Exile for Yedel
by Ruth Alemu, December 2013
Has it ever boggled your mind why people want to leave their counties and struggle through different cultures just to start a whole new life? Or have you ever wondered why some people don’t just work hard in their own countries and better themselves? Well, people leave their families and countries to find better life, peace, freedom, money or love. A conducted interview with an immigrant named Yedel Sew, who currently resides in the Bay Area, explains why people are exiled to other countries. Yedel Sew is from Ethiopia and grew up in a good neighborhood in the historic city Bahir Dar. He was exiled to the United States to find freedom for himself because he was punished for criticizing the Ethiopian government about forbidding the freedom of speech and the choosing of one’s own political party. For a long time, he had refused to give in to anger or exile; instead, he resisted the government threats.The government accused him of being a terrorist when they found out that he was working with the opposition political parties to bring about a fair democratic government. Despite the fact that no accusation had evidence, many of his friends were imprisoned and killed. Yedel wanted to leave the country when he realized that most of his friends had been thrown in jail or killed. According to Yedel, the torture was extraordinary; for instance, the males were forced to carry and pull heavy weights tied on their genitals until they pointed out one of their political member. For this reason, Yedel left his country and exiled himself to the United States of America (USA), and suffered through lots of misery. He left his good job, family and fiancé behind. His exile to the US was more devastating for his fiancé and his mother, not only because he was their source of income but also they couldn’t flee with him. During his journey, he was hungry, slept in refugee camps, was imprisoned, and almost lost his life while he was traveling on a boat. Although arriving to the US seemed to promise a life with freedom, being an undocumented immigrant made it difficult to find jobs and start a new life all over again. Until he acquired legal papers that allow him to stay in the US, he worked under the table, which was difficult for him because employers often felt free to pay him low wages and ignore dangerous conditions since he had no legal way of complaining. Along with significant language and cultural barriers, exile left him with a lengthy bureaucratic procedure until he established his new legal status. People that are facing political problems in their counties, like Yedel, should exile themselves to other countries in order to gain freedom regardless of encountering multiple setbacks and struggle during the journey because it will help them live better lives.
Being a refugee from third world country was challenging due to the rising of anti-refugee sentiment in many industrialized countries; the journey to the US was not as smooth as Yedel assumed. He started his journey from Ethiopia to Cuba with legal visa (a passport), but from there to the US, his passport was useless not only because he was travelling by car and boat but also because he was coming from a third world country, which didn’t guarantee him a pass or respect. He described how he left his passport in Ecuador: “I threw away my Ethiopian passport since it is no longer helping me to transfer, because I couldn’t get any visa with Ethiopian passport” (Yedel). Having an Ethiopian passport definitely prevented him from getting a visa because most of the people from third world countries are running from their homes scared of war and poverty, like him. His long travel includes the countries Cuba, Ecuador, Colombia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and lastly, the United States. Yedel and his two friends started the big journey together without any knowledge of where or how to go. Eventually, they contacted some smugglers to assist them through their journey. Besides the payment paid to the smugglers, they had to bribe the officers every time they got pulled over. He wrapped a stack of pesos with a U.S. dollar and handed to the police officer to make it look like a lot of U.S. dollars because he couldn’t afford to pay them in dollars every single time they pulled him over. Long drives, walking, staying in refugee camps and being thrown in jail without knowing for how long they would be kept, the journey was extremely distressing. There was a time when Yedel almost lost his life; he was trying to cross the border between Colombia and Nicaragua with a small boat made out of wood that carried around fifty people without any access to restrooms. He says, “The smugglers told us we will arrive in two days, but it took us eight days. We were lost in the middle of the journey and the boat run out of gas, so we put bed sheet to move the boat with the help of wind. The phone inside the boat stopped working; they said no battery. Also, we were moving without any compass and we didn’t eat anything else except one apple a day” (Yedel). It was a life and death situation for him to be in that boat because there was lack of basic survival necessities such as food, water and restrooms in addition to getting lost in the middle of nowhere. The boat was overcrowded, making it potentially dangerous, but they continued with the journey. The trip lasted days; the waves were high and they suffered more when the motor stopped and they began moving through the help of the wind. When they finally reached land, it was like liberation. Even though being from a third world country was a setback on his journey, he felt liberated when he reached the freedom land.
