Ethiopia: Eritrean refugee faces challenges with grace
05 July 2016

Selam Gebru hopes to be able to work in order to become self-reliant, and to also find proper support for her autistic child. (Christian Fuchs / Jesuit Refugee Service)

Addis Ababa, 5 July 2016 -- Selam Gebru* is an Eritrean refugee who fled her homeland seeking safety eight years ago. A single mother of a child with autism, Selam holds two university degrees but is unable to hold a regular job due to restrictions placed on refugees in Ethiopia. 

Refugees are not allowed to hold work permits in Ethiopia. However, refugees are able to put their skills to work as incentive workers. It’s in this role that Selam works for JRS, teaching English to fellow refugees at the JRS Refugee Community Centre here in Addis. For the past several years, Selam has also been undergoing the long and rigorous process of seeking asylum in a third country — in this case, the United States. She hopes to become self-reliant and find more professional support for her child with autism.

Selam spoke with JRS June 18 in Addis Ababa.


My name is Selam Gebru. I am from Eritrea. I left home because the environment was not favourable for me — I was supposed to serve in the military for many years, God knows how long. My faith — I am a Protestant — it was forbidden to worship. All the churches were closed, all the Christians were being hounded by the government, so all in all I decided to flee home eight years ago. I was 24, right after I graduated.

To leave Eritrea, it is a very risky journey. You are not supposed to tell anyone because if you are caught — let alone crossing — the idea is very risky, so it has to be done in secret. The smugglers, the payment, everything has to be done in secret. When I decided that I had to leave, that I could no longer survive there, I started searching for people who crossed already and got those connections to the smugglers.

It took me two or three years to study, to find the right person. You never know whether you’re going to make it or not, but you take the risk — if you die you die, if you make it you make it, it’s 50/50.

I found this guy and said he could take me, so I went from the main city to near the border. Then all the way on foot to Ethiopia. We had to walk two days, only at night. Daytime we would hide out, at night we would walk all night. Thank God I made it safely.

When we got to Ethiopia, it was the Ethiopian militia who found us. I never thought they would treat us that way, but the way they treated us was honestly so amazing. They gave us food, gave us shelter, everything. They took us to the military camp and after two days of rest in the military camp they took us to the main camp.

I went to a refugee camp. We had to process our data, our information, everything.  After processing all of our information I stayed in the camp for a couple a months and I asked the government if I could come to the main city because life in the camp was very difficult. The weather, the food, health, everything — it was so difficult that I had a problem… I had medical problems, so after a long process as well I came to Addis.

Addis is good place, but not a good place for a refugee. The language is a problem. You don’t have any work permit. And if you don’t have anyone you know, it’s like you are in the middle of a wilderness. You can be a victim, you are vulnerable to many things. It was very challenging the first day that I came to Addis, but thank God I had friends who came to Addis earlier and I (was able) to live with them.

You don’t work, so we had to come to JRS. But after a while I was lucky enough, I was blessed with a scholarship, I got a scholarship [from the] Ethiopian government and UNHR in collaboration; they gave us a scholarship in Addis Ababa University.

I studied print and web journalism, and I actually graduated in first class. I haven’t been able to do anything with my previous degree back home, and I’m not able to do anything with it here as well because we don’t have any work permits.

I work as an incentive worker and English instructor. This will be my fourth year. An incentive worker is not…it’s not like I’m different from the locals workers, I do everything they do, but I’m different from the locals in payment and all the (benefits) package —I don’t get it. The payment is very low, it’s like from hand to mouth, but I’m happy with what I do because I’m able to work and help my family and myself.

English is very important because it is the language you can speak everywhere. It is an international language. For refugees it’s extremely important because the first thing for me when I teach that’s what I tell them, they (will) be able to process their case. If they don’t speak, if they can have someone translate their case, at least they know what the person is saying. If they are able to speak, if they learn it, they can process their case, they can say whatever they want to the person concerned with their case.

