I had the opportunity to interview a very good friend of mine about his experience living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He was too nervous to have his photo taken, so I captured his family’s hospitality instead. This interview is very eye opening and very raw. I hope it can help us feel thankful for our fortunate circumstances and feel compassion for those who have not been so lucky. This is the story of Hagos.
Why did you flee?
“The government is like a dictatorship. They make every boy go into the military at 15 years old until life. I didn’t want to be forced in the military. And Eritrea and Ethiopia were at war.”
What age did you flee?
Did you flee with a big group? Your family?
“No, you couldn’t leave with anyone or pack anything or the military would be able to tell and kill you immediately. I left one night without telling anyone in my family. “
Why didn’t you tell your family?
“The military will question them and take them to jail if they knew what I was doing. It was better they didn’t know what I did.”
How long did it take you to find a refugee camp?
“I walked for 2 days. I only walked at night through the trees until I found the Ethiopian border.”
What was the camp like when you got there?
“I was given one blanket and I only brought two pairs of clothes and one pair of shoes with me.”
How long did you end up having to live the refugee camp?
Did you get more supplies like clothes or shoes while you were there?
“No. I kept the same pair of clothes for 9 years. After 7 months my shoes wore out and I had to wait for a shipment of donations to get new ones. Some people’s shirts would get worn out and they didn’t have any other clothes so they walk around without shirts or pants.”
How many people were at the camp with you?
How did you get food?
“They give you 21 pounds of kernels a month. You have to take it to a place in the camp to get them ground to make food with it.”
Did you only eat ground kernels for 9 years?
“Yes. There was one other place to get food in the camp but you had to have money to get the food. I didn’t always have money.”
What were the people like in the camp?
“Everybody was depressed. They are sad because they went from living normal lives to having nothing. Nothing. But sometimes they look normal and happy because they don’t have a choice. They just deal with it and look happy. I saw a lot of people crying. A lot of people go crazy. People committed suicide.”
How did people commit suicide?
“Hanging on the tree.”
Did you lose anyone you knew?
“My best in the world, my best friend. I’m serious my best friend. He helped me out a lot.”
How did he die?
“He was my best friend for 5 years. He would give me his food and money that was sent to him from his mom. Someone asked me if I knew that he was sick. He never told me that he was sick. He just kept helping me. One day he was really sick and we took him to the camp hospital. The doctor told me he might die. My best friend told me that he wanted to die. He stayed 3 days in the hospital. They didn’t have the medication to give him so they sent him back. He died after that. We gave him a funeral at the camp. Someone found his phone later and it had over 50 missed calls from his mom. His mom didn’t know that her son died. She called back again and we all passed the phone to each other because none of us wanted to tell her that he died. She hung up once we told her.
Did you get to explain to her what happened to her son?
“We decided to keep the phone near us just in case she called back. I was the one that had to do it. I held the phone in my hands all day everyday for months. But it affected me too much. I couldn’t sleep and when I had the phone nearby it reminded me of him and I would dream about him. I had to give the phone to someone else. I don’t know if she ever called again.”
Did you know a lot of people who passed away?
“Camp is a bad thing. In 2004 I lose my best friend. 2006-2010 I lost 6 people. 2012 I lose my brother. 2009 I lose my father. I lost 2 brothers trying to cross a river into a safe country.”
How did you lose your father?
“I don’t know. He heard news that 4 family members died and he died after that. I think from a broken heart.”
How did you eventually get to the United States?
“They came and handed me a paper saying that I was chosen to come to the United States.”
How did you get picked?
“I don’t know. If you have a special case or if you have been living in the camp the longest. I don’t know how I did.”
After you got selected what happened next?
“There were 240 other people with me that got chosen. They took us into a building and showed us a video of what to expect when you come to America. The video showed how to work things. The video said we would be given a place to live and a car and given jobs.”
What do you mean when you say, “How to work things?”
“Like the light switches, laws, how to use a bus.”
What do you mean how to work lights?
“We don’t have electricity in Eritrea. We bathe in rivers. They were showing us what to expect with electricity, turning on the lights and T.V.”
What happened once you left the camp?
“There were 4 of us on the same flight and we were first taken to New York City. When we got picked up from the airport someone took us to a motel and left us there.”
Did they explain anything to you before they left?
“No. They didn’t even give us food. We were hungry and didn’t know where to get food. One of the women with us had a 3 year old and she started crying because she was hungry. We tried asking the motel owner about food and he left and came back with a chicken leg, one roll and one orange for each of us. We don’t cook chicken in Eritrea like you do in America so we didn’t know how to eat it. We didn’t eat the chicken. All we had was a roll and an orange.”
