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Sierra Leone Refugees Reunited in Michigan


After 25 years of separation, Tamba Biango and his mother, Sarah Mani Chanibue, were reunited at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich. Woodlawn Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids had sponsored Biango as a refugee in 2001 and was instrumental in Chanibue’s November 14 arrival as well. On that day, the two embraced for the first time since the Sierra Leone Civil War tore them apart in 1991.

Biango recalled the day they were separated. “I woke up early in the morning with the gun sound. The rebels start attacking. I ran to my mom’s [house] and nobody was there. They said mom went to another village.”

Biango searched for his mother, but eventually had to give up and leave the country. Both assumed the other was dead. Chanibue even held a funeral ceremony for her son.

Meanwhile, Woodlawn was sponsoring a refugee named Anti. They found out she had married someone in the refugee camp in Africa and was now pregnant. The man she married was Tamba Biango. Woodlawn worked to reunite Anti with her husband, and since then Biango and other church members have sponsored more of their family members with the church’s support.

After arriving in the United States, Biango started the process of finding out where his mother was or if she was alive. “When I was in Africa, did I think I would see my mom again? No,” he said. He called relatives in Sierra Leone and sent money to hire someone to locate her. Weeks later, they found her.

Biango called his mother, who didn’t believe she was speaking with her son. “She asked me my name, where did I grow up, what is the name of my uncle, how many brothers and sisters did I have,” Biango said. At that point, she believed the unimaginable. Her son was alive.

Biango then worked on arrangements for Chanibue to move to Grand Rapids. When she arrived at the airport, each was unrecognizable to the other. “She didn’t recognize me that I’m her son,” Biango said. “She didn’t know me until I greet her in her language.”

“[The reunion] was pretty special,” said Lin Hoeksema, a member at Woodlawn present at the reunion. “It was the first time she could meet her grandchildren. To be able to witness the whole thing has been a blessing.”

“God gave me the opportunity to come to the U.S. and the responsibility to help other family members,” Biango said. “The blessing God gave me is a blessing for my entire family.”

Along with their four children, Tamba and Anti have become part of the Woodlawn church family. Tamba has also served as a deacon. “It’s been a mutual blessing,” Woodlawn pastor Mike Abma explained. “We’ve been a good support system for them, and they’ve enriched our church.”

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