According to the United Nations, there are 67 million refugees in the world today and more than 30,000 people fleeing North Africa to escape the revolutions in those countries. Here is one bright story of hope.
In 2002, at the age of 17, Zekarias Kebraeb fled his home in Eritrea to escape his impending forced military service during the country’s war of independence. To stay would have meant abuse, torture and, possibly, his death. Kebraeb is now bravely sharing his story of what became a four-year journey to safety in Europe in Paradise Denied: How I survived the Journey from Eritrea to Europe. He hopes his story will encourage other refugees to no longer live in fear and inspire young people across the globe to take full advantage of opportunities afforded to them.
As told to: Marianne Moesle
Translated by: Andrew Godfrey
My adey didn’t want me to flee to Europe – to paradise. Adey means mother. She was afraid and would rather have sent me to the army than allowed me to leave. But I knew she couldn’t really mean it, and so we argued about it. We actually get on pretty well though. That might have been because my father died young and, as the youngest son among her five children, I lived at home with her for longest. I could talk to adey about anything, even about the circumcision of my young niece…and I took a firm stance against tradition.
At the age of 16, I finished school and went into hiding. Boys and girls, women and men – in Eritrea, everyone has to do military service until their 50th birthday. Eritrea has the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa. Anyone who flees and gets caught, like one of my school friends, gets tortured and imprisoned.
But I wanted to be free: to say what I think, to write poems and stories like I had before press censorship was introduced in 2001, to choose my own job and not to be a slave of the military dictatorship. An invisible war is waging in Eritrea – a war that is devouring people. Ten thousand people – journalists, critics of the regime, ministers, members of the opposition and deserters – have disappeared into torture camps without trial. Millions have fled. Sometimes entire families save up to pay for a smuggler to take them to Europe.
I got my older brother to secretly send me money from England so that I could flee. On March 2, 2002, I left my family home in Asmara and headed to Sudan.
Adey knew exactly how dangerous the crossing of the Sahara and the Mediterranean could be. She also knew that I wouldn’t find the paradise in Europe that I’d always dreamed of. The paradise which sent flour when we were starving during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea; the paradise in which money apparently grew on trees; the paradise where my idol, Michael Jackson, sang “We are the world.”
Adey would never have allowed me to go, but when I called her from Sudan and cried over the phone because I was injured, hungry and didn’t want to keep going, she was firm but encouraging: “You’ve set off already, now you have to keep following your own path.” Adey is a very proud, upstanding woman; she raised us children by herself and sent us all to school so that we could learn and form our own opinions.
Only when we saw each other again did she tell me that she had cried for me every night and prayed, “Hail Mary, full of grace…” Until October 2002, when I arrived in Italy, she couldn’t sleep – she simply waited anxiously for the sound of one of the neighbors knocking at the door to tell her that I was dead. Did she sense it when I nearly died of thirst in the desert and the smugglers wanted to leave me out in the sand beneath the blazing sun? Or when I was so deathly afraid on the boat in the Mediterranean that I lost my faith in God and, in my despair, wished to join my father in death?
I was homeless and lived on the streets in Italy, I was imprisoned pending deportation in Germany, and I stayed in countless asylum centers where I nearly died of boredom – until finally I was granted leave to remain on humanitarian grounds. This is a very insecure residence status. I wasn’t allowed to work or study or travel, and I certainly wasn’t allowed to invite my mother to Germany. It meant just one thing: I could no longer be deported. When I was afraid or in a state of despair, sometimes I didn’t call my adey back at home for weeks at a time. I was often afraid and I often despaired.
We had to wait eight years to see each other again. I was only able to invite her for a reunion during a research trip with my co-author for the book Paradise Denied. We met in Khartoum in Sudan. I came to her empty-handed – I didn’t have any money to bring her an expensive cell phone from paradise. But my adey just laughed, “What do I need a phone for when the birds are singing all around?”
I couldn’t help but cry when we embraced at the airport. It’s embarrassing for a man to cry…but never mind that, I missed her so much. I was still nearly unable to bring myself to fulfil her only wish: to cross the Nile by boat, at the point where the Blue and White Nile converge. Since my horrific journey over the Mediterranean, I’ve had a terrible fear of water. But what does my adey do? She simply gets into the boat. I was shaking, I shut my eyes; but then I went after her like a duckling following behind a mother duck. “Zekarias, you were always pig-headed,” she said. “I knew you’d make it.” She was right: I was very proud and so was she.
Because I published my story, I’ve now been granted asylum as a political refugee and even given German citizenship, and so I can now officially invite my mother to visit Germany. Last year, we ate Lebkuchen at the Christmas market in Nuremberg. The thing that astonished adey most was the fact that lots of people here walk around “with hunched shoulders.” She blames the cold and the heavy winter coats.
Photos courtesy of author