The strength of a #refugee! #eritrea #africa #asylum the long run to freedom!

I often found myself back home watching the news, absorbing information, and, due to being unable to relate to it, or it not affecting my ‘here and now’, unable to really comprehend it… Is this a strength of modern media or a weakness? Israel is a huge part of what’s selected for viewing as a top story or a newsworthy story in the west and, whilst politically it has many layers to it which are fascinating, you rarely hear about a lot of these unless you actively search for them.

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One thing you’ll hear comparitively little of though is the stories behind the many refugees that are finding themselves in countries all over the world except for their own and why, and the reality that has absorbed the life of soo many people, especially from the African continent…

During my time in Israel I was made acutely aware by the asylum seeker situation and want to share with you a story of just one of these asylum seekers.

‘Osman’,(the character who you will be learning about throughout this story) even goes as far as to suggest that the issue of refugees/displaced people or assylum seekers is being largely ignored by the international community as a specific issue (efficiently and practically).

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It’s about your attitude

It’s hard for me to narrate this,… not because I can’t, but to put across the necessary emotion to allow you, the reader, to comprehend the ever so present and real nature of this story and how it still happens to individuals and family members like anyone else you could or do know…

I hope for the sake of what’s going on, and ask, that when you read this you’ll make every necessary step mentally to try and relate this as something that could happen to you or your loved ones/friends, best friends and family.

Try and not approach it with synicism either, there’s enough of that in this world, try and approach it with the mindset you’d normally approach things you want to do something about positively or engage with.

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The beginnings

This story starts in 1998, (I personally wouldve been 11 then, totally oblivious to it in my youthful naïveté – how can you make something consistently relevant?) a time where two countries in Ethiopia and Eritrea were at war with one another over an area of land which is in dispute between the two countries, and, in many ways is still going on (despite various UN based interventions and intentions to clear up the situation). The land, the UN have stated, belong, or I should say is part of Eritrea historically, but is still governed by Ethiopia.

As a result of this war Eritrea, a previously peaceful country has rapidly become a military based nation. The only university in Eritrea was closed in 2004 and colleges have been created, dumbing down independent thinkers and being a stepping stone to the army, something I was told you’re expected to go into if you don’t pass college (pass rate is unspecified and changes).

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life starts to become more restricted

At school every student entering the 12th grade in the entire country apparently gets moved to the same school for the year, which sounds like fun originally, until you associate it with a military regime and all the possibilities that can come from having a watchful eye over everyone with an autocratic outlook.

Osman spoke of a constant feel of being watched and listened to by the military without a clear understanding of what’s tolerated or not, not to mention the longer you stayed in the education system – a system which now provided no mental challenges or development but a very ever present ‘big brother’ – the more in debt you would become. Three months of this year together is also given to being trained in the army.

image young Eritreans being trained for the army

When in the working world, it was hard to build any sort of momentum up, disruptions abounded due to military training three times a week. (When thinking of these disruptions, also take into account basic infrastructure which too makes work a slow process already… Power cuts for example)

image one of the many issues effecting developing countries and their efficiency

Self expression?

During his time early on in this internal and external conflict ‘Osman’ said of how he would try and write articles critical of the regime in a paper, keen to express himself and others opinions… Needless to say these were followed by a prompt arrest and his first ‘black mark’.. Once this happened things gradually got a lot more extreme. Private papers since the war have been apparently banned.

Home, safe and…

Osman went on to tell me a short story touching on one of these, in which he was on his way back to see his family at home which was near the southern disputed border with Ethiopia, when he was to realise later that he had been followed by plain clothed policemen

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Who’s who? A picture of plain clothed policemen from Zambia. Not only are they hard to pick out if being followed but blur the lines between police and public, which for countries like Eritrea can have varying effects.

These policemen who had been following him approached him when he felt safest, near his home, immediately arresting him without any real form of questioning.

Once arrested they took him and beat him with sticks every time they asked him a question but didn’t get the answer they wanted, leaving him bruised and beaten.

