Shayla’s Journey


Shayla’s Journey

by Karen Guinn, May 2015

Shayla is a woman of 29 years from the small yet wealthy country of Kuwait.  She grew up in a democratic country, yet there are restrictions and laws set forth by the government that citizens have to follow, just like any other country. Some of these restrictions, especially pertaining to women, seem a little oppressive.  Although Kuwaiti women are some of the most emancipated women in the Middle East, they have disadvantages such as, they are not permitted to vote, and the young local women’s dress codes are strict.  Even foreign women are expected to cover their hair when in public.  The desire for new experiences and change brought Shayla to three different countries before she arrived in the United States.  She has lived and studied in Great Britain, Scotland, and Egypt. During Shayla’s teenage years, her mother and father supported the family together, until her father’s passing seven years ago.  The responsibility of the family’s livelihood was then shifted to her mother.  Shayla’s mother has taken good care of her family since then.  Raising four children alone is a difficult task for any single mother.  She has been employed in the hotel/motel management field, and has done well.  As years pass, the relationship between Shayla and her mother grows strong.  Her mother has become more understanding of her desires.  She has given her permission to travel abroad to gain a higher education, when previously her father would not allow this.  While living in a country with strict regulations for women, it is especially difficult for a young girl trying to discover her potential.  Traveling and studying abroad in a modern, diverse world has proven to be a stimulating, and truly wonderful experience for Shayla.  Coming to the United States is helping her become the strong independent woman of her dreams; it has given Shayla freedom to express herself.  Her goal of obtaining a successful career is ultimately keeping her focused in the wake of her father’s death, as she maintains her dedication to her family.

Shayla’s journey abroad for higher education and the freedom to express herself has brought her to the United States from her home country of Kuwait.  Her ambition to develop a successful career is keeping her focused.  Upon completing high school in 2003, Shayla’s dream was to study in the States.  She illustrates, “Yeah, I was planning to come to the States since I was seventeen, actually, but I didn’t have a chance.  My father was totally against that.”  Like most fathers with daughters, Shayla’s Dad wanted to keep her close to home so he could protect her.  The man’s duty is to supervise his children and be aware of their activities.   A woman in Kuwait needs the permission of her parents to study abroad.  Sadly enough, Shayla’s father passed away when she was seventeen this tragic event resulted in her mother allowing her to take her studies abroad.  Shayla’s journey began as she ventured to countries like Great Britain, Scotland, Egypt, and now finally to The United States.  Her appetite for education and to create a solid career to support her mother is inspiring.  She explains, “My job is to get my degree and take care of her.”  Her plans are to settle somewhere close to Kuwait with a successful profession upon finishing her studies, and gaining at least a year of experience in her field.  Shayla stipulates, “At first I was like I don’t wanna major in something that in the future I can’t get a good job back home.”  Shayla’s goal to become a supportive daughter means everything to her, and the drive to succeed seems inbred.  In Kuwait, a broader opportunity for women to work became available in the 1960’s, but still today women are not allowed to work in the army, government sector, or police force.  Shayla’s dream is to help bring a new market to Kuwait, like pet care is also something she contemplates.  As of now her studies are majoring in hotel and restaurant management, like her mother.  Her mother built a successful career in this field which attracted Shayla’s attention.  After being exposed to new opportunities, she sees a chance to revise her profession selection, and admits she might look into animal care.

According to Shayla’s strong cultural beliefs, her main job in life is to make her mother happy, and provide her financial support.  Family and culture are very significant.  She values them greatly.  Shayla reveals that “Everything is about my mother, the only thing I’m sad about, if I’m here, and she’s there.”  Shayla reveals that since her father’s passing her mother has been amazing.  She has been taking care of the family providing unconditional love, and a stable home for her four children in a country where woman’s opportunities are limited.   Her mother understands Shayla’s need to become an independent, strong woman.  Shayla’s mother has allowed her to discover her identity as much as is allowed in Kuwait.  They have a healthy, solid relationship, and Shayla feels her mother deserves more than she could every supply or repay.  She affirms that, “Because she is spending money and taking care of me, and now it’s my job, that’s how it works.”  Shayla is very firm about her responsibilities and beliefs, these feeling are ingrained in her personality.  She states, “We have a belief, that if I take care of my mother, life will take care of me.”  It is important for her to do right by her mother.  She feels her American friends don’t share the same thoughts regarding their mothers, and doesn’t understand why.  Shayla’s culture in her own country has taught her to be very dedicated, with a sense of accountability for the well-being of her mother.

