‘I can’t sleep’: Eritreans in the US worry for loved ones living in Ethiopian refugee camps

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Each day, Redi Rekab wonders if it will be the day his children die.

His two children – 19 and 20 – live in an Ethiopian refugee camp and weren’t able to contact their father, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, for months after a war began in the country in November and blocked all access to communication in the Tigray region.

During the conflict, four refugee camps hosting more than 96,000 Eritrean refugees were impacted. They lost communication and access to food and water. Two of the camps are believed to have been destroyed and now are closed.

The other two camps – including Mai Aini, where Rekab’s children have lived for four years (their mother died in 2004) – just recently began to offer services again, according to Juliette Stevenson, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), speaking from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

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FILE – In this Dec. 13, 2020, file photo, refugees who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region arrive from Village 8, the transit center near the Lugdi border crossing, at Umm Rakouba refugee camp in Qadarif, eastern Sudan. Huge unknowns persist in the deadly conflict, but details of the involvement of neighboring Eritrea, one of the world's most secretive countries, are emerging through witness accounts by survivors and others. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File) (Photo: Nariman El-Mofty, AP)

The Eritrean diaspora

Rekab is one of thousands of Eritreans living outside the country who are worried about family members in Africa.

“I can’t sleep one night even, just thinking about them,” said Rekab, 53, speaking Tigrinya through a translator. “I’m very discouraged because of my children … There is war and the situation is very bad … People are dying every day.”

Rekab, a former refugee who lives in Columbus, finally heard from his children earlier this month that they are alive. But still, he worries for their safety.

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The conflict, which began over a domestic, political power struggle, is ongoing and now involves forces from Eritrea. Rekab’s children tell him every day there is violence near the camp where they live.

He’s been waiting for four years for his son and daughter to join him in Columbus, but the case is moving slowly, as are thousands of refugees’ applications for family reunification. 

Thousands of Eritreans have been fleeing the Northeast African country to live in the camps in neighboring Ethiopia since at least 2008 due to forced, indefinite military service; religious persecution; and torture. There are an estimated 180,000 Eritrean refugees total in Ethiopia, according to the UNHCR.

Map locates key cities in Ethiopia's Tigray region. Millions of Tigray residents, still largely cut off from the world, live in fear of Eritrean soldiers. (Photo: Associated Press)

The Eritrean diaspora is large, Stevenson said, and an estimated 35,000 live in the United States. 

Rekab has lived here since 2017 and has been discouraged about the likelihood that his children will be able to join him soon due to the situation in Tigray.

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Mulugeta Gebresilasie is a former Eritrean refugee and now works for Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS). He is trying to raise awareness of the thousands of Eritrean refugees who were displaced from, killed and abused in refugee camps in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. He is posing for a portrait outside of the CRIS office on Monday, March 22, 2021. (Photo: Fred Squillante/Columbus Dispatch)

“Mai Aini is surrounded by different troops,” said Mulugeta Gebresilasie, an employment counselor at Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS), a refugee resettlement agency. “That is now the war zone.”

Gebresilasie, 49 and a former refugee from Eritrea, has been in the country since 2015. And while his own family members were able to come with him here, he said he feels for those whose loved ones may have been killed due to the conflict surrounding the camps.

“It’s my heart breaking,” Gebresilasie said. “Every day I’m crying when I hear the bad news.”

He fled his home country in 2008 to avoid being jailed indefinitely for his faith and work as a Pentecostal Christian pastor. He spent six years in a refugee camp in the Tigray region before being resettled in Columbus in 2015.

‘Living in a dark place’

Sied Ousman, 23, who is another Eritrean refugee living in the Columbus area, teared up while talking about how hard it was for him in November, when he didn’t know if his wife of three years was dead or alive.

The anguish hasn’t eased up much, even though he now knows she is alive. He learned that his wife was shot in her right arm after leaving a refugee camp in search of food. She was taken to a hospital for a month, he said, and now is living in Addis Ababa, where she continues to suffer from pain in her arm that is so intense she cannot move her fingers.

