Brother's quest brings siblings home

In their short lives, Mary, Peter and Martha Malath have known little else but war — and its fallout.

They were orphaned by the ongoing violence that five years ago took their mother's life and sent them fleeing their south Sudanese village.

As teenagers, they lived together and alone in a house in Kampala, Uganda, supported entirely by a brother in the United States whom the two oldest barely remembered and the youngest couldn't have known at all.

Ater Malath would battle for five years to bring his siblings to safety in the U.S. He persisted even after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security rejected the children's application for resettlement two years ago and said the denial could not be appealed.

In his single-minded crusade to reunite his splintered family, Ater Malath, a 30-year-old Seattle cabdriver, would approach nearly every congressional office in Seattle and several local relief agencies. He paid nearly $1,000 for DNA tests to prove his relation to the children.

In the end, with the assistance of a Northwest Immigrant Rights Project attorney, he was able to get the Department of Homeland Security, in a rare move, to reverse itself and allow the Malath children into the U.S.

"All those years I focused on the kids," Malath said. "I put my life on hold. I don't regret it because I'm investing in them. I told them, 'If you don't do well here, you'll disappoint me.' "

Less than 24 hours after they arrived from Uganda last week, still groggy from their long flight, the three talked about their future in the U.S.

Children when their odyssey began, they are now embarking on adulthood. Mary, 21, has hopes of going into management. Peter, 19, tall and lanky like most Sudanese Dinka, has ideas of being a basketball star. He plans to study information technology or international relations.

And Martha, 17, shy with a ready smile, wants to become a nurse. Or a lawyer, she said, because she believes lawyers can work miracles.

"It's great for us to be together, finally," Peter Malath said. "We may not have our parents but we have each other and we can all start a new life together."

"The ongoing war"

The Malaths' story demonstrates the horror of war — but is also a story of hope.

Relief agencies and congressional workers say stories of families split apart by war and strife are repeated a thousand times over.

"We see a lot of these cases; not all of them from Sudan, but many are," said Jan Stephens, refugee-resettlement coordinator with the Lutheran Community Services, which is helping the family settle in.

Civil war in Sudan pitted the country's Arab Islamic-dominated government against rebels seeking greater autonomy and a greater share of the country's wealth for Christians. Blamed for more than 2 million deaths over two decades, it tore apart families like the Malaths, which originally numbered nine. Although the civil war ended last year, violence continues in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

"Because of the ongoing war ... families are separated, parents are killed and children are left behind," Stephens said.

When their mother was killed in 2001, as government militia attacked their village of Nyangkot, the Malath children, then 16, 14 and 12, believed they were alone in the world.

Their father had died of disease years earlier and they did not know the whereabouts of four older brothers.

When they arrived in a refugee camp in Uganda, a family friend told them one brother was living in America. Ater Malath had been attending school in the city of Rumbek when government militias attacked in 1994, and had fled to Kenya. He was approved for resettlement in the U.S. the following year and became a citizen in 2001.

Word of his survival brought the younger children hope.

"To be in America, it is a dream," Peter said. "We were so happy we had a brother there but wondered, too, if it could really happen — if we could join him."

Long-distance support

In Seattle, Ater Malath dropped out of North Seattle Community College so he could support his family long-distance.

With the help of a family friend, he moved them from the refugee camp in Uganda, where rapes and violence are rampant, and rented a home for them in the capital, Kampala.

At times he worked up to three jobs — at a printing company, at a grocery and as a security guard at a Westlake restaurant — so he could pay their bills and send them money to see a doctor when they were sick.

"I told them I would bring them here, not to worry," Ater Malath said. "I told them to go to school. They're getting something to eat; they have a place to sleep. It will happen."

But in 2004, after an interview with the children, immigration officials rejected their application for refugee resettlement on grounds their stated fears of returning to Sudan lacked credibility and consistency.

"I was broken down — no hope," Ater Malath said.

Alone in Uganda, the children were even more dejected.

What made it worse, they said, is that the denial notice stated there was no appeal. "That was the thing that scared us," Mary said. "We didn't think we could overcome that."

The rejection came just before the Christmas 2004 holidays. Ater tried to keep his siblings' spirits up even as his own waned, and he scrambled about Seattle seeking help.

The rejection notice was seen by many agencies he contacted as a death knell. "They'd look at me like I was crazy," he said. "That's when I became really desperate."

"He waited and waited"

Among those he contacted was Bina Hanchinamani Ellefsen, an attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project who said her agency usually doesn't take refugee-resettlement cases like these.

She remembers the day Malath came to her office, unannounced, and waited more than an hour to see any of the attorneys who might help him.

"He was extremely persistent," Ellefsen said. "He waited and waited and waited.

"We knew this was a tough case. It was the week of Christmas. He didn't have anywhere else to go."

Rita Stewart in the offices of U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott became a liaison between immigration authorities overseas and Malath and Ellefsen, and was able to learn why the children had been turned down.

Immigration officials had noted a discrepancy with their names: In the application he completed in the mid-1990s to come to the U.S., Ater Malath listed his siblings by their Dinka names, not knowing what Christian names they had been given after they were baptized. The children's own resettlement forms listed them by their Christian names.

What's more, the children had no one advocating on their behalf, and had not adequately conveyed the horror of their experience in Sudan or their fear of returning, Ellefsen said.

Shortly, immigration officials were recommending a DNA test to prove the Malaths were siblings.

In Uganda, Peter went to the United Nations offices to collect the results after a second interview.

"I slipped the paper out of the envelope and closed my eyes," he said.

In a rare about-face, Homeland Security had reversed its December 2004 decision.

Surprise welcome

Mary, Paul and Martha arrived in Seattle last week to a welcome fit for celebrities.

They were not expecting the crowd that greeted them at the airport: aid workers, their brother's attorney and others from the Sudanese refugee community.

A hand-made sign read: "Welcome Home to America." And Maury Clark, a retired stockbroker from the King County town of Hobart, who works to help southern Sudan and other refugees, took his limousine to the airport to pick them up.

"All I could do was cry," Mary said.

The four siblings are expected to move soon from the studio apartment Ater Malath rents in SeaTac to a two-bedroom place in Tukwila. Clark has helped the two youngest register for school there and has gotten Peter signed up for the basketball team. Mary will likely attend community college.

Ater Malath said he's drained.

He still hopes to return to college to study accounting, but he's not sure when.

"My brother and sisters, they are OK now," he said. "I still have a lot to sort through."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or

The perseverance of Ater Malath, second from right, paid off when siblings, from left, Mary, Martha and Peter arrived from Uganda. (ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Ater Malath, left, and his sisters examine the odd contours of Experience Music Project during a visit to Seattle Center. The girls and brother Peter had been in Seattle less than 24 hours.