From Eritrea to San Francisco

Meron Semedar is a One Young World Ambassador and Eritrean refugee. He currently works with the East Bay Refugee Forum helping to resettle young emigrants in and around San Francisco, USA.

I am 26 and I have been a refugee for nine years. I never imagined becoming a refugee, being forced to leave Eritrea due to indefinite national service, human rights abuses and the lack of education opportunities. Since leaving I have moved from country to country in search of basic human rights and opportunities.

Young people like me take horrifying routes to reach their destinations. Africans cross the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Italy on crowded and unsafe boats. Last year 366 lives were lost when a boat carrying refugees sank off the island of Lampedusa, Italy. The Telegraph reported that around 55,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to enter Europe between January and May 2014. This is already higher than the number who made the crossing in 2013. 

Safely traveling to a country of asylum is just the first challenge facing refugees. Once you arrive you must secure asylum status. How difficult this is varies from country to country and many are not accepted. If you secure refugee status, you still face an uphill struggle to find housing, work, access to education and equal treatment in general. Most of the time as a refugee you have no one to help or guide you. Many NGOs working with refugees lack the resources to meet demand and some cannot come close to delivering what is needed.

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Above: Meron leads a demonstration on refugee rights in Washington D.C

Since leaving Eritrea I have worked to try and assist fellow refugees. During my years in South Africa, I co-founded a refugee led non-profit called Unity for Tertiary Refugee Students. It aims to assist refugees to further their tertiary education so that they can become real change makers in their community and advocate for change in their home land. 

In the United States, I have been working with Eritrean Youth for Change and the East Bay Refugee Forum. Work involves resettling new refugees, translating Tigrigia (Eritrean language) into English to assist social workers, coordinating educational seminars, representing refugees in various meetings and coordinating awareness raising events such as on World Refugee Day. This year, with the assistance of these organisations and funds from the Philanthropic Venture Foundation, I was able to launch a new initiative called Eritrean Asylum Applicants Assistance Program (EAAAP).

EAAAP aims to provide food and transport money to Eritrean asylum seekers who are not permitted to work and earn income until their asylum or work permit is granted. The benefit includes $200 loaded on a gift card for food and an $80 clipper card for transport each month. Those who receive the grants have said that, although it has really made a big impact in their lives, they would like to see it grow to cover housing rent. The project has being going on for a couple of months while the number of refugees in need continues to rise.

Increasing movement of refugees is a burden for developed nations. In 2013 it was estimated that around 11.7 million illegal immigrants were living in the United States. European countries and the United States are amongst those affected by the increasing number of refugees. The highest recent number recorded in Europe was 141,000 in 2011 during the Arab Spring and it is believed this year’s number will equal that figure.

Although many of these countries do what they can to accommodate and resettle displaced people, these efforts only address symptoms and not cause. World leaders need to look at ways to improve conditions in countries where there are high numbers of displaced people if we are to make the numbers fall.

I ask the international community not to give us sympathy but help us find lasting solutions to address the root causes of displacement. I ask fellow refugees not to forget about their countries and people; assist new arrivals, be an advocate for those at home and act as a voice for the voiceless.