At his home, Ousman feels pain too, as he cannot be with her.

“To separate from your wife means you are living in a dark place,” Ousman said, speaking Tigrinya through a translator. “Everything is dark. You can’t live without your lover. That’s why I’m suffering a lot.”

Ousman met his wife in the refugee camp, and they got married in 2018. Both had resettlement cases pending at the time, and he was resettled here in the summer of 2019. (Reapplying together would have delayed their resettlement.)

When he got to the United States, Ousman applied for her to join him right away, but he said he hasn’t heard anything other than a confirmation that his application was received.

“I can’t express how much we are hurt, both of us,” he said. 

‘We cannot locate thousands of refugees’

Refugee camps are civilian and run by humanitarian agencies such as the UNHCR, so they are not typically guarded, Stevenson said.

The whole world should know they are not in a safe place, said Gebresilasie, who thinks the United States and United Nations should intervene to help Eritreans in the Tigray region.

The conflict was unexpected, Stevenson said, and the two northern camps, Hitsats and Shimelba, collectively housed more than 30,000 registered refugees before they were destroyed, she said.

“This has caused a large number of refugees in the area to scatter,” Stevenson said. “We’re still not able to determine where registered refugees are to be able to give them assistance.”

People displaced by the recent conflict live in crowded conditions at a makeshift camp for the displaced in a derelict building of the Shire campus of Axum University, in Shire, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. For months, one great unknown in Ethiopia's Tigray conflict has been the fate of hundreds of thousands of people in vast rural areas beyond the reach of outside aid, but now thousands who have been hiding there have begun arriving in a community that can barely support them. (International Rescue Committee via AP) (Photo: AP)

Many fled the northern camps with nothing and are once again starting over with nothing, as they did when they fled Eritrea originally. Some could still be in the Tigray region or may have been forcibly returned to Eritrea, Stevenson said.

“It still remains very concerning that we cannot locate thousands of refugees,” she said. 

The UNHCR works to resettle refugees in safe countries where they can start a new life, but the ability to do that is dependent on the willingness of countries such as the United States to provide space for them.

Under the Trump administration, refugee resettlement numbers – determined by the president – dropped to historic lows. Only 11,814 were resettled in the United States in fiscal year 2020, which ended Sept. 30.

In previous years, upwards of 65,000 refugees were resettled, with some presidents resettling closer to 200,000 per year. President Joe Biden has pledged to increase the number from 15,000 planned to be resettled this year to 125,000, but has not yet done so. 

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Hopes for a new home

There are currently 80 million forcibly displaced people in the world, according to the UNHCR, with 26.3 million of them being refugees.

“Normally the places that are available are so minuscule in comparison to what the needs are,” Stevenson said.

Of the 800,000 refugees in Ethiopia, just about 1,500 to 2,000 will be resettled per year, she said. 

“On average, families spend 20 years in displacement,” she said.

In order for the thousands of refugees displaced in the Tigray region to get help, people need to keep the conflict visible, Stevenson said.

FILE – In this Nov. 21, 2020, file photo, refugees who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region arrive on the banks of the Tekeze River on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan. Huge unknowns persist in the deadly conflict, but details of the involvement of neighboring Eritrea, one of the world's most secretive countries, are emerging with witness accounts by survivors and others. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File) (Photo: Nariman El-Mofty, AP)

“There’s always a tendency in our 24 hour news cycle that things quickly drop off the map and the needs here are still vast,” Stevenson said. “We need the government to continue to focus on this region and focus on the needs of the people.”

Gebresilasie just wants people to know what’s happening, so the families can get help and be reunified.

“Where are our children? Where are our parents? Where are our husbands and our wives?” he said. “At least let the whole world know where our brothers and sisters are … More than 120 days they suffer.”

Follow reporter Danae King on Twitter: @DanaeKing

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