted to learn."

In the meantime, Maki's mother and five siblings had escaped Sudan to the Cairo refugee camp. His father joined them soon after. In 2003, Maki received a call from one of his friends at the Cairo refugee camp.

"He said, 'I saw your mother today,'" Maki recalls.

Maki immediately filed the paperwork needed to bring his family to the United States. He began sending money so his family could leave the camp and rent a house.

Two years passed with no word on his family's status. Then, in February 2005, Maki received a call informing him that his father and three of his sisters would arrive in a few weeks. He quickly moved out of his small one-bedroom apartment to a larger two-bedroom and scrambled to prepare for his family's new life in the U.S. On March 9, at the exact moment Maki saw his father and three sisters step out of the plane, he fainted.

"It was a very exciting day," he says.

But his mother and two siblings remained in Cairo.

There's not a clear reason why Maki's mother and two teenage siblings have not yet arrived in the United States.

Maki says he applied to sponsor his whole family when he filed his first family reunification paperwork four years ago. But when it came time for his family to leave Cairo, he says, the International Organization for Migration split up the case because the family was too large.

A U.S. State Department official says that is not a likely scenario, citing cases where families of 20 have been allowed to migrate.

(Due to privacy concerns, the State Department could not give details on Maki's case, but said the average family reunification case takes 18 months.)

Maki applied a second time six months after his father arrived, but still hasn't heard anything from any of the agencies involved.

"Every time that I call, nothing is guaranteed," he says, and officials tell him it could take up to six years before she arrives.

Lourdes Mesias, supervisor of Lutheran Services Florida resettlement program, says this is a common refrain from the refugees she works with.

"It's a long, long process," Mesias says from her office on Waters Avenue. "It's not only him, it's every case from Africa."

The refugee process has always been fraught with delays, advocates say, but after Sept. 11 the number of refugees coming into the country declined sharply from an average of 80,000 to less than 30,000 per year. Although the number of admitted refugees has climbed steadily in recent years — last year, 41,377 refugees made the United States their new home —Mesias says it is still way below the need.

Cassandra Champion, spokeswoman for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service's national office, gives a bleaker picture: A lack of employees, backlogs and restrictive provisions in the Patriot Act are preventing thousands of refugees from making it to the United States.

"There are people still from Vietnam waiting to reunite with their families — and that was the 1970s," she says.

Maki introduces his father, Maki Mokhtar, and two of his sisters, Nagla, 21, and Nosiba, 18. This Sunday is one of the few days the busy family can spend together. Maki admits their two-bedroom apartment is a little cramped with five people ("I've lived on the couch for two years," he says), but they are waiting for the rest of the family to arrive before buying a house.

Nagla and Nosiba are adjusting well, but Maki worries about his 58-year-old father. He's been hospitalized a few times from complications stemming from diabetes. He's almost blind and can't work. Maki says his mother is needed to take care of him.

In the meantime, Maki (now a naturalized citizen) works full-time and is finishing his fourth year in college. Any free time is spent reading with the occasional game of soccer, and he remains active in the USF African Student Association to promote education on issues that affect his homeland.

"There is definitely a lot of people [in Sudan] still struggling," he says. "They are looking for help and looking for peace, but somebody has to do something about it."

Maki breaks from the seriousness to share stories about his trip to New York City and Washington, D.C. His sisters laugh about their recent day at Busch Gardens. Will the whole family go to Disney World once they are reunited?

"Maybe," Maki says.

But for now, he'll continue to wait.

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