Maps Give Way to Faces

Eritrea is not a country we hear about often.

It is quite small, about the size of Indiana, and thus dwarfed by both the size and news from its neighbors: Sudan and Ethiopia.

Yet according to the UNHCR, this small East African country is regarded as one of the most repressive countries in the world, rivaling North Korea in its lack of freedoms.

The country is a highly militarized, one party state with severe restrictions over the press, speech, and even movement, particularly since its border war with Ethiopia in the late 1990s. The country has been in continual war for 30 years.

Before coming to work for LSS, I had only heard the name “Eritrea” in geography trivia or in a passing look at a world map.

Now, however, I find myself teaching refugees from Eritrea every day. They are old and young, male and female – and among the most delightful people I have ever met.

As I have gotten to know these students, I have found myself wondering about their country, their history, and their struggles that brought them, eventually, to seek refuge in the U.S.

About two months ago, a new student from Eritrea showed up in my morning literacy class. She is 19, and only just arrived in America last fall.

hadas 2

Hadas plans to study to become a nurse.  She arrived in the U.S. five months ago as a refugee from Eritrea.

Hadas is highly intelligent and has plans to go to college to become a nurse. She laments that she arrived in the U.S. after her 18th birthday so she was not able to enter a Sioux Falls high school.  Still, she is undeterred in her English-learning goals.  She comes to class everyday, studies at home, and will quickly move up the class levels here at LSS.

Her journey to the U.S. included a two-year stay at a refugee camp in Ethiopia as well as a six-year absence from her mother, who came to the U.S. ahead of her. At that time, Hadas was only 13 years old.  I have a 12-year-old daughter now.  I can only imagine how difficult it was for her mother to leave her and how happy their reunion must have been – right here in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, of all places.

In this same class is Betwel, 36, who arrived in the U.S. five years ago. Here in Sioux Falls, he works full time, owns a home, and comes to a morning English class despite having worked the night shift.

betwel 2

Betwel was a cattle-herder before coming to Sioux Falls.

Betwel’s story is different from that of Hadas. He spent eight years in Ethiopia after fleeing Eritrea in the face of war.  He herded his 100-plus cows from Eritrea to Ethiopia along the way.

He laughs, “I was a farmer. I had cows, sheep, and camels.  I slept on the ground.  I did not see cities and buildings.”

Betwel is all alone in the U.S. All of his family remains in Eritrea.

I have quite a few other students from Eritrea as well – one is the same age as my own father, born the same year – 1939. He comes to English class regularly at the happy age of 77.  Today in class, he told me he takes a nap every afternoon.  “A short sleep in the day is so nice,” he said, laughing. 

It is vital that we put names and faces to those who are entering our country. They are not statistics.

They have life journeys that we can only imagine.

I am happy to welcome these newcomers to the U.S. where their life stories can take new turns – where they can study to be a nurse or sleep in a soft bed or take a peaceful afternoon nap.

I am happy to put these kind faces and hopeful people in the place of vague geography trivia.

I like to see an obscure map of a country turn into a face, a person, a hope, a life. Getting to know people will do that to you – it will change how you view the world – theirs and yours.

Posted by Julie Boutwell-Peterson


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