The magazine for Western Washington University

'Mary, it's not over ...'

Before Ater Malath could continue his education, he needed to reunite his family

Story by Peter Jensen ('10)

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In June 2001, Ater Malath had lived through civil war in Sudan, famine in a vast Kenyan slum, and a string of low-wage jobs in America before enrolling in community college. Finally, he would earn a college degree like his late father.

Then he learned his mother, who had become separated from Malath when government soldiers attacked their village when he was a little boy, had recently died, leaving behind three children. The teenagers, Mary, Martha and Peter, were fending for themselves in a refugee camp in Uganda, where violence and rape were common.

Malath would, again, put his college dreams on hold.

Also read: Survivor's Story

Knowing he needed to fill the parental void in his siblings’ lives, Malath paid for them to rent an apartment in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, so they could be safe. He also paid for a cellphone so he could talk to them – something he had never done before.

“I could sense a resemblance to me in their voices,” Malath says. “It took a few days talking and then we could get comfortable.”

Malath also started the process to get the trio to the U.S.; after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 that process slowed to a crawl.

In the meantime, Malath estimates he was working 96 hours a week to support his siblings. A doctor told him that he would be dead in six months if he continued such a punishing schedule So he scaled back his hours, while still supporting his siblings in every way he could.

Finally, in December 2004, he learned that his siblings’ applications were finally being processed. Mary called him with the results – in tears.

Malath says. “She said, ‘they denied us, they denied us.’” Malath says. “I broke down. Tears were dripping down my face. I did not show emotion on the phone. I said, ‘Mary, it’s not over. I am going to find some other way to bring you here.’ ”

Immigration officials interviewed Malath’s siblings in Uganda, but did not believe they were related. Malath was undeterred. He turned to the Northwest Immigration Rights Project, and found sympathy and help. They told him to pay for a DNA test to prove his familial ties to his siblings.

Malath scraped together the money to pay for the test, which proved their link. Mary, Martha and Peter arrived at Seatac International Airport in September 2006. When he describes how he saw them walk off the plane in Seattle – the first time he had ever seen them in person – his smile is so wide almost all of his teeth show.

“I saw them coming,” Malath says. “Peter was so tall. I was feeling so relieved. This was it. They made it to the United States.”

Malath’s work was not done, however. He still had to finish his own education.