by Joakim Larsen
He is only 24 and is not supposed to be in Djibouti. In fact he is not supposed to be anywhere but in Eritrea, the country he managed to escape from at the age of 13. He is an illegal immigrant, an illegal human being. This is his fate.
The following is the story about a young and remarkable Eritrean refugee, who despite difficult circumstances refuses to give up. Instead he keeps trying to find a way to improve his life. I met him in Djibouti in March 2014 and we spent two days together, walking around the city, talking, laughing, sharing meals and exchanging views and ideas. His name is Sami. For the sake of his safety and the safety of his family his identity remains undisclosed. I hope this story will disturb you!
Eritrea - The World's Biggest Prison
Sami's birthplace is Eritrea, a small and closed country, located in the North Eastern corner of Africa by the Red Sea. To the East lies the Arabic Peninsula, to the West Sudan and to the South Ethiopia and Djibouti. Eritrea is nicknamed “the biggest prison in the World”. It is ruled by president Isaiah Afwerki and his administration, possibly the most ruthless military dictatorship of our day. Afwerki has been in power since 1993.
"Mengestu [military dictator in Ethiopia
during the Durg Regime until 1991] was trouble.
But the president of Eritrea is double trouble.
It is bad in Eritrea now. It is dangerous.
Lambedusa was never the beginning
We all know the horrifying stories of overfilled boats with refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranian Sea from Libya to Lambedusa – desperate attempts that often end in ultimate tragedy. Many of those refugees come from Eritrea.
But in our self-absorbity we tend to ignore those conditions that drove them to leave behind their families and their homes. We forget the risks they have taken, the sacrifice they have made and the suffering they have been through in search of a better life. We forget to empathise with the consequences their choices are having for them and for the family members that have been left behind in the claws of the ruthless and vindictive authorities.
The risky boat trip to Lampedusa is only the latest part of a long, often devastating and life-threatening journey, that these people have had to endure before arriving at the coast of Libya. Many die in their attempt to escape Eritrea; they die from exhaustion of thirst, or they are shot by the Eritrean border police. Others are caught, sent back, tortured and imprisoned – under conditions so rancour that they are difficult to imagine.
According to Human Rights Watch around 50% of the refugees who then try to pass through burning desert of Eastern Sahel in Sudan, Egypt and Libya or the desert of Sinai end up in the hands of tribal gangs and become subject to torture and exploitation, again and again. This they go through before the tragic stories of boat refugees in the sea around Lambedusa even reach the headlines of Western news papers…
Sami in the port of Djibouti strategically located
at the entrance of the Red Sea, one of the busiest shipping routes in the world.
Looking to the sea, Sami keeps his dream of a better life very much alive.
Persistence as mechanism for survival
Sami’s parents still live in Eritrea but he has been on his own ever since he managed to escape to Ethiopia at a young age. Fortunately he is a ressourceful person. His body is short and lean. His skin is dark from the outdoor life in the hammering Djiboutian sun. He moves quickly and the intense heat does not slow him down. He has a strong drive, he is quick and responsive, curious and high-spirited, social and openminded. His physical strength and personal drive are his assets. He is healthy and seems to have his priorities straight.
And he is a free spirit, not attached to people and places. He has no possessions except the clothes he is wearing and a small old orthodox Bible, which he keeps in the front pocket of his trousers, meticulously wrapped in a light blue satin bag.
“God is first.
And the Bible is a high book. I keep it with me always.
Behind his gansta’ like look you find a caring and considerate person, full of love and gratitude. And he turns it towards God – the only One he can count on. Many would feel desolate in such a situation, many would despair. But Sami is able to cope; he keeps his head high and his responce to the hardship is:
“Today is today. And time is kill.
So I have to move. I want out of this country.
I have to up and out to another country.
Maybe Algeria is good…
The tough life as illegal
Basic rights which many of us take for granted are luxuries which Sami has never had access to. If he stays in one place too long, he may get in trouble or he may get caught by the police. So he has to always be alert. And he has to be constantly on the move and avoid whatever may bring him in contact with the authorities.
At night he sleeps on benches in the harbour area grouped up with other illegal refugees, for there it is quiet and there is less police. In other places people come at night and chew chat, smoke marihuana and drink alcohol. And that is trouble, for they fight and then the police comes and puts them in jail.
“People are danger.
If I stay in one place too long the police might catch me.
And I have no papers so I will go to jail. I have been to jail many times in Djibouti. It is normal for me.
But I explain that I come from Eritrea and they keep me for three days and then let me go.
What can they do?
Keep trying - and more
Sami spends his days in search for work. Any kind of work. He keeps searching relentlessly for an open door that may give him the opportunity for a better life. He has been back in Djibouti for three months and finding day work is not a problem. The problem is the papers; without papers he has no rights. And he has nothing to document his identity and his existence – only his old school id. This makes him officially non-existent, illegal and un-wanted.
“I am trying to change my life. For the future I want a family. But first I have to find a way. I have to manage myself for it is expensive to get an id and you have to go to the HCR office. But here rich Ethiopians will get your id instead of you and go to Europe in your name.
Despite this Sami has been working on different cargo ships and he has sailed as far as Madagascar, the Ivory Coast, Shanghai and Japan. He has been to jail three times for having no id: in Abu Dhabi, in Sharjah and in Qatar. Still most of all he wants to get back and work onboard a cargo ship. For a ship can take him out of Djibouti and away to other countries, where his opportunities may be better.
“I want to find a ship and get on board and work.
That is good work and I am experienced.
Since I was little I have been working on ships.
Master of His Life
His future is uncertain; every today may present him with new opportunities or bring new problems. And Sami does not belong anywhere. No country really wants him.
“I just want to change my life!
... he exclaims. And who in that situation would not want that? Few people could handle a life in uncertainty and constant alert. Yet, despite his situation he is still the master of his own life – he still manages to maintain his integrity and he still keeps his dream alive.
After walking all over Djibouti City with him for two days, talking, listening, laughing and sharing meals, I gave him my contact details and told him to use them if he should ever get in trouble and need help. He folded the piece of paper neatly together and put it inside his Bible. He gave me a hug and left. Somehow I doubt I will ever hear from him.
This was my encounter with an illegal human being in Djibouti. I leave Djibouti deeply disturbed and I will remember him always.
Sami, may God guide you and protect you.
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