Mother of a Refugee: Dino's Story
“Refugees didn’t just escape a place. They had to escape a thousand memories until they’d put enough time and distance between them and their misery to wake to a better day.” - Nadia Hashimi
“Hello Madam,” was all it said.
Facebook Messenger. February 11th, 2018.
I didn’t answer.
A few days passed and I received the same message.
“Hello,” I responded.
Nearly every single day since then, I’ve talked, through Facebook messenger, with Dino, a twenty-five-year-old Gambellen refugee who has been unable to visit his homeland of Ethiopia since he was about seven years old. He’s been away from his mother since he was very young and was permanently settled in a refugee camp in Nakivale, Uganda at the age of seventeen.
December 13, 2003, marks the brutal massacre of 424 Indigenous Anuak in Gambella, Ethiopia by Ethiopian national forces and armed militia. The Anuak people have long been persecuted in Western Ethiopia and have been forcibly evicted from their homelands. Within a decade of the massacre, more than 50,000 Anuak people had been forced out of the country. This event forms the foundation of Dino’s status as a refugee.
Jump ahead to the first week of December 2018, and I’ll tell you how we came to know each other, despite the 8700+ miles between Colorado Springs and Nakivale.
It was a Saturday morning, and, like most years, I was volunteering at set-up for The Christmas Tree Project. David Fein, one of the “Head Elves” and a dear friend of many years, began telling me about sending a tree to Uganda for a young man who wanted two children in a refugee camp to have Christmas. David explained about the December 13th massacre and shared that the camp wanted to have a community meal to honor those who died. They needed $600. For that, they could feed the entire village.
“Do you think you could help?” David asked?
Easy-peasy. The way to raise money is to ask people for help. I was there with a large crew from Unity Spiritual Center in the Rockies where I was the lead minister. We were working alongside an equally large crew of volunteers from Colorado Springs’ Center for Spiritual Living. David helped me find a basket and we placed it in a central location in the warehouse where we were working. I went from room to room telling folks what we were doing, and, in no time, the basket was overflowing with checks and cash. We did a little more fundraising at the spiritual centers on Sunday and created our own little Christmas miracle for the refugees.
An organization called One Light Global helped us get the funds into the right hands and I began to receive thank-you notes and pictures of the feast from people in the camp. It was heart-warming to be able to make the difficult holiday season a little easier for people who had faced so much.
That first interaction led to a deeper and deeper relationship with the Gambellen refugee camp. Both spiritual communities worked together to collect money for soap and washing powder for the women – very important for health in a world where malaria and typhoid are daily concerns. We raised funds for the local school. They needed school supplies, and the building had been washed out by heavy rains and needed repair.
And then a request came for soccer uniforms. Our spiritual community talked a lot about how important play can be during challenging times – and what could be more challenging than being a refugee?! We funded soccer balls, shoes and everything needed for the game. Soccer provided the doorway through which I met Dino. He’s a soccer player and an avid fan of the sport. He took the initiative to reach out to me to say thanks.
It started with two words. After that, for nearly four years, we’ve talked almost every day. We’ve talked about life in the refugee camp, about school, about soccer, about his mom, and about his future. He writes to me when he’s sad, like when his uncle died, and he shares with me what makes him happy, like getting a Christmas tree for two kids in his camp. Yep – that was him. We worked together when the camp had a need. I raised funds and sent the money to him. He, and elders in the community, purchased what was needed. They sent me pictures and receipts, so I knew how the money was spent.
Over time, I grew very fond of Dino. We became friends and I thought often about his life and how I could more personally support him. On June 27th of 2020, we had a critical conversation that changed our relationship forever. I told him I wanted to help him find a way out of the refugee camp and into a productive life.
“From now on I’m going to be your American Auntie, okay?”
“Yes, of course. I can even call you mom, not aunty! If you don’t mind. That’s what I really wanted.”
