Sailing for Freedom
When Henok finally fled Eritrea, his native country, in a tiny fishing boat in the dark of night, he wasn’t thinking of starting over in America. He was afraid for his life and desperate to leave a country that persecuted him for having a college education and believing in the rule of law. He wanted to live anywhere but Eritrea, but his immediate goal was to cross the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.
Henok and 12 other young men, many educated and all formerly or currently involved with the Eritrean navy, shared a common fear for their future under a militaristic government. “I can never go back,” says Henok now. “I would be killed.” The would-be exiles found a rickety fishing boat, pooled their money and bought 600 liters of fuel, which they hid in the hull. As the group gathered provisions, they took the boat out on little expeditions to avoid suspicion. Then one night at midnight, Henok and the others swam out to the anchored boat and began their perilous journey.
For four days they sailed the Red Sea toward Saudi Arabia. Using their navy knowledge they managed to avoid military lookouts. Water ran out the first day. They had brought no food. A storm forced them to moor on a tiny deserted island.
At last, they reached their destination. They declared their intention to seek asylum, hoping for kind treatment. Instead they found themselves locked in a primitive island jail for five months Until the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) granted them refugee status. They were transferred to a nicer detention center, but received no promises for a further change in situation.
There were now over 200 Eritreans in Saudi detention centers, each one desperate to get out. “Life became monotonous,” recalls Henok, “nothing but stagnation of the mind and body.” Months went by, but finally a UNHCR representative, Olivera Markovic, appeared to help them apply for foreign resettlement. Communication was difficult, but Henok was fluent in English. He translated for the entire group of Eritrean detainees as they applied for resettlement in distant Seattle.
“She told me, ‘One day we will meet and have coffee at a place called Caffé Umbria,’ says Henok. “She was the first person to encourage me.”
On June 27, 2006, Henok arrived in Seattle. The International Rescue Committee greeted him with a furnished apartment, a volunteer mentor and appointments with an employment specialist.
Last August, Olivera came to visit her sister and, as promised, held a tearful reunion with Henok at the Pioneer Square coffee shop. “When she told me we would meet again in this place, it was like a dream,” says Henok. “Then it really happened, and it was like a dream coming true.”
Over the summer, other Eritreans arrived in Seattle and found IRC staff and volunteers equally willing to help them make the rainy city their new home. In the end, 185 of the refugees in Saudi detention were granted residence in the United States. Thirty men who had fought in the war against Ethiopia for Eritrea’s independence were rejected by the U.S. and remain in limbo.
Those fortunate enough to be resettled must cope with the anxiety of separation from friends and families who remain in Ethiopia. Henok’s mother was detained by the authorities for six months as punishment for his escape. But they hold on to their faith in the future. “Before, I was on a track to earn an advanced degree in the sciences,” says Henok. “I would like to continue my education in science toward becoming a university professor.”
More on the conflict in Eritrea
Eritrea is a small country on the Red Sea, bordered by Sudan and Ethiopia. When colonial powers withdrew from east Africa in the 1940s, the U.N. decided to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia at the urging of the U.S. (which feared Eritrea would become Communist). This is not what the Eritreans wanted, and conflict was ensured by this forced union.
In 1962, Eritrea began a 30-year struggle for independence when Ethiopia broke the arrangements of the federation and attempted to formally annex the territory.. Though Eritrea won independence in 1993, border struggles with Ethiopia have not ceased and Eritrean society remains highly militarized. All young men are required to perform military service.
“Everyone must be a soldier,” laments 23-year-old Aaron*, friend of Henok and recent arrival in Seattle. “They come to your home and take you away, train you to fight, but why we fight is not clear. Ethiopian and Eritrean: one culture, one people. But we kill each other… for what?”
“I left because there was a dictator crisis,” relates Henok. “I was at risk to be jailed or even killed for speaking out against the government. I was a university student when the student president of the university was jailed.”
After students protested the legality of this action, 3,000 were rounded up and jailed for 45 days. Henok was one of them. “It was very hot. We were very badly treated.” The students were forced to sign documents saying that their protest had been a mistake. Suspicion of students, even those in high school, and of educated people in general, has became common in Eritrea.
*Refugees names have been changed to protect their privacy.