Osman, even by self admition described himself as lucky, his father who had been a fighter in the Eritrean war of independence (and had found himself with some influence) managed to negotiate a deal which saw his son released on bail. As you can imagine the corridors or power and influence are narrow and many others wouldn’t have been as lucky… Would you have been as lucky?

image if someone was convinced you knew or did something you factually didn’t what would you do? What would they do? Needs to be thought of in a way which takes into account the supposed effectiveness of law and its enforcement in developing countries and the accountability of these.

Sinking (in) feeling

Osman felt overwhelmed, expressing a deep emotional fear which made him question a lot of his environment, based on what had happened in the past, being arrested unexpectedly and beaten without any reason to his knowledge he felt hopeless too..

What freedoms do you have if you can’t even vouch for your own personal safety and those that are crippling them are those who have the most power and are meant to protect you? When no rules are set out to clarify what’s right and wrong?

Preparing to leave his home behind…

By the time Osman left Eritrea these arrests of people who were aiming to leave Eritrea for asylum purposes were becoming increasingly common, with leaving Eritrea, Osman says, considered one of the greatest unwritten crimes against the country, akin to treason.

Osman mentioned those who got caught or those who at times tried to leave would often get shot at with his friends friend dying as a result.

So Osman left in 2005 aged just 21, he walked, 25k in the African sun, spurred on by the thought and desire for a simple breath of relative freedom and away from the overbearing fear, a feat which is by no means simple and he says took around 9 hours.. It was made somewhat easier though as borders weren’t physical walls as such but military outposts dotted along the way. Near the border the instruction and belief was simple, run.

He had made it into northern ethiopia, Shimelba was his first experience of a refugee camp and at the time encompassed a small a 9×9 km area, the first of a few refugee camps he would go onto experience as he moved from country to country..

image shimelba refugee camp

After a month of being in Shimelba Osman decided it was in his best interests to pursue further education, going on to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, looking for any opportunities to study (something which proved to be an impossible task as all recognised places of any quality that he came across required Ethiopian nationality to attend).

Back to the refugee camp on the northern Ethiopian border he went, frustrated at the lack of opportunity for him to learn, increasingly aware of the reality of what a citizenship meant and in theory should’ve offered.

Osman trudged back to the camp, disheartened by infrastructures reluctance to allow him to pursue the educational dignity he yearned for, where he continued to stay ‘completely disconnected from the world’ for the next three years, with only a few tv channels for external news but this time, unable to leave.

Aspirational despite it all…

He took up active roles during the last two years of his three staying there, working for the international rescue committee helping to teach English, working his way up the ranks to being promoted to the team leader and tasked with managing various problems, including the lack of adequate medical services as the camp became increasingly overcrowded.

Things came to another worrying head in 2007, tensions rose again about the disputed area between Ethiopia and Eritrea and, with the thought of another war looming Osman worried about what would happen to Eritrean refugees in an Ethiopian refugee camp. Osman and 15 others snuck out of the camp with each paying a small sum to some Ethiopians he knew and bribing, where necessary, the checkpoint guards.

They made their way to the Sudanese border in 2008, getting there around 6pm where the task ahead was simple, like before when crossing the Eritrean/Ethiopian border, run (If they were caught the options included getting put into prison, or at least this was their belief, or being sent back to the refugee camp they had paid and bribed their way out of) into Sudan…

This time Osman wasn’t as lucky as he ended up getting caught on the Sudanese side of the border.

image The route grows… How desperate do you need to be to travel this far in fear away from your home?

Not all is quite as it seems

As a result of being caught, but on the Sudanese side of the border, Osman ended up in a Sudanese refugee camp… He spent the subsequent month in the refugee camp but after this he got wind of Eritrean government soldiers (dressed in civillian clothing) kidnapping or conscripting refugees from within the camp to go back to Eritrea to be soldiers.

Once conscripted or kidnapped he said of how people would simply get chucked into a truck and taken back to Eritrea… The thought made Osman and others risk it and make their way to Egypt, in a similar process as the previous refugee camps, being snuck out by paying bribes and with enough supplies ventured towards the border and made a dash for it.

imagewhat has been your main reason for running in the past? Health? Competition? Sense of achievement? Being caught by police? Potentially prosecuted or imprisoned for running away from an autocratic regime?