Even with her sentiment regarding her father’s passing, Shayla remains in search of independence and the ability to redefine her individuality, Shayla has also had the courage to venture out on her own, which has enabled her to blossom into a modern woman that is being created daily by her studies, and travel abroad.  She did not feel she could express her true heart in Kuwait under restrictions and somewhat oppression of women.  She explains that, I just cut my hair recently, and they started calling me Tomboy, I hate it!  The majority of people are very conservative, and judgmental in her country.  She says, “I’m kind of used to it here, people don’t get in your business.  There it’s like a cultural thing, people do get in your business.”   The scrutiny and intolerance of the Kuwaiti community play a big part in the sense of her belonging and acceptance.  Shayla’s determination to be an individual stands out, so she communicates that there they say something to you, because it’s a Muslim country.  People just blurt out what they think about the way you choose to dress or cut your hair, it’s acceptably in Kuwait.  In the United States we respect and even embrace other’s individuality.  Shayla loves her country and her culture, she just wishes it was a bit more modernized.  The Muslim religion in Kuwait is respected, and people do not encompass changes or even growth in that area very well.  There is a fear of losing the old ways and traditions, and it scares people.  Some of the younger Kuwaiti’s want to see change allowing more freedom in their country, and are hoping the respected community leaders will shift their perspectives.

Many female immigrants, who have lived in countries that have restrictions like Kuwait, find themselves desiring the chance to explore their uniqueness.  Women can be presumed to be bold and daring, and are a source of gossip for their communities.  A lot of Kuwait’s cultures and traditions remain the same as centuries ago, especially when it comes to religious customs pertaining to women, and how they should act or dress.  The religious police can actually stop a woman who appears in public that is dressed out of accordance to these customs.  Tight fitting, and revealing clothing is not only looked down on, but is restricted.  Marjorie Kelly, from the University of Kuwait, author of Clothes, culture, and context:  female dress in Kuwait, states that “Given the small size, great wealth, and conservative nature of Kuwaiti society, one dresses to impress in the knowledge that one will be scrutinized by one’s peers and any dress code violations will be widely noted.”  Society expects their women to dress appropriately to their rules in public.  The woman can wear outfits deemed unacceptable in the comfort of their homes, but are open to criticism if they proceed outdoors.  According to a survey of students about purchasing clothing abroad that parents would not allow them to wear, 60% would not.  The remaining 40% who said they bought clothing stated “that the garments were purchased and worn abroad but could not be worn back in Kuwait.”  They also added “people would talk or get the wrong idea about me. Hence, there seems to be a consensus that the clothes themselves are less of an issue than who is present to pass judgment on the person wearing them.  A young girl wanting to express herself through clothing would definitely be suppressed in this society.  The fact that people are concerned with what others are wearing is astonishing to me.  It is surprising when “you” realize how different countries, and cultures really are.  Here in the United States, we tend to take our civil rights for granted.

Shayla’s thirst for new experiences and education since the age of seventeen has finally resulted in her travels abroad, which has resulted in her reshaping and redefining herself constantly.  Her experiences in London, and Scotland helped her discovery that these countries were not for her.  Shayla has a sister who studies in Aberdeen, Scotland, and that is why she decided to go there for her studies.  She lived and studied for a bit in Egypt, but the revolution broke out, and she had to evacuate the country.  Shayla is currently studying in San Francisco at City College, she likes the diversity of America, and feels a sense of acceptance and belonging here.  In the article “Going and Staying! Abroad,” produced by Jessica Tomer, the Director of International Programs at Linfield College, regarding the benefits of studying in another country states, “Not only do students return with a better sense of the world’s cultures and their own, by comparison, but they gain more confidence, tolerance, flexibility, and understanding of different values and lifestyles.”  All the traveling, and experiences Shayla has gained contribute to the strong woman she is today. Her choice to study abroad has developed skills that are life changing and will stay with her the rest of her life.   Tomer also reveals that benefits from study abroad include visiting new places and meeting new people, “They’re also largely intangible-but often life changing.” Some of these acquired skills are:

