“My criticism was not deliberate, but I wanted society to know that this happened because of security weaknesses,” he recalls. Ironically, Clemente was accused of breaching national security, arrested and jailed. “They did not take me to court. They treated me like an animal.”
After a year, he managed to escape—a matter of luck, as one of the guards was a friend of the family. “I asked him to go to my family to get money,” he explains. In exchange for the favor, Clemente offered to bring the guard with him to Sudan. “I had relatives in Sudan,” he says. “I stayed in Kassala for a month, but I was scared. I was a fugitive, and I heard stories of people being brought back to Eritrea.”The Politics of Refuge
Clemente fled to the Shimelba refugee camp in Ethiopia, but life didn’t get much easier. The camp, a parched piece of land close to the Eritrean border, was established in 2004, replacing the Walnhby refugee camp created during the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The desolate place now houses approximately 12,000 refugees, but even here politics made life miserable still.
“I am Kunama, and if you make any stir, they magnify it and jail you,” Clemente says with a thin smile. The Kunama are believed to be the original inhabitants of this region and live in villages on either side of the border. Marginalized and ostracized for decades by the dominant Tigrinya population, which also controls the government that supports large commercial farms, the pastoral Kunama are at odds with official policy. The war exacerbated the differences between the groups, and when Ethiopian troops pulled out of the border zone, the Kunama no longer felt safe. Some 4,000 fled their homes in the Gash Barka region, considered the bread basket of Eritrea.Teaching, Learning and Hope
Clemente entered Shimelba on June 29, 2005, finding cousins who had left their land during the war, a common occurrence among Eritrean refugees. Fortunately for Clemente, he earned a degree in education and taught for a year before turning to journalism. This enabled him to find meaningful work with the International Rescue Committee as a vice director of its preschool program.
“The Kunama teachers did not complete their high school or the teacher training in Eritrea, and IRC put me here to help and advise them,” he says. “It is all about teaching and learning.”
The IRC has provided preschool activities for children between the ages three to six since 2004, focusing on the psychosocial needs of refugees as they process trauma. The program has proved especially helpful to girls who must care for younger siblings. With their charges in preschool, they are able to attend primary school.
“I like the children—always they make me smile,” Clemente says, smiling warmly himself as he cradles two preschoolers in his arms. “They keep my mind fresh—they simplify my life in this camp.”
The saga of Clemente’s journey will not end in Shimelba. Last September, UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, arrived in camp to register the Kunama population for resettlement in the United States. It is now only a question of time before he claims his new life.
“They asked us many questions,” he recalls. “And they said that, when you go to the U.S., you have to respect U.S. laws. That is when I realized I was going to the United States.”
Clemente is excited about the prospect of resettlement. “I will have access to many things, education, work … life! That is the thing that gives me hope.”