A Darwin mother, who is appealing to the Immigration Department to help reunite her family, has visited her son in a Kenyan refugee camp after 23 years apart.
“I can’t believe it,” Fatuma Ahmed Ali said.
“I’m still saying to myself: ‘Are you dreaming or is this true?'”
Ms Ali and her husband, Adbi Youself Elmi, were raising four children in the Somali port city Kismayo when civil war broke out in 1991.
The family fled as artillery shells and rebels attacked their neighbourhood, losing contact with their two sons during the insanity of conflict.
Ms Ali said the shock of losing contact with Saacid and Abshir, both under 10 years old at the time, consumed her mind and body.
“You are dreaming when you are asleep. You are 24 hours thinking, ‘where are your children?’
“Are they alive or are they dead?”
PHOTO: The family’s hometown, Kismayo, is still the site of conflict more than 20 years after the outbreak of the Somali civil war. (AFP: AU-UN photo/Stuart Price)
The family spent the next 13 years in a refugee camp before being granted entry to Australia in 2004.
Once she arrived in Australia, Ms Ali was finally able to start looking for her missing children with help from two Red Cross tracing workers.
In 2004, the family was reunited with one of the sons, Abshir, in their adopted home of Darwin.
Three years later, they learned that their other missing son, Saacid, was also still alive and living by himself in a refugee camp in Kenya.
The family then applied for a visa to bring Saacid to Australia for a family reunion, but applications have been unsuccessful.
Last year, the family publicly pleaded with then immigration minister Scott Morrison to approve a visa before Saacid’s father died from cancer.
But Mr Elmi died in November, before being reunited with his son.
PHOTO: Ms Ali with her husband, Abdi Yousef Elmi, before his death in late 2014. The couple were married for more than 40 years. (105.7 ABC Darwin: Emilia Terzon)
After Mr Elmi’s death, an online crowdfunding campaign was launched to raise money to send Ms Ali and her son Abshir to Kenya for a reunion with Saacid.
The campaign raised $15,000 in 24 hours, with an overall sum of $20,000 pledged.
“I was not expecting that,” Ms Ali said.
“After [my husband] passed away, I think you will have to work hard and save money [for] many years [to travel to Kenya].”
Ms Ali said she was so excited about the Kenyan reunion, that she packed her bags three weeks before her plane was due to leave Darwin in January.
“I was counting the hours, I was counting the days. Quickly, I’m hurrying to see my son,” she said.
A family reunion outside a bus stop
After days of travelling by plane, bus and taxi, Ms Ali arrived on outskirts of the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, in the north-east of Kenya.
Saacid was waiting for his mother at a crowded bus stop near the camp’s entrance.
“He run to me when he saw [me] and then we hug each other. Me and my son cry, cry, cry, and all the people watched us,” Ms Ali said.
“They said: ‘This boy Saacid, he was alone but now his mum arrived today’.”
PHOTO: The moment when Darwin mother Fatuma Ahmed Ali was reunited with her son Saacid Yousef Elmi after 23 years apart. (Supplied: Fatuma Ahmed Ali)
Ms Ali said tears poured from her eyes “like water” for three days after being reunited with Saacid.
She said the constant crying was due to a mixture of ecstatic happiness, grief for the years lost, and fear about being separated once again.
So the reunited mother and son did everything together for three weeks.
“We are sleeping in one room … We are praying together, we are eating together.
“Even the food, we are eating together in one plate.”
As the trip came to an end, Ms Ali said she contemplated living out her life in the camp, as saying goodbye was too painful.
“My heart was no good when I said goodbye to my son.”
PHOTO: Darwin mother Fatuma Ahmed Ali reunited with her son Saacid Youself Elmi in Kenya’s Daadab refugee camp. (Supplied: Fatuma Ahmed Ali)
Ms Ali is now back home in Darwin, where she lives with her children and grandchildren, and runs a small daycare centre in her suburban backyard.
Saacid is now in his early 30s, lives in a wooden hut inside Dadaab camp, and is not able to work in Kenya due to his refugee status.
“He [is] living alone. He has been [doing] nothing, because he is just surviving.
“We can’t bring him home, because we have no visa.”
‘So much goodwill and support’
Joan Washington and Jane Black, the two Red Cross tracing workers who helped find Abshir and Saacid, are now close friends with the Ali family.
They organised the family’s fundraising campaign and have now assigned a lawyer to Saacid’s visa case.
They said it has sometimes been “devastating” to watch the family wait for a reunion, especially when Mr Elmi was in his last weeks of life in a Darwin hospice.
“We went over to his bedside and he held my hands, and he said ‘please, please, help my family’,” Ms Black said.
“And that’s when we thought about the crowdfunding campaign.”
PHOTO: Joan Washington and Jane Black have helped reunite many refugee families separated during war.
Ms Black said the response from the Australian public to the family’s fundraising campaign was “phenomenal”.
“It was quite a proud moment, thinking that people do care out there,” she said.
“We hear on the radio all the time that there’s no support for refugees or asylum seekers, but there was so much goodwill and support.”
The group hopes the Australian Government will now grant a last remaining relative visa or sponsored humanitarian visa to Saacid in 2015.
“There’s still no guarantees with it, but you’ve got to try,” Ms Washington said.
Ms Ali said the support of her family, Ms Black and Ms Washington, and the Australian public had kept her strong during the past 23 years.
“I’m very happy for that, and I will never forget that in my whole life.”