New Americans Series
We continue a series on the five largest ethnic groups to be resettled to Sioux Falls in the last five years by the Refugee and Immigration Center (RIC). Upcoming blog posts will focus on the following topics: Conflict History, Cultural Differences, and New American Success Stories. Please join us as we learn together about our new neighbors and their courageous stories.
New American Series: Tigrinya Success Story
Amanuel, a Tigrinya refugee from Eritrea, graciously agreed to visit us at the Refugee and Immigration Center this past week for an interview. I wish I had video recorded the interview, as a transcribed version can’t really convey the depth and range of emotions shown as Amanuel recounted his epic journey to Sioux Falls or shared what he wanted community members to know about him and other Eritreans. I am grateful for the opportunity to share as best I can some of Amanuel’s story with you today.
Can you tell us about your life in Eritrea?
I fled Eritrea in August 2003. I served in the military as part of Eritrea’s National Service. I graduated as a nurse in 2002 and thought I would now be free [from the National Service] but then—due to conflict with Ethiopia—we were mandated to stay in. I could work as a nurse, but as part of the National Service the income was very small. I left because of politics and the government.
I paid smugglers to cross safely into Sudan. If the Eritrean government had caught us they would have killed us or put us in jail. We were with the smugglers two weeks as they took us to Khartoum, Sudan. I stayed in Sudan six months. It was always my intention to travel legally, but circumstances did not allow for this. In 2004, I traveled across the Sahara Desert to Libya. The Sahara is like the sea…there is no indication of what is north, south, east, west. There was no water. It was very dangerous.
We needed to cross the Mediterranean Sea. On June 24 the boat I was in suffered an accident, turning upside down and killing eleven people—ten adults and one child. We were still close to the Libyan coast and some fisherman rescued us. We were put in prison in Libya, but we had a court date and after one month we were set free. On September 24 we crossed the Mediterranean to reach Italy, but due to a storm with very strong winds and waves we were forced to land in Malta. In Malta our group of roughly one hundred divided and some stayed in Malta while others continued on to Italy having been resupplied by the Maltese government. We made it to Italy, but Italy sent us back to Malta.
I lived in Malta for four years. I went to school full-time for nursing and worked at a five-star hotel as a cleaning supervisor. Malta and America came to an agreement to resettle us to America as Malta is a small country and could not support their large refugee population. I arrived in Sioux Falls on August 29, 2008.
When you found out you would be resettled to the U.S. what did you think?
I was very excited. The perception we have is that there are many job opportunities and school opportunities. I have a cousin in Minnesota, but I resettled in Sioux Falls for more schooling opportunities. I interviewed in my field [nursing] but could not get hired. I took the test to be a CNA [Certified Nursing Assistant.] I couldn’t find a job in my field. I eventually worked at meat packing plants in Minnesota and Sioux Falls. I changed to a night cleaner so I could go to school.
What are the biggest challenges to living in the U.S.?
Everything is not easy. The mindset we have before we come is different than the actual living situation here. Finding a decent job, paying rent, paying for transportation and insurance…paying the bills. Family back home want you to send support, but they don’t understand the life here.
The most challenging aspect is the language barrier. It is really difficult. You [indicating me] don’t understand how difficult it is. There is also the cultural barrier. These are the biggest challenges. They told me when I arrived here that my English was good, that I would get a job easily, but the language and cultural barrier remain difficult.
What are your plans for the future?
I work as a nurse at a hospital/nursing home in rural South Dakota. I have worked there since July 2012. I go to school at USD for nursing. I had to start from the beginning. I will graduate with a B.A. this year in December. I am looking for a job in Sioux Falls and have already applied at some places and am waiting to hear back.
What would you want community members in Sioux Falls to know about you and your community?
We have great potential, but we don’t have the opportunity to serve. I don’t want to just be born, live, and die. I’d like to contribute to something. As a person, I would like to contribute to a community. We are honest. We work hard, but nobody notices. The only problem Eritreans have is our government…how the Eritrean government treated us.
In Malta, I was part of the first group of refugees to work at this five-star hotel and the managers told us to work hard because we were an example for the rest of our community. By the time I left, the hotel was full of refugees [workers.] We worked hard.
It is not easy to be resettled here. It is really hard.
Amanuel’s story echoes the story of so many young Eritreans who have fled and continue to flee the hopelessness and oppression of the Eritrean government. As he left the RIC, several teachers greeted him remembering him both as a student and a volunteer in our English classes. Thank you, Amanuel, for sharing your daring story with us and we wish you continued protection and success as you pursue your desire to contribute to our community.