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Family reunited after 8 trying years

Losi Grodya stood at the bottom of the escalator at Blue Grass Airport and waited.

She waited to get the first glimpse of her five daughters' shoes, then bodies and faces as they descended into her arms after eight years apart.

With nervous excitement, she and her first daughter pounced and locked each other in a tight embrace Friday for the first time in eight years.

The tears began as she moved among them, some now taller than their mother.

With them were her father and two young grandchildren, whom she had seen only in photos.

"They've changed a lot, but I can still tell it's them in the face," Grodya said. She glanced at 11-year-old Rachel, clad in dark blue jeans and matching jacket.

"I don't know her," she said of the girl who will soon be a young lady. "I know the baby that was 3 years old, but I can still tell it's her. I'm thanking God for everything today ... We have so much to talk about. It's been so many years."

For the past five years, most of Grodya's family had lived in a refugee camp in Rwanda while she and a son lived in Lexington. They were separated before, in early 2001, in their native Democratic Republic of Congo.

War began more than a decade ago in the African nation and involved eight countries and multiple armed groups. As security deteriorated, tribal conflicts also arose. Many people, including children, were massacred.

In early 2001, Grodya left her hometown with her children to live with her father. Her husband stayed behind and was killed just hours after they departed.

Grodya and her then young son, Olivier, were separated from the rest of the family when rebel groups approached the town and people fled in a panic. The two had gone to the market.

Grodya spent the ensuing days searching for her daughters in refugee camps in nearby Uganda and Rwanda. When she tried to cross back into Congo, aid workers refused to let her return because war was still raging.

For two years, Grodya and her son remained in Rwanda without any contact with the rest of her family. In 2003, when the two arrived in Lexington as refugees, she acquired a cell phone and finally made contact with her daughters through another relative.

The contact was bittersweet; the children had survived difficult years.

Some of the daughters were taken in by Jehovah's Witnesses, but another was kidnapped by a rebel group and forced to fight before escaping. Another daughter was raped by a rebel soldier, she learned. She told the Herald-Leader in a July interview that she still didn't know the full extent of what her daughters might have endured.

In January 2008, U.S. officials gave approval for her daughters to join Grodya in Lexington as refugees. However, their cases were caught up in a post-9/11 provision in the Patriot Act that bars people from entering the United States if suspected of aiding a terrorist group, known as the material support ban.

A long fight to convince the government that her family did not aid terrorists, but were rather victims, ensued with assistance from the Kentucky Refugee Ministries, the Maxwell Street Legal Clinic and staff members from U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's offices. The offices for both men released statements saying they were pleased to assist in reuniting the family.

Chandler said in a statement that the reunion was "a positive outcome to a heartbreaking situation."

Marilyn Daniel, the Maxwell Legal Clinic's former director and volunteer attorney, said she saw Grodya's hopes "beaten down" several times by an inefficient immigration system.

"I've held her in my office so many times after her hopes were dashed," Daniel said. "It's maternal instinct to keep your family together. She's had to do it over eight years and across two cultures."

Still, they survived. Minutes after reuniting the family of 10 lined up for a group photo by the airport escalator and began singing in Swahili a song about faith and the future:

"What God can do

Is what man cannot do

He wipes the tears

On your face

And they are gone."