The Muslim mother of eight children, all refugees from Somalia, felt afraid and apprehensive when the last leg of their flight from Nairobi, Kenya, delivered them at midweek to Kansas City International Airport.
But then 36-year-old Sahra Hassan Absuge saw the welcoming crowd that had gathered at Terminal C to greet them with signs and gifts for her four daughters and four sons.
As she stepped outside the terminal, a different sensation washed over her as she felt the bite of a freezing winter night in Kansas City:
The fresh air, she said Friday, speaking in her native Somali through an interpreter, signaled “a change of life.”
“This,” the interpreter said in a loose translation, was “a feeling of happiness.”
Less than two days after their arrival Wednesday evening, the life and future challenges of Absuge and her children have come into clearer focus.
The arrival of the Somali family caught the public’s attention earlier this week as the first refugees placed in Kansas City since President Donald Trump, on Jan. 27, signed an executive order temporarily suspending refugee resettlement.
The president’s order, which sparked protests in cities and at major airports worldwide, had placed a temporary ban on all refugee resettlement for 120 days; a ban of indefinite length on refugees from Syria; and a 90-day ban on all citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Trump said the steps were necessary for U.S. security.
Refugees last week again began entering the United States as the ban was challenged in court and temporarily halted by a federal judge. On Thursday, a three-judge panel on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled against the president’s ban, keeping the U.S. open to refugees while possibly setting the stage for a challenge by the Trump administration before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Absuge and her family arrived in Kansas City.
Their home is now a four-bedroom house in Kansas City’s historic Northeast area, with the rental arranged for them by Della Lamb Community Services, one of the region’s three refugee resettlement agencies.
Originally reported to have come from a Kenyan refugee camp, Absuge said the family actually had lived for six years as “urban refugees” inside the city of Nairobi, surviving with little food and few opportunities to work.
“It was hard,” Absuge said through the interpreter. She sat on the couch with her children, her head covered by a black hijab. Her hands were decorated with scrolls of black henna.
“It was a place,” she said, “where you don’t get anything. You could not even work. We were living in dungeons there because once we get out, there were very brutal police who were giving us hard time. So we always lived and just … prayers.”
The children have their father’s last name, Ali. There are the boys, Abdirahman, 18; Mohamed, 17, who speaks some English; Yahya, 14; and Anas, 3. The older boys each have some formal schooling.
The girls who sat in the living room were educated only at home. Amal, 15, wore a mustard-colored hijab; Zamzam, 11, orange; Ramla, 7, pink; and 5-year-old Najma, yellow.
When they fled Somalia in 2011, it was because of what Absuge described as “the fighting and killing.”
When Amal, now 15, was 8 months old, a missile exploded so close by that the infant sustained a head injury that robbed her of her hearing. “They have never seen a good doctor” about the injury, the interpreter said. Since infancy, Amal has been deaf and cannot or does not talk.
“She can understand things,” the interpreter said, explaining that Amal judges what is happening in the room by the gestures around her, “but cannot say anything back.”
In 2014, Absuge said, her husband left Nairobi and headed to the Sudan to find work. She has not heard from him since, and she does not know if he is alive or dead.
The interpreter, Abdul Bakar, who is Della Lamb’s director of refugee resettlement, said that the next 90 days will be intense for the family. After that period, the federal government requires the family to be self-sufficient.
As part of arrival, each refugee gets $925 to see them through the next 90 days. For Absuge and her children, that amounts to $8,325, which they will use for their $750-a-month rent plus their food, clothes, transportation and utility bills.
The children will need to be enrolled in school. Absuge, and perhaps the older children, will need to get jobs.
Earlier Friday, the family’s Della Lamb case worker, Karen Wright, brought the family to the organization’s Adult Learning Center, 3608 St. John Ave., where the children picked out free, donated articles of clothing, which they folded and pressed into white plastic bags.
“This is the most exciting part for them,” Bakar said. “They get something they’ve never had before.”
He watched the family gather shirts, trousers and hats. The two youngest girls found action figure dolls of Xena the Warrior Princess and her sidekick, Gabrielle.
Earlier, Bakar and Wright had sat with the family to teach them how to call for the police or the fire department in an emergency. Later, before taking the family to a mosque to pray, Wright was to get them a cellphone. Della Lamb also runs a food bank for refugees.
Over the next 90 days, the family will take English as a Second Language classes and receive instruction at Della Lamb regarding U.S. laws and cultures, as well as basic life skills like how to take the bus.
As hard as it all might seem, the family members said they are joyous.
“It was a happiness that was like nothing else, a feeling that cannot be explained,” 18-year-old Abdirahman said through the interpreter.
Their wants are easily explained.
“For my children to learn,” Absuge said, “and have a life and be successful.”
Pressed about what success means to her, she replied, “Success to me is these kids to learn, have peace and be able to become (a part) of their new nation.”
Each child, too, was asked what it is they want, if anything, out of the United States.
“More education,” Mohamed said in English, “and to be successful in life.”
Said his older brother through the interpreter, “I want to go to school.”
The girls, in turn, said much the same in their native tongue: “I want to learn.” “Work and education.” Even the 3-year-old boy, Anas, said, “School,” but added with a smile, “To drive!”
Fidgeting around the living room, his mother had warned him to behave or else he would go back to Kenya.
“I don’t want to back to Kenya,” Anas said.
Neither does Absuge.
“First of all,” she said in Somali, “I have to thank God, because our prayers have been accepted. We never knew we would be here.”