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Waiting for a family reunion

Before she dies, Matiop Alith's Sudanese mother wants to see her son, the one she hasn't seen for 21 years. Last fall that goal seemed possible. After years of only hearing each other's voices on the phone, Alith, 41, and his mother, ...

Before she dies, Matiop Alith's Sudanese mother wants to see her son, the one she hasn't seen for 21 years.

Last fall that goal seemed possible. After years of only hearing each other's voices on the phone, Alith, 41, and his mother, nearly 70, were going to be reunited in Fargo, Alith's adopted home.

Then Sept. 11 struck.

After the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., the flow of refugees was temporarily shut down while extra security measures were put in place to make refugee resettlement programs safer.

Alith's mother, two sisters and a brother were left stranded in Uganda holding plane tickets dated Sept. 17.

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They weren't the only ones.

Traditionally, more than 100,000 refugees enter the country each year. So far, 11,000 refugees have arrived since President Bush reopened the doors in late November, according to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

At that time, Bush committed to allowing 70,000 refugees to enter this year. But tightened security has slowed the process, according to resettlement agency officials.

Advocates for refugees want to see Bush's promise kept. Agencies like the Center for New Americans in Fargo are petitioning the federal government to carry out the pledge.

"There are victims of persecution who need protection," said Kathy Thoreson, director of the refugee resettlement program at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. "We need to speak up for those who can't speak for themselves."

The center mailed 2,000 letters to local supporters, asking them to flood the president and legislators with the message that more refugees need to be brought to the United States as quickly as possible.

"It would send a clear message that the United States stands for freedom, justice and opportunity," Thoreson said.

In addition to moral reasons for bringing in more refugees, resettlement agencies have more practical motives for ensuring the numbers.

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Agencies like the Center for New Americans rely heavily on state and federal dollars to help newly arrived refugees resettle. Most of those funding levels are based in part on the number of refugees served. A sudden drop-off in arrivals has left many agencies across the nation short on resources.

Last October about 375 new refugees were expected to arrive in North Dakota. Twenty-one have arrived so far, including two who flew in yesterday to be reunited with family in Grand Forks. Last year at this time, 258 refugees had arrived in the state.

No matter how the numbers are crunched, it doesn't change the situation for Alith's family.

Alith and his mother were separated more than two decades by war in Sudan.

He spent years in an Egyptian refugee camp until he, his wife and son were resettled in Fargo four years ago. It took a year to find his mother in a north Kenyan refugee camp.

She's never met his wife. He's never met the younger siblings who will accompany her to the United States.

"They just hear my voice," he said.

Two years ago he heard his family had been approved for resettlement in the United States. Last fall he was told they'd arrive Sept. 17.

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Every month he sends money to his family so they can eat and rent an apartment in Uganda's capital city, Kampala. They don't understand why they can't come to the United States -- they blame Alith.

"They see it as me not being able to let them come," he said. "They ask me always, when?"

Alith's son graduates from Fargo South High School in June. More than anything, Alith had wanted his mother to be here for this important event.

Now he doesn't know when she'll arrive.

When she does, Alith doesn't know if his own mother will recognize him. He was thinner, younger when she saw him last.

"In my culture there's a saying that when you want to know someone, you know them by their teeth," Alith said. "Maybe she'll recognize me that way."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534

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