Eritrean refugee Sara Shengeb uses story to inspire others

SARA Shengeb was forced to flee her home in Eritrea and live as a refugee for three years before resettling in Australia.

She was able to use her experiences to help guide a group of 17 youths with refugee and migrant backgrounds who took part in the Shout Out program run in Leederville.

The program, run throughout two months, provided a platform for the youths to improve their public speaking and media skills with workshops on speech writing and media interviews so they could share their perspective on issues that are important to them.

Ms Shengeb, who co-organised the program, said she knew how important it was for them to be able to tell their stories.

“This program was about giving young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds a voice,” she said.

“We want them to have the confidence to stand up and speak out about the issues that are important to them.

“There are many social issues affecting young people in this group and at the moment many of them are not having their perspectives heard by the wider community.”

The program was organised by the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network (MYANWA), which is run out of the Youth Affairs Council of WA office.

Participants completed the program on June 12, and each person delivered a speech about their experiences as a multicultural youth in Australia.

The final step in the program was the development of a website featuring the young people’s photos and bios, which went live on July 1.


The long road to Paris for Eritrea's refugees

Even in Paris, Eritreans fear the ‘mosquitoes’ – informers for the regime of Isaias Afwerki, a freedom fighter turned alcoholic dictator who has ruled the country with an iron fist since Eritrean independence in 1993.

In a report published June 8, a UN investigation concluded that the Eritrean government’s systematic human rights violations may amount to crimes against humanity.

It’s what fleeing Eritreans have been saying for years: the country is run like a massive prison camp. Teenage conscripts are often held in slavery-like conditions indeterminately and reports of arbitrary detention and torture are widespread.

The Eritrean government polices the borders, controls movement (even from one neighbourhood to another) and keeps tabs on the population with an integrated network of “mosquitoes”.

Eritrean refugees in Paris still seem plagued by fear. Sentences trail off, suggesting haunting experiences that are left unsaid. However, they will likely reveal more about the horrors of life in Eritrea to French officials during closed-door asylum claim meetings.

Yet even those meetings can be dangerous.

“There’s been a consistent problem with Tigrinya translators,” said Léonard Vincent, RFI journalist and author of “The Eritreans”. “Several European countries accidentally hired Afwerki sympathisers who pressured migrants to change their stories or relayed information to Asmara [the Eritrean capital].”

'Life in Eritrea is impossible'

Fear is the reason that Eritrean refugee Tes doesn’t want his photo taken. He slept rough for weeks after arriving in Paris in May, explaining that he fled Eritrea after he “got in trouble” with the authorities.

Life for Eritreans deteriorated in 2000. Afwerki, who had just lost a war with Ethiopia, wanted to re-assert his power. He began a policy of indefinite national service, shut down the free press and arrested dissidents. The first wave of Eritreans fled in 2003.

Although Afwerki has tightened his grip in the years since, the human smuggling network has also strengthened, often working with Eritrean or Sudanese military border patrols. No one gets out of Eritrea alone.

“Families save for years to pay one person’s passage,” said Vincent. “Departees are considered deserters. Families pay fines of around 3,000 euros and can even be imprisoned, especially if the ‘deserter’ is well-known.”

Tes said he crossed the border on foot, with two friends. When asked about their whereabouts, there was another pause, then another haunted look.

Eritrean refugees run enormous risks to flee the country. Eritrean border guards have a shoot-to-kill policy. A kidnapping racket is active on the Sudanese border and many captive Eritreans are taken to the Sinai peninsula where they are held for ransoms in makeshift prisons.

Tes left the borderlands quickly. In Khartoum, he stayed with a cousin. He quickly realised that "life was impossible in Eritrea, but it was also impossible in Sudan."

He then started saving money for the most perilous leg of his journey: through Libya.


A refugee's gruelling odyssey - from Eritrea to Germany

Garding, Germany - Brahane Tesfay, a 21-year-old asylum seeker from Eritrea, is one of thousands of refugees who have come here after a desperate journey for a better life.

But Germany wasn't Tesfay's first stop. He arrived at the end of April after spending more than five years attempting to start anew in Israel.

Now, in the small town of Garding, about 140km northwest of Hamburg, Tesfay is finally registered as an asylum seeker. Israel, he said, "was not a good [place]".

An Eritrean man died on Sunday after being shot by Israeli security forces then beaten by a mob after a Palestinian attacker targeted a bus station in the city of Beersheba. The Eritrean bystander, Haftom Zarhum, 29, was apparently mistaken as the attacker's accomplice.

Tesfay fled Eritrea when he was 15 years old to avoid being forced into mandatory military service. His older brother went with him, and they crossed Egypt's Sinai Desert to reach the Israeli border.

 Exodus from Ethiopia


Human rights groups have lambasted the Eritrean government for abusive working conditions, arbitrary arrests and corruption. Eritrean refugees are now the second-largest group of asylum seekers arriving in Europe, after Syrians.

"There is a siege mentality in the [Eritrean] regime. [Military service] has now become indefinite; huge numbers of people are ageing in the trenches - you have to sacrifice everything," Yohannes Woldemariam, an Eritrean and associate professor of international relations at Fort Lewis College in the United States, told Al Jazeera.

In Israel, Tesfay was taken to Nitzana, a boarding school for undocumented minors. He lived there for more than two years. When he graduated he went to Kfar Sava in northern Israel, and worked as a waiter. But it was not always easy to find work. He said he received racist remarks from people in the streets, and was ultimately denied asylum. 

"Today's refugees are brown, black, Muslims," Woldemariam said. "You can't compare it to really anything, maybe in the case of the African slave trade. At least during the slave trade they were wanted for something."