  • Learn foundational skills like adaptability, problem solving, communications
  • Develop networking and career connections
  • Experience a global marketplace
  • Gain confidence and self-awareness
  • Expand comfort zone
  • Explore cultural/family background
  • Broaden perspective
  • Earn credit, particularly in foreign culture classes
  • Boost future resume

All of the benefits that expand a person’s perception and personality are listed here and they are what Shayla is searching for.  She has gained confidence and self-awareness while traveling through different countries, networking and experiencing a global market all the while continuing her studies.  Her experience with different cultures has made her appreciate her own family traditions and the culture in Kuwait

Shayla’s decision, along with her mother’s permission to study abroad, has given her the opportunity to travel to different countries expanding her knowledge, and perspective of the global world.  Many people dwell in one country, city, or village all their lives, never wanting to see what is beyond the borders.  The accumulation of knowledge and experience create a better future for all people.  A Professor of International Affairs, Mary Ann Tetreault, explains in her article, “Pattern of Culture and Democratization in Kuwait” written for Business Source Premier that, “Women constitute a small but relatively high quality reserve labor army in Kuwait.”  Shayla’s worldly experience and education would assist in her country’s advancement.  Her country appreciates woman of high achievement to supplement their work force.  Shayla’s freedom to decide whether or not she wants to become part of this remains to be seen.  She has the opportunity to work where she chooses and still be the supportive daughter she dreams of becoming.

While in the end, Shayla’s opportunity to experience education, and diversity has enabled her to become an intelligent, understanding, and unique woman.  Her ability to live and thrive in different countries has given her a different view of opportunities available.   Some people thirst for enlightenment, and need more complexity in their lives to build their spirit.  Although, Shayla’s father wanted to keep her close and protect her, she has grown tremendously, due to her travels to other countries, she has grown tremendously.  Shayla’s father might be proud of the woman she is becoming.  Living in another country close to Kuwait, will inevitably help her to create the self-supporting and independent woman she wants to be.  Immigrants balance original culture and family along with their new found freedoms on a daily basis.  Their thirst for enlightenment and more complexity in their live helps to build their spirits so that they may become unique individuals.  Living in the global community continues to develop Shayla’s charisma, style, and potential for a bright future.

Works Cited

Kelly, Marjorie. “Clothes, culture, and context: female dress in Kuwait.” Fashion Theory 14.2 (2010): 215+. Academic OneFile. Web. 24 Apr. 2015

Tomer, Jessica. “Going And Staying! Abroad.” Collegexpress Magazine (2013): 10. MasterFILE. Premier. Web. 28 Apr. 2015

Tetreault, Mary Ann. “Patterns Of Culture And Decocratization In Kuwait.” Studies In Comparative International Development 30.2 (1995): Business Source Premier. Web. 4 May 2015.


Shayla:  My name is Shay I’ve been here for almost three years.

Karen Guinn:  How is it in your country?

Shayla:  It’s uh completely different.  Like we uh…the learning experience is completely     different.  It’s like over there um it’s kinda a little bit hard for us because they are so strict about everything.  They don’t give you a second chance.  You only have one chance.  Like for example let’s say if you did like really bad on your test.  That’s it.  No extra credit.  No help.  There are some professors that will give you a chance but it’s like rare.  It’s very rare.  Umm

Karen:  So you’re like allowed to go to school?  There’s no restrictions?

Shayla:  Yeah, I go to school.  I graduated from high school on 2003.  And then I went to study aboard uh I went to London, I went to Egypt for three years.  Uh I had to go back to my country because of the revolution.  The Egyptian revolution.  Yeah, I was planning to come to the states since I was seventeen, actually but I didn’t have a chance.  My father was totally against that.  Uh, but I made it uh the age of twenty five.

Karen:  Can I ask you how old you are?

Shayla:  I’m 29.

Karen:  Oh, you’re my daughter’s age!

Shayla:  So, yaeh it’s a different experience.  Oh! I like it here to be honest it’s. . .  life is much        easier here than over there.

Shay:  Yep!

Karen:  So you decided at 17 you wanted to come here?  So how was it?  Was it easy to like. . . your paperwork?