Wait. What?! Mom. He wanted to call me mom. Mom is a big commitment. A lifetime commitment. I paused for a moment before responding.
Dino’s mom lives in Ethiopia and though he hasn’t seen her in years, they are able to communicate by phone. After some thought, I explained that he could call me mom if his mom was okay with that.
“I will be your American mom. And you will have two moms!”
He agreed and, after a conversation with his mother in Ethiopia, he sent me a message.
“I told her I got a big family full of kindness. I explained to her how you help me, how you treat me. I told her everything. She take a breath, she was like wooow! She surprised. She shed tears of joy!
Farther down the page, he quoted her saying “That’s unbelievable you got a new mom who can help, care, and love you without seeing you face to face. She feels the pain you’re in. You’re now a gift I have given her.”
I can’t even imagine how hard that conversation might have been for her. I know that, if I were in her shoes, I would feel both grateful to have someone helping my son and sorrow that I could not help him myself. One thing is for sure, Dino is a gift – and one I’m very grateful for.
I’ve been Dino’s American mom ever since. And yes, he still talks to his mom in Ethiopia regularly. Mark has become Dad, and Dino has gained four brothers, a grandma, aunts, uncles, and some cousins. He talks with all of them through Facebook and Instagram. I still marvel at the fact that we have the technology to make it happen.
I think, at first, my kids were a little uncertain about our “adoption.” It was strange for them to hear that someone they didn’t know was calling me mom. They needed time to develop a relationship of their own with him. As the months passed and they all got to know Dino, he became a beloved part of the whole family.
My heart tells me Dino is mine to love. I knew it from our very first conversation - an immediate recognition that I could help him – and more importantly, that helping him is heart-work that is mine to do. I should add he is very easy to love, has a big heart for helping people, and is kind and caring.
I’ve always believed that if we each helped one person in need, the whole world could be healed. Dino is my one. There may be others in the future, but, for now, one at a time works best for me and allows the two of us to develop a real and meaningful relationship.
During our conversation on June 27th, Dino and I talked about his future and life outside the refugee camp. Naturally, we talked about him coming to Colorado. I’ve been cautious about each step forward because his life has included so much tragedy and loss. I want to make sure we move gently and with care.
“We have friends in South Africa who have a big mission to feed thousands of kids living in poverty each day. Would you be interested in going there and helping them? I think you’d learn a lot!”
(He’s a young man of few words who tells me he listens more than he talks.) I called my South African friend, Andrew. (The fact that I happen to have a friend in South Africa is another miracle I’ll tell you about on another day.) Andrew was 100 percent on board.
“We’ll teach him to drive, get him some education, and he’ll help with the kiddies. He can learn a lot. But just be aware that things move very slowly here, and it will likely take you a year or more to make it happen.”
A year or more! Clearly, he underestimates me, I thought.
It turns out, Andrew was right.
Maybe we could have accomplished getting Dino to South Africa in a year if Covid had not risen its ugly head. The global pandemic made an already complex process even harder. Dino needed a passport – which he ended up going to South Sudan to acquire. Once he had it, all his refugee papers in Uganda had to be changed because he had become a citizen of a different country. He traveled to the city of Kampala to make the changes.
Kampala is also where the South African Embassy is located. We knew the next step was to get a South African visa. Dino had to find a hostel in Kampala so he’d have a place to live while he waited. He enrolled in school but Covid closed everything down before he could attend. Mark and I funded his living expenses and other costs.
Dino needed a letter from Andrew’s organization inviting him to visit. Andrew also had to provide bank statements and other documents as proof he could provide room and board while Dino was there.
We opened a bank account for Dino. He had to provide three months of bank statements to prove he had enough money to live while he would be in South Africa. He also had to write a letter explaining why he wanted to go and acquire a yellow fever shot. He would need a covid test to board the plane, and, of course, a round-trip plane ticket. I purchased one that could be easily changed.
