Khalfani Ramadani stood nervously by a baggage carousel clutching a bouquet of pink carnations and a balloon saying “Congratulations!”
It was nearing midnight Tuesday, and Spokane International Airport had fallen mostly silent except for a handful of workers cleaning the floors and a few stragglers coming in on late flights.
Passengers arriving on a flight from Los Angeles began coming down the ramp as Ramadani waited. Finally, a woman approached him, wearing a blue-green skirt, blouse and matching headscarf with yellow dots decorating the ensemble.
The couple paused, hesitating for a moment. Then the woman, Josephine, walked forward slowly and pulled her husband in for a long embrace.
It was the first time they’d seen each other in the two years since Ramadani came to the United States from Rwanda as a refugee.
As he waited for his wife’s flight to land, Ramadani told the story of how they met and ended up separated by half the world.
He is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a large country in central Africa bordering Rwanda. He said he was on vacation in Burundi when he saw Josephine on the street.
It was “love at first sight,” he said, speaking in French through an interpreter from World Relief.
He approached her. They talked. Within a few days, he presented himself to her family and negotiated the terms of the dowry.
They were married in 1994 and returned to Kindu, Ramadani’s city in the Congo. But that didn’t last long.
Following the Rwandan genocide of 1994, elements of the ethnic conflict began spilling over the border to the Congo. Josephine was a native Tutsi, a member of the ethnic group killed en masse.
By 1996, soldiers were patrolling their city, looking for Tutsis.
“People were coming, looking for me,” Ramadani said. They made it clear they wanted to kill his wife, so the couple fled. They walked about 250 miles on foot, he said, begging for food from villages they passed along the way.
They ended their journey in Bukavu, a city on the eastern edge of the Congo, right on the Rwandan border. They spent a few months there before deciding it was still too close to the conflict, so they continued across the border to Cyangugu in Rwanda.
Ramadani spent 12 years there as a refugee. He’d studied telecommunications in school, but couldn’t work in Rwanda and relied on support from his wife’s family, he said.
The couple had two daughters: Asia, who’s now 20, and Amisa, 14.
Ramadani fought with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for years over his status. Because his wife was ethnically Rwandan, the commission said he wasn’t a refugee. He pushed back, saying she took his nationality when she married him and moved to Congo.
The Rwandan government intervened on his behalf, he said.
“If I die, your office will be closed,” he remembered telling U.N. officials.
Finally, he was approved for resettlement and came to Spokane in 2015. But his wife and daughters had to stay behind.
Ramadani arrived in winter – his first time seeing snow.
“I fell so much!” he said, laughing as he recalled the season of snow and ice.
Within a few months, he’d found a job at Spokane Produce, working as a salad processor. His boss, Margene Davis, was among the group of friends waiting with him at the airport Tuesday night.
She said the company employs a lot of refugees, and almost everyone was aware of Ramadani’s upcoming reunion.
“They’re pretty excited for him too,” she said.
He’s been learning English in school after his shifts are over, and Davis said he’s made steady improvement. But he falls back into French when his emotions are running high, she said.
“He’s pretty excited tonight, so his French is pretty strong,” she said, laughing.
In preparation for Josephine’s arrival, Ramadani moved into a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Spokane. His daughters remain in Rwanda, but he’s working to bring them here as soon as he can.
World Relief director Mark Finney was among the group assembled with Ramadani. He tries to come to the airport when he can, especially for family reunification.
“It’s just something I love. It’s one of the most beautiful moments we get to see,” he said.
About half of the refugees World Relief resettles already have family in Spokane, he said.
Josephine finished a round of hugs for every member of the welcoming party, as well as a few airport workers and bystanders who had come over to see what the commotion was about.
“This is the mother of my daughters!” Ramadani announced to the group. He and his wife sat to the side as World Relief staff processed paperwork.
Josephine had been in transit for nearly two days, traveling from Rwanda to Uganda, Amsterdam, Los Angeles and finally Spokane.
“I’m very happy,” she said.