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Abdullahi Olow embraces his 3-year-old son, Zayd, at the family’s apartment in Willmar. Abdullahi has lived in Willmar for the past five years while his wife, Arfon Osman Mohamud, and Zayd were still in Nairobi. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

After five years of solitude in a foreign land, Willmar man is finally reunited with his wife and son

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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

For the last five years, Abdullahi Olow has lived and worked in Willmar while his wife and young son have been living in Nairobi.

It’s been a challenging ordeal interrupted only twice — when he returned to Kenya for his wedding and in 2012 to meet his son, Zayd, who was then 15 months old.

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Olow’s goals were to bring his family to Willmar and to become a U.S. citizen.

Despite the challenges that have sunk similar dreams of other refugees who moved to Minnesota from Africa, Olow’s years of working as the school success coordinator for the West Central Integration Collaborative, living frugally, saving money and making sacrifices has finally paid off.

On March 13 his wife, Arfon Osman Mohamud, and Zayd, now 3, arrived in Willmar after getting word on Valentine’s Day that their visas were approved after years of delays.

“We had the trust in God that we’d finally be reunited,” said Olow, during an interview at the family’s apartment in Willmar. “It’s a dream come true.”

On April 2, Olow achieved his other goal of becoming a citizen when he took the oath of allegiance to the United States during a ceremony in St. Paul, along with 360 people from 36 different counties.

“It was really amazing,” said Olow, who was impressed that his adopted country was even welcoming Russians as citizens, despite recent political issues there.

Part of the process of becoming a U.S. citizen involved forsaking loyalty to the country where he was born. Olow was born in Somalia but left when he was 9 and spent most of his life in Kenya.

Coming to the U.S. was a way for Olow to satisfy his longing to “exercise my freedom” and participate in a democratic process that can help shape a country.

“I’m 32 years old but I’ve never voted in an election,” he said. “I’ve made no contribution in determining who becomes a leader.”

For the first time in his life, Olow will be able to cast a vote this year.

“It means a lot to me,” said Olow, who has already received his voter registration card and knows exactly where his polling location is.

Voting and getting involved with politics is an “opportunity that comes with every person,” said Olow, adding that he may consider running for office in the future.

But first, he and his wife and son are learning how to live as a family under the same roof.

Real touch

Arfon, whose impeccable English has a touch of a British accent, still has a hard time believing her familiy’s together isn’t just a visit that will soon end.

“It still feels temporary,” she said.

“We do the real touching,” said Olow, reaching for his wife’s hand, as if to reassure himself that she is still there. “I keep wondering if this is a dream,” he said.

Once word came that Arfon’s visa had been approved and that she’d be here in a month, Olow moved quickly to find and furnish an apartment.

He had every detail in the apartment completed when he led Arfon into their new home.

“He made it into a little princess place,” said Arfon, who served a cardamom and cinnamon tea and handmade meat-filled samosas as she talked about the arrival to her new home. “I was so pleased.”

As an accounting student in Kenya, Arfon is re-evaluating her career options here and has begun her journey to citizenship.

Zayd is a charming boy with bright eyes and an infectious laugh. He speaks English, Somali and Swahili.

“In one sentence you can hear all three languages,” said Olow, who clearly adores his son and is taking some of the parenting roles that his wife has carried by herself for three years.

“She is a strong woman,” said Olow. “She is the best mother.”

But he didn’t want his son to grow up without a father.

“Nothing is more crucial than living with your family,” he said. “There is joy in having a happy family.”

Many like us

Leaving his wife and son in Nairobi during his visit in 2012 was difficult, but it made Olow more determined than ever to work hard to bring his family to Willmar, which Olow said has the “best environment” for his family to settle and make a home.

The couple survived with “resilience and patience and always not losing hope to get to the end of the tunnel,” said Olow, who is thrilled the wait is now over for his family.

But he said there are many people in Willmar who are living here while their families are in East Africa.

“There are a million stories of folks like us,” said Olow, adding that some — like he and his wife and son — are lucky and are eventually reunited.

“Kudos to those that can make it through the tough times,” said Olow.

But ssome couples do not survive the long separation and their “confidence dies and patience is lost,” he said.

“It’s really traumatizing for some,” he said.

“There are other folks, like us, going through the same experience,” said Olow.

Now that his family is here, Olow said that he wants to be a “voice” for families who are still living apart.

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