An Eritrean refugee, who had lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia for six years before coming to the U.S., tells how he became a refugee. He had lived in the U.S. for about two weeks at the time of the interview. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of World Relief Durham or any affiliated partner. The interview has been edited to correct grammatical inaccuracies while still preserving the refugee's distinct perspective and voice.
Can you tell a little bit about what it was like in the refugee camp in Ethiopia? Yes, in Ethiopia, once you get to come or are sent from Eritrea, there is a refugee center that accepts Eritreans, and they put you in camps. Many Eritreans will be given a shelter and food. Then you earn your life through that process.
Why did you have to leave Eritrea?
There are so many problems in Eritrea—political and religious problems. Specifically, my problems were political problems. When I was learning in the university, there were voluntary trainings that had been made by the university programs. Once we looked through the particulars of the campaign, we did not accept that voluntary program, because there were dues of 800 ERN, Nafka, which is the currency for Eritreans. Because it was that much, and everything—the food and the rent, we did not accept that […] But unexpectedly the government gave orders just to go—it became a must—and the student union of the university had a meeting and gave statements from the students and informed the university that the students didn’t accept these programs. Soon military police or government officials came to our dorms and collected us in one of the football stadiums by force and they had there about three or four thousand students in one place. Then they took us to a place, which I didn’t know before even, that was 145 kilometers from our university campus. It was a hot and sunny place, and we were concentrated there with our bare feet for 45 days.
Then we signed a letter…it was not our wish, but forcibly signed. We used to do some heavy physical work…having this…even the government starts to have bad views of us … When I finished my mechanical engineering… I also signed up for national services… When I was there, there were a lot of treatment from the government. They already released our names to the one who just started all violence against the government…Even if you are a kid, you will be forced to work… The last meeting, I decided to go to, for refugees. My friend and I worked in the campaign; we were given fifty dollars per month that couldn’t be for food. I stayed on for four years through that. My friend was not in national services, he was a temporary worker…. and I was in national services. Every temporary worker was collected just to move to military services. He was from Ethiopia.
I had grown up in Ethiopia, even if I am Eritrean, I had grown up in Ethiopia, and he too was from Ethiopia and had grown up in Ethiopia. He was exiled to Eritrea, the same as my parents who were exiled from Ethiopia to Eritrea. Then we were in… one section of fields and unexpectedly he was lost, since he was ordered to go to military services, but that was not his aim to go to military services at that time. Soon I was called to the office, and the boss, that is one of the Eritrean leaders, asked me to tell him to go to the military services. That’s not my will, to say these things, that’s his will to go, but he told me just to bring him, or to find him where his address was. Then I told him that this is not my job or my task, that the military force or military police can find him or ask him…but for some reason they took me to the place which is inside our camp and arrested me. I was in prison for three days. They put me in a van almost till midnight and they took me almost 145 kilometers away…then they led me to the place which is his home, my friend’s home. They ordered me to go inside his home, to knock on the door, and to call him. They were armed and they controlled me. Once I went and knocked… and his sister opened the door… I asked her where my friend was. His name is Jonas…. He jumped out the back door…. Meanwhile they tried to go inside and just thrashed inside. Then I got the opportunity, the chance, to escape, and I escaped and went to nearby friends and the next morning I just left on foot.
Can you talk about America? What did you think it would be like and how is it different? …America and Eritrea are two quite different things, because here you have freedom of speech, freedom and permits to work. Also, you can express feelings. But there it is very difficult to express feelings and there is very little freedom of speech…. There it is bad administration and management, so once I got this… note to come to the United States, I was really happy, because there could be nothing that could grasp me or could delay me from what I want to be, you know? There you are not leading your life. Somebody is leading your life. Even if you don’t like political things, you are going to get involved in that way. But here you can have options. If you don’t want to be involved in political things, you can be what you want.
What about the people you have met in Durham since you’ve been here? The first time that I got to Durham, I lived with Somali people, which is new for me, even if I know them, but it’s a new culture, even a new language. But we all live together peacefully. Even in Durham we get every accommodation from World Relief and from the American government. Because we have rooms to sleep in, every home has food, and also we are getting service, like now we have job training services and how to get a job and to be self-employed.
Is there anything else you would like to tell refugees? Here in America, what they should have to do now is forget all the bad situations they have been in, and try to be reborn again to try to do what they need to now. Here they can express themselves and they could be, they must be happy, you know.