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SALT LAKE CITY — Idris Ismail had a lot to think about Wednesday night as he waited at the flight carrying his 8-year-old daughter, Nura, whom he hadn't seen since fleeing his homeland in Africa when she was 2.
Idris was 2 himself when his family fled their native Eritrea in 1976 and became refugees during the 30-year war that led to the country's independence from Ethiopia in 1993. His family returned to Eritrea that same year, but it would take two more years before Idris could rejoin them.
I didn't think one day to be in America. It's like a dream.
–Idris Ismail, African refugee
In 2004, it was Idris' turn to make a difficult fight-or-flight decision. He had been conscripted into service as a border guard, something he described as extremely dangerous and that paid such a low wage it could barely cover the cost of tea or cigarettes — hardly what he needed to support his own wife and daughter.
Idris believed he had to leave in advance of his family in order to eventually get everyone to safety. So he crossed the Red Sea into Saudi Arabia and lived in a refugee camp until he was "assigned" resettlement in the United States — in Utah — in 2006.
"I didn't think one day to be in America," he said. "It's like a dream." He started learning English, got a job and went to work on immigration petitions so his family could join him.
International Rescue Committee (IRC) immigration coordinator Tatjana Micic said there is no typical time frame for that immigration process, but the time Idris spent wading through international red tape was longer than most. Five years would pass before he would be at Salt Lake City International Airport waiting for the arrival of Nura's series of flights, which began a day earlier in Sudan.
Weather problems in Chicago on Wednesday started a string of delays that would push the 8:24 p.m. arrival in Salt Lake City past midnight. The extra time became one of many instances where Idris focused his thoughts on Nura, not the person who is now his ex-wife. "She didn't be patient," he says regretfully. "My wife she freed up," re-marrying but giving permission for Nura to come to the United States.
Nura, during this five-year refugee resettlement process, lived in Sudan with relatives, not with her mother. She and her father have talked on the phone often. "Even when I was in camp (in Saudi Arabia), they give me phone. I call her every day."
"Did you recognize me?" (Idris Ismail asked his daughter) She told him, in Arabic, "Of course. You're my dad."
Idris finally got word in March that Nura would be joining him soon. He bought her a dresser, blankets and some school supplies. He set money aside so she could pick out toys when she got here.
Soon he will move from the Logan apartment he shares with a roommate to a place where he and Nura can be together. Until then, a relative he did not know in Africa but discovered once he was in Utah will help get Nura settled. "She said, 'Don't worry. She can stay with my kids.'"
Waiting with Idris at the airport were three IRC workers, including Farid Alzahawi, a former Iraqi Airlines pilot, who will be Nura's caseworker. He will help coordinate 24 months of resettlement services that include health screenings, education help, community integration, assistance with immigration paperwork and a $900 check to help with resettlement costs.
Idris received the same assistance when he arrived in Utah in 2006.
Finally, Nura's flight landed as Idris and the IRC workers stood with a large banner waiting to see a tiny figure descend the escalator into the terminal. Other passengers stopped to tell Idris that Nura was very good on the plane, though she had a tough flight.
Nura finally emerged through security. Idris had one last delay — he had to produce his identification to satisfy airport security she was in the right hands. Then they were at last together.
I'm excited. I'm happy. So happy. I finally going to be a real dad. Not phone dad.
–Idris Ismail, African refugee
Nura's hair was nicely braided. She was wearing a hooded sweater, jeans and tennis shoes. Only the oversized identification papers hanging from a lanyard around her neck set her apart from the flight's domestic passengers.
Idris scooped her up. "She looks good," he said. Her face mostly reflects bewilderment and extreme fatigue. "Did you recognize me?" She told him, in Arabic, "Of course. You're my dad."
The enthusiasm of the moment had to share the emotional shock of the cameras and strange adults that are part of the reunion. Even other passengers on the flight stopped to take pictures. Then her single red bag arrived on the baggage carousel, and Idris and Nura are driven away by a man Idris described as a "very good friend."
Nura had joined the ranks of 2,200 refugees who will enter Utah during the year. Each has a story likely to bring their caseworkers to tears.
The next month will continue to be filled with lifetime firsts for Nura. "I want to take her to Disneyland," Idris said. Tatjana, the IRC coordinator, had a stuffed bear for Nura. "We will try to spoil her a little bit," she said with smile and a shrug. "In the beginning. Why not?"
Nura's reaction on her arrival was typical for many of the children, said the NRC's Natalie El-Deiry, who was also part of the welcoming group. But the children adapt quickly. "A month later they come in the office and they are bouncing off the walls," she said.
And for Idris, "I'm excited. I'm happy. So happy. I finally going to be a real dad. Not phone dad," he said. "I'm going to say 'Thanks America.' I want to thank everyone. God bless this country."
Written by Steve Fidel and KSL contributing correspondent Peter Rosen.