It’s extremely important, and also when they resettle they will be self-reliant. They will expressing what they want, even if they go somewhere and they can ask in English they wouldn’t get lost. And it would make an easy life, they won’t be in shock as well with the culture with the people if you have a way of communicating, I think life can be at least easier.

It’s not an easy thing to get into the resettlement process. For me it has taken like eight years. What it is like to go through the process of resettlement is first you have to be an eligible refugee, and you have to come to UNHR, and my time is was only one day in two months, but these days its every week, so you have to wait two months not to present but just to face a protection officer, and you tell them your case, your problem, and if your case is good enough, they will, not at once but after many years, they will send your case for resettlement.

It’s not an easy thing, it takes several months, sometimes years. You will go through different times of screening, not once not twice, but three-four-five times, it depends. If you are lucky, that’s what I always say, If God is willing, you can pass. It’s like what they told me, your case would be sent to different countries like USA, maybe some Europeans countries, Australia, if they accept your case and then they will tell you that your case has passed for resettlement. (Once you are referred to a country for resettlement) you again begin the process (with them) from the very beginning.

So it is not an easy thing, it is something all the refugees wait [for] with hope, with prayer. It takes years. It’s not what we see — they fly, they reach America or Europe — it’s not that easy. It takes several months, several years. You give it what you have, everything. The process is not easy. It’s long, it needs patience, and it needs prayer as well.

I came to know about my child when she was two and a half. I didn’t have any idea what autism was actually. She wasn’t verbal, she didn’t communicate, so I thought it was a simple thing. And then when she was manifesting unusual behaviours, my friend said I have to take her to a hospital, and specifically a neurologist.

So they told me my child was autistic, so I came to know when she was two and a half and now she’s seven. So life as a refugee, as a woman, as a single mom with an autistic child, is extremely rough. It’s indescribable.

But I believe every challenge that I go through has its own blessings behind. I came to know this time when I accepted my child’s case, but not before, but this time I have accepted her situation, and I am happy. I am trying to be a better mom to my child. I am thinking in a couple of months I’ll go to USA and I hope my child will get what she needs as an autistic child. I want her to be able to go to school, I want her to be able to be a person who is a professional, and autism and all its problems —t o treat that.

(Here in Addis) she goes to a centre where autistic children go. It is a very young centre, not professionals operate it but moms like me, they didn’t know what to do so we together wanted to stay there because there is no where you can go with that kind of a child. She cannot go to normal school.

And people are not aware. They are becoming aware these days, but they think autism is a punishment from God, they think it is a curse, they think that she possessed a demon or something. So the stigma within the society, you cannot even be social, you cannot participate in the community. Moms like me operate that school, but there is not much professional touch with autism. But it is something. At this time there are 40 children with autism and there are 200 on the waiting list. They have to wait two and a half years to be able to go to school, my child too, to enrol in that centre.

As a refugee, I feel like, not only for my child, but there are autistic child from refugee parents and they don’t know where to go. I am the first refugee to open up on this case and no organization knows what autism is like, so I have to break that ice and tell them what autism is like, tell them that as a child she has every right to go to school, and that I am a refugee in the hands of the government and the UNHR and they should be able to do something for the children.

I wanted to create a foundation, an autism/refugee network. I found six parents with autism, but I’m not able to do anything. Even if I go to America I want [to] be able to help this family, I want autistic children to go to school, I want their parents to work, at least to go to school, to learn, because if I hadn’t been open about my child’s case I wouldn’t be working at JRS.

And I want to say that JRS is a second home to me, I remember the woman who came four years before, I came with tears and my child. I want to the other parents to feel the relief that I got, and at least organizations like JRS and other partners and donors, I want them to think and at least handle this problem. All the children, they have every right to go to school, to be treated well, to be treated as humans, that’s basically what I want to say. Thank you for having me.

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* name has been changed for security reasons

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