Osman arrived in Egypt in 2008, making his way to Cairo and still at only 24 years of age.

Osman arrived at a time that coincided with an influx of assylum seekers big enough for the Egyptian government to intervene, and at one point Osman said how 1,200 Eritreans were sent back to Eritrea after being found by the Egyptian police in the space of a month, a move which he said lead to him stuck in a room in Egypt for a three week period, never leaving and only surviving on the kindness of the Egyptians he knew supplying him and others with food and water. All of them left navigating their way through the various language barriers through those who knew Arabic. Osman though remains grateful to those who helped and he maintains touch with them.

They’ve gone missing..

Those who weren’t as lucky and got caught? Osman said that a lot of them ended up going back to Eritrea and immediately being arrested, jailed for random time frames with some even going missing and still unaccounted for..

Many online communities have since been created to try and find out where those who’ve gone missing have ended up, people are desperately looking for news about family members, sisters, mums, dads, brothers, aunts, sons, daughters, grandparents…

Here’s one of the communities https://www.facebook.com/Miissing.Eritreans

Thousands are still unaccounted for.

As you can imagine this, after what had preceded it, left the asylum community he was part of in a nervous situation still, and living in a room, hoping not to be found, wasn’t a healthy option, so plans were therefore made to make a move to yet another country, this time in the form of Israel.

Various modes of transport were taken to get to the border and across it from minibuses to pickup trucks and lorries. In order for this to be done though a fee at the time of $600 was expected, all of which was apparently quite simple as all transactions were done when crossing in person… The only drawback was how Osman and every other refugee had been told that they were no longer allowed to keep or take any of their personal possessions with them as it would draw unnecessary attention.

Leaving it all behind. The changing modern realities

Everything of any value left in his immediate life had to be left behind, the diary he had written cataloging his day to day experiences and thoughts and his arguably most valued possession (that he was willing to speak of), a translated copy of ‘the diary of Anne Frank’, a book he found a lot of solace in and a lot of strength from due to the similarities he felt existed between their lives.

Now though in 2013 prices have peaked at as much as $40,000 and much more drastic scenarios are being created.

The reality of it today though, and this isn’t the case for everyone who’s Bedouin, is that a lot of bedouins in the Sinai who originally or were close to those who originally helped the original influx of asylum seekers into Israel are now holding asylum seekers to ransom if they can’t pay the ‘necessary’ $40,000 to be snuck into Israel. Those who can’t pay are held to ransom, and if that doesn’t work then these individuals who have found themselves in the wrong hands are now objects.

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Killed for your organs and sold to the highest bidder or… for what?

Stories are rife within the asylum seeker community of people having to listen to friends, immediate family or friends family members crying down the phone whilst being beaten in a plea for help knowing that without money death is an increasing inevitability and in some instances even having to say bye on the phone… with mothers living with the reality that they tried everything but it was not enough. How people are killed is something we can only guess at though, beatings to death is one known method.

What is certain though, is if people aren’t killed and their organs harvested and sold on the black market then women for instance will be sold into a world of sex trafficking, even women who paid the ransom fee somehow have found themselves sexually abused by their captives. It’s a lucrative market for these specific bedouins who have now hijacked the border to the point that various governments have stated the area as a no go zone.

Osman, despite being hardened by his experiences welled up at this point but fought back the tears, it comes across as if emotions, to a large extent, have left those who’ve survived in Israel as there’s little positive purpose for them or they’ve been subjected to just too much emotional fear or torment over the years to see the use in them…

It’s a stark contrast to how it was when Osman got into Israel. Once in Israel he apparently got taken by an Israeli army vehicle to be’er Sheva and dropped off. Since then though the infiltration law has come into legislation and since 2012 anyone who gets caught or who is a refugee is being put into a prison/camp near the border making it that much harder to get in.

Osman though was lucky by self admission, his sister is still in the prison having arrived relatively recently… (when we met he had just seen her for the first time in 8 years), for how long he doesn’t know.. He’s unsure of the time frame and policy regarding those within the prison, I get the impression it’s something the government are still deciding on themselves. He thinks that there’s a three year period of confinement in the prison for prisoners, and some lawyers I spoke to suggested movements were being made to send these refugees to other countries in Africa, although this is suspicious according to them as the countries being mooted aren’t exactly safe or stable themselves.

