One family in Durango already has had its Christmas wish granted – to be safe and living together.
Earlier this year, Arnold Safari Ngumbao, executive chef at the Strater Hotel, was worried about his family back in Kenya, where violence was rising, in large part because of terrorist group al-Shabab. His family – wife, Lucy Zawabi Kitsao; son, Victor, 18; and daughters Jackline, 20; Grace, 15; Angel, 6, and Sasha, 4 – was particularly in danger because of the money he was sending home from the United States.
“Anybody who is connected to an American or receiving cash there is susceptible,” Rod Barker, owner of the Strater, said in August. “His wife’s roommate was shot and killed. Lucy and the kids fled from Mombasa to Nairobi (Kenya) to be safe.”
The family has come to the U.S. in stages, with Grace arriving in May; Kitsao, Angel and Sasha coming in August; and Victor and Jackline arriving just a month ago, on Nov. 22. They came essentially with what they could bring on an airplane, and generous Durangoans helped purchase the expensive plane tickets.
It’s the first time the family has been together for Christmas since Victor was 2, because Chef Safari has worked in his profession around the world to support his family.
“I always had to tell them, ‘Dad loves you,’” Kitsao said, “since he could only come when he had holidays. I was with the children alone. I prayed we would be together, and he prayed he would like to be with his wife and children to raise.”
The future looks bright
“God made it possible for me to live with my husband,” Kitsao said. “It’s good if the dad and mom stay together, good for teenagers and good for me to be there to back up my husband.”
It’s a bit of an adjustment for the whole family to be living together, Chef Safari said, and even more for a family of seven to fit into a two-bedroom apartment.
And living in Durango means planning for a different future than they could have imagined while in Kenya.
Victor, who recently graduated from high school, is a cross country runner and hopes an athletic scholarship will help him study mechanical engineering. Jackline wants to study hairdressing and fashion.
Grace, a sophomore at Durango High School, has become active in theater, playing a part in “Les Miserables” and waiting to hear if her audition will land her a role in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
“My mom and dad took me to school the first day, and it was pretty scary,” she said. “I had gone to boarding school before. I was used to uniforms, and here they don’t wear them. Everyone was looking at me. Now this is the first place that feels like a family to me.”
Because her father has taken a lot of DHS students into his kitchen as interns, Grace found support from the students who knew him.
Angel, a first-grader at Park Elementary School, likes coloring best of all, and Sasha really likes her preschool teacher.
“Sasha stays awake until 10 or 11 p.m., waiting for me to come home, even on a school night,” Chef Safari said. “I think she sleeps in school sometimes.”
A bit of a surprise
Kitsao was surprised to find Durango as mountainous as it is, and Grace expected a city with many people.
“It’s so quiet here,” she said. “Sometimes, I can’t notice if anyone is there.”
The generosity of Durangoans has also touched them.
“So many people have shown me good kindness,” Kitsao said. “They have accepted me, and I’m so grateful for this. God has been bringing people to me, helping me, so many giving of their time to take my children to school and back home. And they are helping me from their heart; it surprised me so much.”
Chef Safari is putting his skills to work to raise money to get a green card for his wife, so she can work, too. The extra income would allow them to get bigger lodgings and perhaps some transportation.
With the help of Shana and Brian Zink, Chef Safari has taught classes on how to prepare African, Asian and Jamaican cuisine and has prepared fundraising dinners to raise the estimated $18,000 to $20,000 to pay the expenses of the green-card process. The First United Methodist Church of Durango, which also supports an orphanage in Kenya, is managing the money for the family. Chef Safari has raised about $12,000 of the what is needed.
“He’s given so much to so many,” Barker said Monday. “He’s had so many students in his kitchen, and I know he has taught cooking at Manna Soup Kitchen and for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Towaoc. It’s great to see people supporting him now.”
‘All I want for Christmas’
Sasha wants a pumpkin, and Angel, who loves candy canes, and her mom both want to see snow for Christmas.
“I was granted my wish before Christmas,” Grace said. “It was just my dad and me here alone, and I said we need the whole family together.”
And do they feel safe here?
“Oh, yes, 100 percent,” Grace said with a look of relief.