Twelve minutes before she was to be reunited with her son, Catherine Clarke broke down.
More than 10 years of missing her baby boy — who she left at a refugee camp in western sub-Saharan Africa when he was a teenager and she came to the United States — came tumbling out of her. The 59-year-old mother screamed, hissed, sobbed and laughed as she squirmed in a plastic gray chair at the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport.
“It’s been so long,” she said. “My baby, my baby, my baby.”
A crowd of friends and refugee resettlement workers from Catholic Charities of Baton Rouge calmed her down. She dabbed her eyes with a tissue and regained her composure as she learned her son’s flight was arriving early.
Would he have changed after growing into a man in his mid-20s while living in refugee camps in Ghana and Liberia? Was he, too, wriggling and wailing as his plane touched down in Baton Rouge?
The reunion was a long time coming. Clarke moved to the United States in 2006 after fleeing civil war in Liberia and living in refugee camps in Ghana and Ivory Coast. She said she brought her oldest son along with her but had to leave her other two sons behind with family members. She now works as a housekeeper at an LSU sorority house.
Benjamin Clarke, her youngest son, sometimes came close to thinking he might never be reunited with his mother as he bounced around refugee camps. A process to let him come to the United States that normally would take two years turned into a slow, nine-year ordeal.
All the while, his mother did not let him think they were to be apart for too much longer. They talked on the phone, and she told him she had a band of people working on his case.
Benjamin’s case file went missing for a period of time, something Catholic Charities’ Refugee and Immigration Services Director Corina Salazar said is not normal. It took two years for his file to be found after his refugee camp was closed in Ghana and he moved to Liberia.
But Catherine never let the people at Catholic Charities forget that she was waiting on her son.
“Many days, I was crying on them,” she said.
“I always had to hear her story about ‘my baby, my baby,’ ” said Constance Houston, employment counselor.
About a year ago, the exciting news came — Benjamin had been cleared to move to America to live with his mother. Norma Palma, the refugee resettlement coordinator, celebrated with her co-workers and Catherine.
But the process slowed again. The worldwide Ebola scare blocked him from coming last year because Liberia was one of the centers of the outbreak. He had to go back to Ghana for a medical test, and Catherine had to submit DNA to prove Benjamin was her son.
The Ebola scare passed, and on Thursday night, as Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” played in the airport, it finally became real.
Catherine had cooked her son’s favorite food, sweet potato leaves, similar to spinach, in anticipation of his arrival. She dreamed of how they would gab until sleep overtook them. She wore one of her favorite pink dresses from Liberia.
When Benjamin’s plane arrived on Thursday evening, he strolled into the terminal in jeans and a puffer jacket. He looked like a nonchalant, casual traveler — not like a son about to see his mother for the first time in just more than a decade and a man who was arriving in a new country to start a new life.
Catherine rushed toward him and fell into his arms. She shrieked and wept, “my baby, my baby!” She squeezed him and lifted him off the ground, despite him being a head taller than her.
“It’s me,” he told her, as he stooped down and wrapped his arms around her.
He reached down and carried Catherine’s purse for her. As she celebrated, he gave a shy smile to the Catholic Charities entourage of 10 people complete with a red, white and blue “Welcome Home” sign.
Catherine stomped her feet. She hopped in circles. She sang. She chanted. She collapsed into her son’s chest and basked in his presence. And he had eyes only for her, ignoring TV screens and water fountains and all of the other distractions around him.
“God made it possible, and I just want to thank everyone,” he said.
Had his mother changed in his decade away from her? He shook his head and smiled.
“Mama is mama,” he said.
Benjamin looks forward to getting a better education in America. He hopes to earn money that he can send back to his brother in western Africa, and Catherine hopes that her other son will come to America one day, too.
She said God must have known what he was doing by making her wait so long for Benjamin.
“It was a glorious time,” Catherine said. “It pays to wait, maybe.”