So Osman has settled as much as he can in Israel and due to being one of the first to arrive is now living in limbo. To register himself in the country Osman had to go to the UN for an interview and then have another with the Israeli government.

Refugees status includes a registration card, a card which by law now means they’re allowed to work after the overturning of a rule which said they couldn’t, but, whilst this is legally the supposed case the ruling hasn’t meant the permit, which needs to be renewed every so often, has had a change to what’s written on it. This has lead to various employment disputes and various employers exploiting the uncertainty surrounding refugees with lack of pay, lesser pay or longer hours for jobs and therefore financial uncertainty a constant weight on their minds.

Osman spoke of how one of his first initial jobs was in construction, working on a building site where having being paid for the first month he worked there the subsequent two he wasn’t, he was holding down two jobs though, one working as a security guard at night and one on the construction site, how he coped with the fatigue i’ll never know, he seems to have an iron will, but they thankfully paid him what they said and he had time to save up some money…

Depression kicked in at this point though, so he sought the help of an NGO to try and claim money he was owed but that didn’t come to fruition. He found work quickly though and found himself, having previously been a top student in Eritrea, as a cleaner at a school in Jerusalem.

Something you’ll find to be very common amongst those in the asylum community that I met especially was the thirst for knowledge and also the desire to return to their country to improve it… Osman’s passion for education reignited during his time working as a cleaner and in 2008/09 he started again searching, like he had in Ethiopia, for further educational opportunities asking hebrew schools in Jerusalem where there were undergraduate courses conducted in English.

Every now and then you can see instances or situations in which people have created their own luck, Osman is one of these people… His pursuit of a better life so early on and his pursuit of education came to a head when he was invited to an open day in 2009 at a college in Israel. Inspired by the environment and the college in general he applied and got accepted to a college on a 50% scholarship studying psychology, the rest of which he worked to pay off.

On achieving his undergraduate degree Osman spoke of how he felt he was creating himself a sense of identity, which had long been lost due to the trials and tribulations of a turbulent (to say the least) few years. He’s created or become a bigger part of Israeli society and has Israelis he can count on and deems close friends. He has settled somewhat but his main target is to go back to Eritrea to try and help turn it into the country it was before and to help put it on a course for democratic stability… Easier said than done.

Eritrean refugees all say trusting someone is almost impossible and all faith has been lost in politicians, the ladder to progress will be long… Some are considering more aggressive means but I hope these wither out… I’ve never known violence to work and feel that if you assume power through violence those who feel aggrieved as a result of having someone being hurt or being hurt themselves will only look on you in the light you shone on them.

So the time game is all he has, Osman is accumulating knowledge, working honestly towards a place that he feels will give him the necessary strength to mental deal and help in the long term, he has taken up a masters and is now being sponsored by a generous Jewish man from New York he has been introduced to who just wanted to help… He feels similarities can be found as his benefactors parents were victims of the holocaust.

The future is still uncertain no matter how bright it is in comparison to what it could have been like had he stayed in Eritrea.

He is succeeding in his educational endeavours and is a man I grew quickly to admire for his peaceful and well thought out attitude to his life and solutions moving forward. There’s a steely resolve which I hope will help him grow into the future Eritrean leader I feel a man of his stature would fit so well, he has even had the time since he has been in Israel to get married to a woman he met during his stay in one of the refugee camps he visited, she too has found solace as an asylum seeker but in the U.S. and managed to visit Osman last year for the first time to Wed. He has also established contact with his family and speaks to them when he can, the normality is returning and with this a focus which is allowed to think of a future, a future so many can take for granted in the developed world..

There’s a long way to go still but I hope that his efforts and those working with the community of asylum seekers around the world, and those who I’ve found to be focused on progressive development of their own countries when they do return, are empowered and encouraged to do so within their lifetimes and that they’re allowed to develop the relationships and pass on the relevant information and ideals to develop those who are still or just starting to grow up in this crazy set of circumstances they’ve found themselves in to change things once and for all… Maybe even with a bit of help from the rest of us!?

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