What happened after that?
“We stayed the night at the motel and then we were taken to the airport in the morning. They didn’t give us breakfast. They were sending all four of us to different states so we were separated at the airport and never saw them again. One lady got sent to Vegas. I got sent to California. I didn’t know what to do at an airport so they told me to stand at a gate and wait to get on. I kept standing there and I didn’t know when to board so I missed my flight.”
What happened when you finally made it to California?
“A case worker picked me up and brought me to where I would be staying. She showed me around a little and gave me $1,000 and that’s it. No car, no job, no nothing. The video they showed us was a lie. I got nothing. I had to figure out everything. It’s too complicated here. ”
“You get in trouble and you don’t know why or what you are doing wrong. I get ticket and I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know I have to pay or go to court. I get in more trouble. It’s all complicated here. In Eritrea if you need to go to the hospital you go and it’s free. Here I don’t know if I can. Too much money.”
If you had the chance would you go back to your country or would you stay here in America?
“When I have a chance (if the government improves) I am going my country.”
“I know the system in my country. I don’t know the system here. It’s complicated.”
Is there a difference in culture here vs. culture in Eritrea that you have noticed?
“Eritrean people doesn’t matter the color, doesn’t matter where you’re from, doesn’t matter what you do. In my country they believe human is human. They never distinguish- this guy is white, this guy is black. Everything is accepted.”
Has anything happened here?
“At my old job we were at a cigarette break and I was walking to the table by everyone and a white guy turned and spit on the ground by my feet.”
What did you do? Did you tell Human Resources?
“I am trying to change my life, I don’t want to be bothered by crazy white guy.”
Are you happy here in the United States?
**Long pause** “I don’t know Alayna.”
What is the best advice you would give people on how to help refugees locally or abroad?
“Send money to help refugee camps, donate things to the refugee camps. Donate to help locally too.”
Has living in a refugee camp affected your daily life?
“Sometimes I have bad dreams about what happened. When I wake up, I pray, and then go back to sleep. When I wake up in the morning I think about how to fight with my life. Fighting is my life – How do I go to work? How do I make more money? How can I live a better life?”
If you would like to know more ways to help locally (there are 65,000 refugees in Utah) and abroad, here are a few amazing resources below-
Ways to help locally:
Serve Refugees – click here to open website.
- Accepts donations
- Become a family mentor
- Amazon Registry (buy items that local refugee families need and it gets sent directly to them)
- Refugee Cultural Nights
- Essential kits
- Tutoring refugees
Refugee and Immigrant Center of Utah – click here to open website.
- Accepts donations
- Become a family mentor
- ELS childcare support
- Smith’s community rewards
- Amazon Smile Program- .5% of purchases
- Visit the LDS Humanitarian Center (1665 South Bennett Rd, Salt Lake City, UT 84104) to take a tour of their facility and learn the lifesaving work of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and see the 160 refugees that are employees from all around the world. You can even volunteer to make hygiene kits and quilts on the second floor, and meet the refugee faces behind the Deseret Industries Distribution Center.
- One of the best ways to help is by spreading awareness- Do you have a service group, church group, family event, business gathering, creative organization or group of friends in the Salt Lake/Provo area that wants to learn more about the refugee crisis? I am now giving presentations about my experience working in Lesvos, Greece at a refugee camp alongside Refugee Rescue. Learn about what it’s like at a refugee camp, what the refugees go through on a daily basis, more information about the refugee crisis and how you can help through my presentation! Contact me at email@example.com for more information!
Ways to help abroad:
Refugee Rescue (located in Lesvos, Greece) – click here to open website
- They are the last operating humanitarian aid to refugees on the island of Lesvos, Greece.
- This organization can only run on donations, so fundraising is absolutely vital to continue their life-saving work!
- $5 provides rescue mission water
- $20 provides 20 emergency blankets
- $50 fuels one rescue mission
International Rescue Committee (located all over the world) – click here to open website
- One of the largest Humanitarian Aid Organizations in the world.
- 89 cents of every dollar donated is used towards helping refugees.
- Shop rescue gifts- one year of school for one girl ($58), emergency food for children ($68), three newborn baby kits ($63), one year of school for two girls ($116)
- Donations are tax deductible
I hope this interview, coupled with amazing resources, will inspire you to look for opportunities to help those affected by the refugee crisis.
Someone can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.