A New Future: Lutherans resettle young refugees who are on their own

Originally Posted by: The Lutheran

Tesfaye Gebre was 14, living with his family in a small town in the east African nation of Eritrea, when authorities announced they would begin removing children from school and forcing them to join the army. Gebre wasn’t in school that day and didn’t go back. Instead, he and a cousin set out on foot, crossing the border into Ethiopia. The date was Feb. 1, 2008.
The cousins weren’t the only ones to leave. Today more than 50,000 Eritreans live in refugee camps in northern Ethiopia. From January to May 2013 alone, nearly 4,000 people fled Eritrea, according to theU.N. News Service.

They fled what the U.N. Special Rapporteur calls “blatant disrespect for human rights.” Among the concerns are military conscription of children, indefinite national military service, arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention and religious persecution.

Gebre’s 2008 exodus wasn’t his first trip across the border. When he was 10, he and four friends ran away after arguing with their parents, intent on reaching his older sister in Ethiopia. They were quickly apprehended by U.N. troops monitoring a cease-fire along the border, turned over to the Eritrean police and jailed for two weeks.

At one point, Gebre said, the soldiers lined them up and tied their hands around the trunk of a large tree overnight. “It was very hard,” he recalled.

Tesfaye Gebre
Tesfaye Gebre loves attending St. Mary Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, Washington, D.C. Rather than be forced to become a child soldier, he fled Eritrea in 2008 as an unaccompanied refugee minor. He was resettled in the U.S. in 2011 by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area.

A year or so later, police came to interview Gebre and his friends, demanding to know which boy had the original idea to cross the border. When the boys couldn’t remember, “they tried to scare us and make us fear,” Gebre said.

Eventually, just to end their ordeal, one boy said it had been his idea. The police let the matter drop.

Fast forward to 2008, when Eritrean authorities announced that anyone who had crossed into Ethiopia would have to join the military. “[I] was very scared because I couldn’t do anything and I was very young,” Gebre said. He saw an 18-year-old cousin and a much younger classmate taken away.

So Gebre and his cousin — a 16-year-old girl — fled. They were picked up by Ethiopian soldiers who moved them from place to place for three weeks before they ended up at the Shemelba refugee camp.

The sprawling camp is mostly comprised of small thatch-roofed dwellings with grass or twig walls. Many refugees have lived there for years, and the camp’s school, administrative buildings and shops make it seem more like a village than a temporary sanctuary.

Gebre stayed in Shemelba for three years. “At the refugee camp it was very tough,” he said. He and his cousin struggled to get by on their monthly food ration (33 pounds of flour, 2 pounds of beans, 1 pound of sugar and a cup of salt) and what they could earn helping out around the camp. They did odd jobs — cutting grass, farming and carrying water.

Resettled in the U.S.
The U.S. is the only country that has a program designed for unaccompanied refugee minors, andLutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is one of only two U.S. voluntary agencies designated to manage resettlement for these children. In fiscal year 2012, LIRS provided reception, placement and support services to 8,701 refugees, including 104 unaccompanied minors.

In 2011, after a determination that third-country resettlement was the best option for Gebre, LIRSassigned him to one of its partners, Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSSNCA), which found him a foster home in the area. (His cousin was resettled in Ethiopia.)

When he first learned he was going to America, Gebre was happy. But within the first six months, he begged to go back. Rachel Pierre, LSSNCA’s program manager for unaccompanied refugee minors, told him: “Look, you can get deported [from Ethiopia]; you can get arrested. There’s no way.”

Gebre, a slender, soft-spoken young man, has taken English as a Second Language classes at school and, with LSSNCA assistance, had an English tutor for his first year in the U.S. But learning a language isn’t easy, and he struggled to find words to describe his feelings at that time. “I was …,” he began.

“Lonely and depressed?” Pierre offered.

“Yeah,” he said with a shy smile.

Things improved when Gebre moved in with a new foster family — a school friend and his mother, themselves Eritrean immigrants.

At 19, with just one more year until graduation, Gebre said he likes high school and enjoys playing on the school volleyball team. But his face really lights up when he talks about the time he spends at his beloved Eritrean Orthodox Church. One of the advantages of his new foster home is its proximity to his church.

Gebre learned that the authorities in Eritrea imposed a fine of about $130 (a significant hardship) on his family because of his departure. So Gebre saved his allowance and sent the money.

He’s also learned that one or two of the friends he originally crossed the border with have immigrated to Israel. He found them on Facebook.

A range of support
Unaccompanied refugee minors need support beyond foster home placement. Mental health services are often needed for children who have witnessed war, genocide and rape.

Recovery from such trauma can be difficult but, Pierre said, “the resilience of the human spirit is like … everybody has it, just not everybody has experienced such hardship to have to use it. They say you don’t know how strong you are until being strong is the only option.”

Lutheran social service agencies help unaccompanied refugee minors to be strong. In addition to foster home placement and mental health services, the agencies help such children with life skills, transitioning to adult independence, and planning and securing funds for college.

Individuals and congregations can also befriend, mentor and include refugees in community events and outings, and donate funds to cover expenses. (Visit http://www.lutheranservices.org for a list of local Lutheran agencies you can help.)
But the greatest need is for more foster families to meet the growing demand, said Kimberly Haynes, LIRSdirector of children’s services.

“Nurturing a child from a refugee background can be one of the most rewarding experiences a person will ever have,” she said. “Opening our hearts, minds and homes … enriches us all and [brings] an opportunity to focus on a new future full of hope and compassion to allow [young people] to heal and thrive.”

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for posting this story. It is truly warming and comforting to know there are good people in this world caring for others.

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