Shayla:  Not that easy because they were asking a lot of stuff like bank statements and stuff like    that at that time.  I had money but I didn’t have like a bank like a statement that show I have all the money right now.  You know what I mean?

Karen:  So what’s the money for?

Shayla:  Uh tuition, like rent, they money to come here to be a student here.

Karen: Oh.

Shayla:  Like a plan to have the money to be a student here.  It was not that east at first, but after I got accepted it was nothing.  Everything was like easy and fine actually yeh!

Karen:  When you got here?  What was your impression? How was it when you got here?

Shayla:  Ok, when I came here it was my first day here.  So in the states you know.  So, I always had that idea about America.  Before I came here, how it was, beautiful and I was like in my head, I’m gonna go to America!  I’m gonna see a lots of Americans and stuff like that.  When I came here I was like so chugged because it’s so diverse here.  People from different countries live in the same city.  Amazing because you can just come here and learn about other cultures and everything.  You don’t have to go travel the world.  So it is fun, it was actually fun.  That’s the thing, another thing I was kinda scared about the hills in San Francisco.  And then I was walking the other day down the hill and then I was like am I going to fall?  How do people walk like this.  So my country was like super flat, flat, flat, flat.  So when I came here I was scared I heard a lot of things about earthquakes and stuff like that.  I was scared the first year.  I was so scared.  I was like I don’t wanna stay here and you know during an earthquake.

Me:  Have you experienced any earthquake!

Shayla:  Yeah, but it was nothing.  Not here in the states.   I felt it, but in Kuwait I felt it.  The earthquake happened in Dubai and Iran but we felt it in Kuwait.  Because they are so close together.  Like California and Nevada let’s say something like that.  So I would say the weather actually.  I was confused about the weather.  Like one day I would wear everything in my closet and then in two hours, I would have to take off my clothes and stuff.  One hour it would be super-cold then the next hour it would be super-hot.  Am I going to like this weather?  I’m going to live here at least 4 or 5 years, I don’t know what’s gonna happen.  Then later, like last summer I went back to Kuwait, and I couldn’t handle the heat.  I was like I kinda like San Francisco weather. (laughs)  Even though I used to complain a lot about the weather here.  I feel in love with the city, the people, the weather, everything.  Actually the weather has a major role in me succeeding in my life.  The weather plays a big role in my life, not just mine but everybody’s, I am a much happier person here, I would say.

Me:  So what are your plans? Are you going back home?

Shayla:  No, I want experience here like a year or two, then I might go somewhere else.  Dubai or something like that.

Me:  What about your family?  Is your family all still in Kuwait?

Shayla:  Yes, they all live in Kuwait, two of my sisters are outside actually.  One is in London, and the other in Aberdeen, Scotland.  I tried to go and study over there but it was too much for me.  It’s just when you live somewhere where everybody’s nice you just wanna stay there.  When I went to London it was like everybody was like…people are not like here.  So, I couldn’t live there it was so boring.  It was not easy to make friends, but here people just want to make friends.  That’s why I love San Francisco.  I’ve been to Sacramento and it’s super-hot over there.

Me:  No boyfriend?

Shayla:  No!  Just study!  A couple years ago I just stopped being interested in education for I don’t know how many years, and then at 26 like 2011, I decided fun time was over.  I need to finish my education.  I need to focus and finish my degree.

Me:  Is English your first language?

Shayla:  We have to study English it’s not optional in school back home.  I practice my language with my friends, because when I was hanging out we had a lot of American people.  People who were in the army.  So I used to hand out a lot with them, and I came here I hung out with Native Americans, English speakers.  That’s what helped me understand.  I was good at understanding, but I didn’t speak very well.

Me:  What are you studying?  What kinda work do you want to do?

Shayla:  At first, I was interested in hotel management, but at the same time I realized, it’s not for me.  I’m a real sensitive person and this job requires a lot of people interaction.  I’m not good at that.  But, living here I realized I’m always passionate about dogs.  About animal control.  Here in this state people take care of animals a lot.  In Kuwait they are just not doing that.  So, I want to bring my experience back.  Now they just started that, someone already started that and I was like NO!  I wanted to do that!  So now that like taking care of that.  At first I was like I don’t wanna major in something that in the future I can’t get a good job back home.  So I didn’t want to get into something that I can’t get a good job.  Maybe now there’s a possibility I can start back n Kuwait and help people with dogs, but I wanted to get experience here or in another country first, and then maybe go back home.