Every document required government approval and had to be hand-stamped before he could apply for a visa. Then, when Dino was finally ready to apply, covid shut everything down, including the embassy and the hostel, and Dino had to go back to Nakivale for about eight weeks. Nothing to do but wait.
Once things opened again, many of the documents were expired, no longer falling into the embassy’s required time frame. We had to start the whole process of gathering proof all over again. For a while it seemed like every time Dino went to the Embassy to apply for the visa, the Embassy asked for something new.
It was a lot of work for both Dino and Andrew’s team, but the people who assisted Dino at the Embassy were specific about what was required and, once he finally had everything turned in, the visa went through without a hitch. Well…almost without a hitch. One wrong letter in an email address stopped the process entirely and Dino had to go back to the Embassy to correct his application in person. That little error cost him another week of waiting.
In the middle of all of this, there were issues at home in Colorado. Mark and I were sick with Covid for several weeks and, last summer, I had to have lung surgery that required months of recovery. Dino waited patiently during the time I needed to rest. He was every bit the loving son, writing regularly to cheer me up and check on me.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, 2021, eighteen months after we began working on it, and nearly 4 years after we first met, Dino sent me a message at 1:42 am:
“Hi, Mom. Good morning. I heard great news! I have received a message from VFS Global that my visa is ready for collection! Am back at the hotel with it. I’m so excited mom!”
Another Christmas miracle! The earliest he could fly was Tuesday, December 28th and I began doing what I could to prepare him for the trip. He’d never flown a commercial flight before so going through check-in and security had the potential to be a little unnerving. As it turns out, I was much more worried about him than I needed to be. He was at the airport bright and early that day, easily followed every step necessary to board the plane, and, with all his belongings in two suitcases, he arrived safely into the hands and hearts of Andrew’s leadership team at about 8 pm that evening.
EDCC (Every Day Children’s Church) is a project of Andrew’s organization, Overcomers, a team of highly passionate people who work closely with a network of NGO's, PBO's, NPC's, Churches, and community leaders across South Africa to feed thousands of kids and raise hope in those who are living in unimaginable poverty. Dino will join a team of about 80 people, most of them his age, who are engaged in this powerful effort. He rang in 2022 as a member of the team! (As a side note, I wish every kid everywhere could have this kind of experience at some point in life! Can you imagine how that would benefit the world?!)
“I feel like Wonder Woman,” I told my family once I knew Dino had arrived.
“We all know you’re Wonder Woman, Mom,“ my youngest son said with a softness in his eyes that I’ll remember forever.
To be honest, I haven’t been feeling much like Wonder Woman since I had my surgery last summer. It’s so good to have this reminder that we’re all empowered to change the world in some way – and that miracles do happen!
My next step is to raise $1700 so we can fund the building of a small wooden structure for Dino to live in. I’d be very grateful for your help. You can send a donation through Paypal to [email protected]. I’ll forward the funds to Andrew because they need to arrive separate from their normal donation stream to be earmarked for Dino.
Once that’s done, I’ll be continuing to support Overcomers in the outstanding work they’re doing. Most of you know that I call myself inter-spiritual and that I believe there’s value and wisdom in all faith traditions. Christianity is the primary religion in Africa and it can be unsafe to express any other faith belief. This is a contemporary Christian organization led by good people I know and love. No matter your individual faith, or your relationship with traditional Christianity, I encourage you to support them in their good work. If you feel called to visit, they can always use help on site. To donate, visit their website at https://feed14k.com/
What’s next for Dino? We expect him to be at Overcomers for about a year. He’ll learn a lot- and, when he’s ready, we’ll take the next steps. There is an opportunity for him to go to France and help Rabbi Walli for a little while - and, of course, we want to bring him to Colorado. It all takes time and moving through lots of red tapes. Between now and then, we’ll continue being mom and son – loving each other and sharing our lives. He’s a remarkable blessing.
Our son - Dino Kiro Alay