Like Darfur of old: Refugee finds peaks, peace

Ibrahim Bakhat, a refugee from Darfur, Sudan, has made his home in Greeley. He attends an adult education class to learn English. Enlarge photo

Jim Rydbom/Greeley Tribune

Ibrahim Bakhat, a refugee from Darfur, Sudan, has made his home in Greeley. He attends an adult education class to learn English.

GREELEY (AP) Ė Even with its views of the Rocky Mountains, one of many things that makes Greeley a special place, the city of 91,000 on the Front Range north of Denver probably wouldnít remind anyone of Sudan.

The African country has its own views of the mountains, so when Ibrahim Ali Bakhat is asked by a proud Colorado resident if heís gotten a chance to see the mountains, as if he was some dude from Nebraska, heís confused by the question.

Part of that could be the language barrier. Even with a capable translator at Right to Read of Weld County, itís hard to carry a long conversation with someone who speaks English. But itís also the question, itself. Sure, heís seen the mountains. The Marra mountains, in fact, were as close to his former life as Longs Peak is to us.

That view, of course, may be the only similarity. But even if Greeley is drastically different from Sudan, there are other ways Ibrahim fits in here. His grandparents were farmers, and his parents were farmers, and so, he was a farmer, with the same kind of animals you might see here, goats and sheep and dairy cows, and camels, which arenít quite as common in Greeley. He sold his produce and milk and the occasional meat at markets.

It was a peaceful life, with his five children and wife, Haja, and itís the memories of that life that make it that much more painful to think about what happened later.

You get a peek into his former life, in the Darfur region of Sudan, when you ask him why he likes Greeley. He likes it here, he said, because you can walk the streets safely, without the police beating you up.

In 2003, civil war broke out. Itís the kind of conflict that seems all too common in these African countries, at least to us, as we live in a country where we fret about politicians attacking each other with television ads. But the conflict was a shock to Ibrahim, an earthquake that shook apart his happy, normal farm life and left two of his children dead at the hands of the various militias. Nearly a decade later, Ibrahim canít talk about their deaths without crying.

He escaped with a little clothing, a little money, away from his wife and children. He sold his camels for a car and drove across the border to Chad, where he found a refugee camp packed full of people. He moved on to Ghana and spent five years as a refugee. Five years is, of course, a long time with an uncertain future, away from his family, but he said he was lucky. Most, he said, spend 20 years there.

Ibrahim is lucky in other ways. Most Darfur refugees donít make it to the U.S., and thatís because African countries are reluctant to let them out for fears of more coming in, said Rochelle Mitchell-Miller, executive director of Right to Read in Weld County. Ibrahim was allowed to come to Greeley because he has direct family here.

Even if there arenít many like Ibrahim in Greeley, people with stories similar to his are here now, and Right To Read, as a result, has an additional mission. A year ago it received a contract with the state to act as a Colorado Refugee Service Provider. Right to Read handles the education, and Lutheran Family Services of the Rocky Mountain Services takes care of the life skills with a case worker, though Right to Read does a little bit of that too, just not officially.

Back in the 1970s, Right To Read was formed to help illiterate Americans with limited educations, but as more Latinos moved into the country, Right To Read helped them as well, and now the growing population of refugees in Greeley demands a good chunk of that organizationís time. The state, in fact, awarded Right To Read of Weld County a contract after the organization worked as a refugee center for two years before. Ibrahim is learning English and hopes to work at JBS like many of the Somalis who found work at the meatpacking plant here.

When Ibrahim wound up in Greeley more than two years ago, he spent whatever money he could scrape together using phone cards to find his wife and children. Two months ago, he was reunited with them in Greeley.

ďI couldnít believe I was seeing them again,Ē he said through a translator. ďIt was like a dream.Ē

Haja now lives with Ibrahim, along with their two daughters, 17 and 19. The youngest will attend Greeley West High School this fall.

Ibrahim and Haja have a son who still is in a refugee camp in Khartoum. He talks to his son once a week.

When Mitchell-Miller asks some of her other students if they would like to stay in Greeley, they usually admit they would like to move back home, or much closer, for example to Ethiopia. But Ibrahim wants to stay here.

Sure, Greeley is different, and Ibrahim said sometimes that makes it hard. And he has a dream that may be unattainable here: He wants another farm, where he can live with his family and raise a little money and food.

But heís 52, and there wouldnít be much point to settling somewhere else, he said. Besides, part of his dream already is a reality. Itís peaceful here. He has his loved ones back. And when he considers that, somehow, Greeley, with its roots in agriculture and family and views of the mountains, feels like home.