Me:  What do you do in your free time?

Shayla:  I used to go out a lot with my friends, but I don’t do that anymore.  Even though I’m kinda interested in video games.  Well I’m just gonna play this stupid game, they don’t have video games in Kuwait.  Now after two years it’s kinda helped me, they way my brain works and the way I think.  Let’s say I play a game that I’m adding numbers, using numbers, memorization those type of things, now I’m better because of video games.  So, I thought about it even if people are arguing about it and getting in fights about it, I’m gonna take the best from it and learn.  I’m like, now I can go out or I can play video games and stay with my dog, and that’s what I do I stay inside my home actually instead of going out.  I just wanna stay home and stay with my dog, I never want to leave my dog.  I like that.

Me:  So where do you live?

Shayla:  Daly City, it’s foggy all the time, so it’s gotten normal.

Me:  So do you take public transportation?

Shayla:  Public transportation is terrible, OMG.  It was bad, I just got a car, but the thing about being late and late to my class even though I left in time.  You don’t know what’s gonna happen, the bus might stop and someone might have a problem with the bus driver and it’s always crowded.

Me:  How is it compared to Kuwait’s public transportation?

Shayla:  You have a car, you mostly have a car because you can’t walk in Kuwait.  It’s impossible to walk around.  Only immigrants use public transportation there.  Citizens never use public transportation.  Let’s say the government take care of the people so you don’t have to use public transportation.

Me:  How does the government take care of you?

Shayla:  Let’s say for example you are a man and you get married.  The government is gonna take help you support your wife and your family.  They give you money every month to take care of your family.  Money to build your house, but you have to pay them back.  So let’s say you need a car the government well not the government.  The government work with the bank even if you have bad credit they will fix it for you.

Me:  What if you don’t pay them back?  Do you go to jail?

Shayla:  If you don’t pay them back they’ll sue you they give you like 1,2,3,4,5 chances then you’re gonna go to jail.  They will give you like a year to come up with the money.

Me:  Anything else you wann talk about that’s different?

Shayla:  Just the learning experience.  So, I wanna support my mother.  It’s a cultural thing, my Mom takes care of all of us and there is four of us.  My job is to get my degree and take care of her.  Because she’s spending money and taking care of me, and now it’s my job, that’s how it works.  So it’s my turn.  I also wanna say being independent, for the first time now it’s a good experience, but I still wanna raise my kids the way my mother raised me.  I want them to make their decision and even if they want to be independent, I’m going to still support them.

Me:  What does your mother do?

Shayla:  My mother used to be a manager of hotels.  She used to be working at a couple of hotels, then she started her own company.  Just a small company, she made herself.  Mostly, I get help from the government, not from her.

Me:  Did your parents separate?  Or where is your Dad?

Shayla:  No, my Dad passed away when I was seventeen about twelve years ago?

Me:  Oh I’m sorry!

Shayla:  So after that my Mom is amazing, so now my goal is to help her.  I wanna help her.  I still feel this is not enough for my mother.  She’s done a lot for me.  She’s so amazing, and she never asks anything in return.  I love my mother!

Me: Aww, so it’s unconditional love?

Shayla:  Yes, I wish a lot of people see that here.  It’s just a really different experience here.  The girls that I know here, they don’t have the same thing.  I always ask why.  We have a belief that is I take care of my mother, life will take care of me.  If I’m going to be happy my mother should be happy.  Everything is about my mother.  The only thing I’m sad about, if I’m here and she’s there.  She completely understands me, I don’t feel like I fit in there, and even though I’m attached to my culture.  I just do it in a modern way.  I don’t know how to explain that.  People ask me if I’m muslin, I say yes.  They say you don’t look muslin.  Then I say ok.  It’s just like we act the way we like to act.  I do what I want to do and this is what I’m doing.  My relationship is between me and Ala!  People were like making fun, and I was like they see stuff from the media and think things.  I meet a lot of people who are educated, they know a lot of things about the world and people have different opinions.  So racism in the United States is big, we don’t have that back home.  Even though we have racism, it’s more about class.  So either you have money, and some people don’t have money.  That’s it color or where you’re from no, NO!  I’m a really honest person, so I want you to tell me about it.  Instead of behind my back, because I’m gonna know who you are!  So even if a person has something against me, I would rather be friends, just make friends of your enemies.  I believe people are good.  So when you have good and bad, good always wins.