Although Yedel wanted to stay in Ethiopia, the government dictatorship made him run from his country due to the fact that there was no equality between ethnic groups and also political difference was not accepted. While he was in Ethiopia, freedom of speech was like a dream. The dictator leader wouldn’t let him live because he was against the system. He explained his experience in anger: “While I was in Ethiopia I had a very nice job with the field I graduated and I had a good life. But I have been jailed and beaten around three four times only because I was spoken the truth during community meetings. When you say I need freedom, they will look for trouble and beat you up” (Yedel). The so-called “Democratic Party” controls the country. If a person talks about what is wrong and what is right, that person will end up in jail. That is why an independent and ambitious young man like Yedel could not live in Ethiopia because he believes in speaking out. He fought not only for himself but also for people who can’t fight for themselves as well. In reality, he doesn’t have security or the guarantee of his life because they can throw him in jail any time. Hence, Yedel left his country even though he wanted to stay and do something tangible to improve his country. Before he left, Yedel was becoming wealthy because of his hard work, but the ruling party was not happy with what he was getting and wanted to destroy him. In the 2005 election, Yedel and his friends participated in the opposition political party. The idea was to push the government to have a free and fair democratic election but the government was harassing the opposition parties and was using systematic political control, which made the election difficult. At that time, the majority of the people were supporting the opposition party, so, if the government didn’t want to have a fair election, they wanted them to give up power peacefully but when the government found out about their plan, they put his life in danger. Yedel fought until he couldn’t take it anymore; however, waiting for his death was not possible for him because some of his friends got imprisoned, tortured, were deprived of sleep and food and lastly killed. Given these actions, Yedel left his country in order to flee from extreme and almost humiliating politics.
Knowing his basic rights helped Yedel to gain his freedom, yet many times he was denied it. While crossing a border, there was moment when they put him in jail without letting him know how long he had to stay there. They were caught at the Nicaraguan border by the border police and imprisoned for forty-five days. During those forty-five days staying there caused a lot of suffering; the food was not etable, the hygiene was bad and they were sleeping on the floor. Because of the bad treatment they received, Yedel and his friends planned to do a hunger strike in order to fight for the basic human rights they were denied. The hunger strike went very well as he explained, “We didn’t eat for eight days while we were in the journey and again we did four days food strike, so some of the people got constipated and sick. Normally, they are not allowed to have under age prisoners in the facility but one of the guy that fainted was not even eighteen. They were scared of being sued so they begged us to eat and promised to let us go” (Yedel). This shows that they knew this strike would attract human right fighters’ attention, which in the end helped to free them. Besides, the guy who fainted was not even eighteen years old; thus, he was not supposed to be imprisoned with them. Fighting for their rights allowed them to continue their freedom journey. Then, Yedel and his friends left Nicaragua because the Nicaraguan government asked them to pay for every night they stayed at the camp. As they had planned already, they continued their journey to the United States and left Nicaragua. In the book Underground America, a collection of the narratives of undocumented immigrants compiled by Peter Orner, a storyteller, Abel, was abused by his employer but knowing his rights and fighting for it saved him from abuses. He said, “Some of us are more comfortable speaking up about our rights—we know what we are entitled to. We speak to Americans, people who do have papers, people who work at organizations, people who can do something for us. The bosses of the companies are afraid of these organizations because they support us” (Orner 132). Even though he didn’t have legal papers to stay in the country, knowing his rights helped Abel to fight for himself. Yedel did the same thing too; he stood up for his rights, looked for organizations to fight for his right. Therefore, knowing his basic human rights minimized the suffering during the exile.
Although Yedel felt ambivalent when he discovered that his expectations about the United States were unrealistic, he was happy because he gained freedom, which was the center of his journey. Life in The United States started out great for him though it was not as he expected. Although the job market and the economy was not as good as he expected, he did not complain since his main reason of moving to the US was to gain freedom. He said, “The main reason I exile from my country is because of freedom so I am okay with any economical or personal disappointment like missing my family. I was not respected in my own country but I am living here freely. Nobody touches you” (Yedel). While he was in his country, he had a good job but in the United States, because of his legal status he wasn’t able to get a better job and he was a little bit disappointed by that; plus, by the time he arrived in the United States, the economy of the country was not in good condition. The other thing that makes him disappointed is missing his family; in fact, he can’t reach his family any time soon. Yedel has missed not only his family but also his longtime fiancé who he was about to get married to within a month before leaving the country, but he was waiting for her to graduate. He was preparing for their wedding but sadly he had to leave right away to avoid putting his life in danger. During his journey, he couldn’t communicate with her because he was not in good condition either. That created a big gap between them and it was too late to fix the problem because she got married and had kids. She couldn’t wait for him since he was not able to go back to the country. Yedel said, “It is hard to get that kind of love right now. I don’t have that kind of satisfaction and happiness right now.” He loved his fiancé too much and can’t bring the old time feeling and satisfaction with anybody else.
