One Young World Ambassador Meron Semedar shares his experience of the Eritrean Diaspora.
My name is Meron Semedar. I was born in Eritrea, when the country was under the Derg regime of Ethiopia. Like many Eritreans, my father was part of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) trying to bring about independence. I was born in a free area of Eritrea, controlled by EPLF at that time. Independence came in 1991, with a referendum taking place in 1993. The country started to build itself from scratch and for once the people of Eritrea started to experience peace and development.
But not for long - because the regime started to go to war with all its neighbouring countries. This also held back the implementation of a constitution. It was followed by forced military conscription of every young citizen and indefinite national service. In 2001 came the arrest of 15 top cabinet ministers, many journalists and closure of all independent media. At that point, when things started to look not good for any young Eritrean, the migration of hundreds of thousands of Eritreans began.
Above: Meron addressing the Human Rights Plenary Session at the One Young World Summit 2012 in Pittsburgh, USA.
Everyone who finishes high school is forced to do five months of military training and the final year of high school is in a military training camp called Sawa. This is the only way to further your studies in Eritrea. So, in 2004 I went to do what I was forced to do. Every now and then there were speeches from senior leaders at the military training camp saying that war might break out at any time and that we needed to be alert and ready. (I lost my father in the border conflict war with Ethiopia that took place from 1998 to 2000, which took the lives of almost 100,000 soldiers and displaced many innocent civilians. To date there is no clear achievement from that war and the border dispute remains.)
To Eritreans, it does not stop there. Human rights violations rose to a peak. Many Eritreans were tortured and imprisoned without any due process. For the young, the forced military training, indefinite national service and the closure of the only university made us hopeless. Also, demonstrations for change, for example, by disabled veterans in 1994 and by Asmara University students in 2001, were forcibly and violently ended. Additionally, the torture of students at a new military camp where temperatures were more than 40 degree centigrade, made our hopes slip by. Since the time when all Eritreans clapped our hands at the arrival of independence, things had gone badly downhill.
In 2005 therefore, I, along with five other students decided to flee the country from the military training camp. There is a definite shoot-to-kill policy when people try crossing the border. We took the chance, as we could see no hope in the near future in our country. We all made it safely to Sudan after many hours of running and walking, mostly during the night. As we entered Sudan, we learned our safety in that country would not be for long. Sudan was at war itself and the Eritrean government has full power of entering Sudan and doing whatever it wants.
We saw that we would have to go our separate ways in search of our future and a nation that would provide us at least basic human rights and freedom. Most of my friends took the most horrifying journey, crossing the Sahara Desert and into Libya mostly in small cars. From Libya, they made their way to Europe by boat, over-loaded with people and crossing the Mediterranean in the most extreme conditions. Some of my schoolmates and friends who grew up in our neighborhood died in the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean. But many others also made it safely to Italy.
Others took a different route, crossing Sudan into Egypt then through the Sinai into Israel. It was here where the worst horrors happened to my Eritrean brothers and sisters. Kidnapped, chained, tortured, raped and some had their internal organs removed while they were alive. On top of this, their family members were forced to pay huge ransoms for their release. A number of teenage boys who grew up in the same area as I did died in Sinai, in the worst possible kind of death, even though their family members paid the required ransoms. What I discovered later was the kidnappers sell them on to others once they have secured the money they need. I, myself, journeyed to South Africa as I was aiming to continue my studies. I knew South Africa could fulfill my educational dream, as many Eritreans were already studying there.
Once you embark on the journey of being an immigrant, you soon learn your life is on a tough road. Obtaining a legal document to confirm your identity is very hard but once you do that, you can work and study. Having no government to advocate on your behalf if anything goes wrong is something that every Eritrean in Diaspora worries about. Hosting nations often do not want to recognise the legal status of Eritreans making it difficult to get a job or go to school.
I spent seven years of my life studying engineering and working in a restaurant at the same time. Once you are out of your country with no proper documentation, it is the only way to survive and make progress. At the start, I had nothing but by working long hours as a waiter I was able to put myself through tertiary education, pay my rent and keep body and soul together with no help from anyone else.
Above: Meron at World Refugee Day in Oakland, California, USA.
Some years ago, I thought about what I went through to educate myself and the road that I had traveled. I was denied of the normal life of a young person. This is what inspired me to contribute to assisting other refugees while I am still a refugee myself. I became a member of the executive committee of an organisation called Unity for Tertiary Refugee Students (UTRS), which is led by refugees for refugees. Its aim is to assist refugees in furthering their tertiary education by finding bursaries, scholarships and internships and providing advocacy for new arrivals to help them get their identification papers, educating refugees on their rights within the host nation, provide counseling, and sharing experiences. Our skills also include developing leadership skills, sharing experience on issues related to human rights, and engaging in peaceful demonstrations to ensure that our voices are heard.
I also joined the executive committee of a nonprofit organisation called Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR), which promotes democracy and the upholding of human rights in Eritrea. I work actively in mobilising young Eritreans to stand up for positive change and becoming a voice for the voiceless people in Eritrea.
Currently I am in the Bay area, U.S.A. assisting Eritrean migrants in a resettlement program through the East Bay Refugee Forum (EBRF) - giving them information on their new home, getting them to be familiar with the customs and policies of the new country. Assisting new migrants to settle well and making their transition period smooth is what we aim to achieve. I also represent the Eritrean Youth For Change (EYC-Bay Area) at events mobilising Eritreans to stand for positive change in Eritrea and do advocacy at a number of events. Recently I participated in a full marathon in San Francisco for the cause of democracy, liberty and freedom in Eritrea. Many young people were touched by the cause.
Also recently, I attended the United Nations Youth Assembly in New York, a first for a young Eritrean – the reason being; the Eritrean government does not allow young people to leave the country under any circumstances. At this event I delivered a memorandum on behalf of my organization EMDHR to all members of the Security Council Member States demanding an end the human rights violations in Eritrea.
Above: Meron's speech during the Human Rights Plenary Session at the One Young World Summit 2012 in Pittsburgh, USA.