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Their lives were torn apart by war in Africa. A family hopes a new US program will help them reunite

By JAMIE STENGLE, Associated Press
Published: December 26, 2023, 1:35pm
3 Photos
Jacob Mabil, right, speaks while showing a cell phone photo of hie nieces Nyanluak Deng, left, and Anyier Deng during an interview at his home Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in Haslet, Texas. Looking on are the girl&rsquo;s grandmother Adeng Ajang and Mabil&rsquo;s wife Akuot Leek.
Jacob Mabil, right, speaks while showing a cell phone photo of hie nieces Nyanluak Deng, left, and Anyier Deng during an interview at his home Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, in Haslet, Texas. Looking on are the girl’s grandmother Adeng Ajang and Mabil’s wife Akuot Leek. (AP Photo/LM Otero) Photo Gallery

HASLET, Texas (AP) — Worried about his mother’s health, Jacob Mabil tried for months to persuade her to let him start the process that would take her from a sprawling refugee camp where she had spent almost a decade after fleeing violence in South Sudan.

He wanted her to come live with him and his young family in the U.S. But before she would agree, she asked for a promise: that he would one day also bring the granddaughters she had raised since they were babies.

Mabil, now 44, said he would do everything he could. But it turned out that he was allowed to petition only for immediate family members. Though his mom joined him in suburban Fort Worth, Texas, in 2020, his nieces remained in Africa.

“That always killed me,” said Mabil, whose own childhood was ripped apart by civil war in Sudan.

As the U.S. government transforms the way refugees are being resettled, Mabil and his family now have hope that they will be reunited with two of his nieces, who soon turn 18 and 19. The Biden administration opened the application process this month that lets Americans who have formed groups to privately sponsor refugees request the specific person they want to bring to the U.S.

When he was just 8, Mabil was forced to run for his life as soldiers came into his village in what is now South Sudan, setting it on fire as they killed people. He became part of the group of children known as the “lost boys,” who spent years on their own and walked hundreds of miles to flee violence.

Mabil, who didn’t even know his mother was alive until shortly after he arrived in the U.S. in his early 20s, said he wants his sister’s daughters to have the same opportunities that he has had.

Traditionally, resettlement agencies have placed refugees in communities, but the push to add private sponsorship as well has come as President Joe Biden works to restore a program that was decimated under former President Donald Trump. The launch at the start of 2023 of the State Department’s Welcome Corps program, which allows everyday Americans the chance to form their own groups to privately sponsor refugees, came after a similar endeavor that let U.S. citizens sponsor Afghans or Ukrainians.

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“In many ways it is, I think, one of the most important things that the U.S. resettlement program has ever done,” said Sasha Chanoff, founder and CEO of RefugePoint, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps refugees. “It will allow families who are in desperate need to reunite to do so.”

With the U.S. hoping to bring in 125,000 refugees this fiscal year, the use of private sponsors expands the capacity of the existing system, said Welcome Corps spokeswoman Monna Kashfi said. She added that the opportunity to apply to sponsor a specific refugee has been greatly anticipated.

“We have heard all throughout the year from people who wanted to know … when they could submit an application to sponsor someone that they know,” she said.

Mabil, his wife and his mother have already joined two family friends to form their own sponsor group to start the process to bring over his two nieces, who were placed in a boarding school when their grandmother left Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya for the U.S. One is set to graduate soon and the other has returned to the camp after graduating.

Chanoff said that unaccompanied girls are often “in extraordinary danger” at the camp and regularly kidnapped and sold into marriage.

Mabil’s wife, Akuot Leek, 33, is also from South Sudan and spent her childhood traveling from place to place with her family to try to escape violence. She wants the young women to have the same freedom that she had to choose what to do with their lives.

Leek and Mabil began dating after meeting at a wedding in the U.S. and both are college graduates who now work in finance.

Mabil was one of about 20,000 youths who joined an odyssey that took them first to Ethiopia, where they spent about three years before a war there forced them to flee again. The survivors eventually made it to Kakuma, where Mabil spent almost a decade before coming to the U.S.

“They had survived bullets and bombs and wild animal attacks and things that you and I can’t imagine to get to Kakuma camp,” said Chanoff, who met Mabil at the camp.

Leek and Mabil say that once his nieces are settled in Texas, they may work to bring over other family members.

Mabil’s mother, Adeng Ajang, said living with her son and daughter-in-law and four grandchildren in their comfortable home has made her very happy. Now, the only stress she has in her life is worrying about her granddaughters.

“It was difficult to leave them,” said Ajang as her daughter-in-law translated from the Dinka language. “It was hard.”

Ajang said talks to her granddaughters on the phone often. “Sometimes we talk and then we will start to cry,” she said.

For Mabil, he’s excited and nervous to start the process. “This is my last chance,” he said.