Things haven’t gone smoothly with his family either; the family business that he took care of is now out of service, and the cafeteria he owned was sold to cover his expense in the United States. His family is not at the same economic level; his brothers got fired from their jobs because they were working for a government office and, since they are connected with Yedel, the government took revenge on them. After four years, one of his brothers started working some low level jobs even though he is a graduate from the university and had been working for long time. Yedel was full of anger when he talked about the crises in his family. He couldn’t support and provide his family like before because in the United States the working situation is different. He doesn’t have motivation like before when he used to go to school while working long hours and taking care of his own business. He said that he was taking care of all that responsibility just to get rid of the stress he had in his country. More or less, he is happy in United States, though he is not in the position that he supposed to be. Altogether, Yedel lost three major things in his life: his family’s economic status, his job, and his fiancé. But freedom has balanced all his losses.
Even though it’s hard to predict the future, Yedel believes change will come through time with the help of an endless effort. In the future, Yedel has some expectations for his life and has already planned to do lots of things in the coming New Year. He wants to go to school, work hard, start a family in the United States, and help his country to gain a free media because the ruling party controls most of the media. His passion for his country is still fresh. Surely, he wants to participate more in politics; so far, he writes articles and gives donations every month to private medias organizations because he believes the media plays a big role in politics. The Ethiopian government has banned almost all private media outlets for reporting facts about the government’s hidden actions. “The Anointed Leadership,” an article written by Makau wa Mutua, shows the current image of Ethiopian journalism: “Human rights groups estimated that over 60 journalist have either been imprisoned, detained, or are awaiting trial for being critical of the government” (Mutua 2). Government authorities have imprisoned journalists on a mass scale on terrorism charges only for speaking of the truth. Only government medias can talk about politics; around twenty non-governmental magazines have been closed but four private magazines are still open only because they allow the government to manipulate their messages. They will not report reality; they do not talk about the people who are lost in the dessert while trying to escape from the country. Even though he lives from paycheck to paycheck, he knows that, if he contributes something, it will help a lot. He said, “I support the media because I want to know what is going on in my country and the only means I can get that report is from the private media. I cannot forget about my country. I will not sleep until I see freedom in my own country like other countries” (Yedel). This shows the last ultimate vision of Yedel is to see the free flow of information and freedom of expression without the influence of political units. Ethiopia lives in a world where information is literally fabricated for the people as truth but nowadays bloggers play a big role in spreading information. Yedel helps these bloggers financially. One of the anonymous bloggers said in the article “The Hazards Of Dissent,”“The blog carried reports and analysis of the trial of opposition leaders. In some cases, international human rights group like Amnesty International have followed through the leads in my blog and demanded the government stop its human right abuses. Under pressure, the government released some prisoners and closed torture chambers” (Zagol 62). Not only do the bloggers increase the flow of information but they also help justice to be served. Therefore, because people like Yedel supported the media, for example the blogger mentioned above, the increase of the flow of information has brought the government to reconsider their decision, which fulfills Yedel’s hope for change.
In conclusion, although people like Yedel go through multiple setbacks and struggle when they flee from their countries due to political problems, finding freedom and living in a country where freedom of speech is respected brings feeling of accomplishment in life. Migrating would also allow others like him to continue helping their countries as he has with the support of media as mentioned in the above paragraphs. On the contrary, others may think that, instead of fleeing from one’s country, one should stay and face the problem in order to solve it. People like Yedel do not choose to flee from their countries to make money or to relax; instead, they are exiled to the US to spare their lives from ending up like his friends—imprisoned or killed.
“The Hazards Of Dissent.” Index On Censorship 36.4 (2007): 59-63. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
Mutua, Makau wa. “The Anointed Leadership.” Africa Report 39.6 (1994): 30. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
Orner, Peter, and Tom Andes. Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2008. Print.