Me:  So how was your trip here?

Shayla:  It was hard at first, it can be easier.  Now I love it, I’ve been living here three years now I can’t imagine going back and living there the rest of my life.  I’m kind of used to it here, people don’t get in your business.  There it’s like a cultural thing.  People do get in your business, let’s say I’m wearing shorts.  They’re gonna be like “She’s wearing short!” I just cut my hair recently and they started calling me Tomboy!  I hate it!  Don’t give me names!  Here they are like respect it.  They leave you alone.  There they say something to you because it’s a muslin country.  At the same time it’s democratic, and I don’t think that works.  It’s weird, so that’s why most of the time I don’t care.


From Eritrea to Sudan to Iraq to Egypt to America: Samira’s Perspective on War

From Eritrea to Sudan to Iraq to Egypt to America: Samira’s Perspective on War

by Thomas B., May, 2013


I interviewed an Eritrean woman named Samira. Samira had to flee Eritrea because of war. The experience of being forced to leave Eritrea and subsequent experiences affect Samira’s perspective on war. After exile from Eritrea, being a refugee in Sudan, and briefly living in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, Samira was “sick and tired of war.” Samira is skeptical of armed struggles and the insistence of authorities that they are necessary. Eritrea was plunged into thirty years of strife, and in fact it is still facing the threat of conflict. She is disappointed in the government that her country got when it gained independence. From her statements in our conversation, I believe Samira sees violence, even violence done in the name of a cause that appears just, as a never-ending cycle.

Eritrea is a country of six point two million people on the Eastern coast of Africa (Eritrea). To the East lies the Red Sea. Across the sea one will find Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The Southern half of Eritrea is a relatively thin region of land that hugs the coast. In the West the country fans out to cover more inland areas. Eritrea has been subject to continuous strife as a victim of imperialism, regional rivals and an oppressive government. It is a poor country, where one million people face starvation (Masci) and the per capita income is just $680.

The roots of Eritrea’s Independence War go back almost 125 years, to 1890, when Eritrea became an Italian colony. Eritrea remained under Italian domination until Italy ended up on the losing side of the Second World War. In 1949 Eritrea became a United Nations trust territory administered by Britain. In the early 50s, the United Nations made the deadly mistake of turning control of Eritrea over to its larger neighbor to the South West, Ethiopia. This mistake led to decades of strife for Eritrea and Ethiopia.

That the roots of the conflict go back into history many generations is connected to Samira’s perspective that violence is a cycle that feeds on itself, not a confrontation between good and evil that resolves itself. She said of the current problems in Eritrea that “the cycle, the violence just continues.” The cycle of violence that began with Italy colonizing Africa has continued to the present day.

Eritreans waged a long struggle against Ethiopia for independence with Ethiopian forces who fought to hold on to the territory. From 1974 to 1987, Ethiopia was ruled by a Marxist-Leninist government called the Derg. The Soviet Union and Cuba became involved in the fighting, in support of the Derg. Eritrean guerillas persisted in the face of superior military technology and numbers, and for thirty years the Independence War brought strife to the region. The war took a heavy toll on Eritrea, Ethiopia, and neighbors. A famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1984-85 killed approximately one million people (Masci). Many fled to find safety elsewhere. In 1991 Eritrean independence fighters won a military victory against Ethiopia that led to a 1993 referendum in which the Eritrean people voted for independence from Ethiopia.

Samira and other Eritreans hoped that the Independence War would lead to a democratic, accountable government for Eritrea. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. In Samira’s words, “…right now, the people who were fighting to liberate [Eritrea], supposedly, are the one’s who are torturing the people. Right now, my story might be like nothing compared to the thousands and thousands fleeing the country.” As so often happens in the wake of a revolution, Eritrea has come to be ruled by a single man. Isaias Afewerki, who led a leftist guerrilla force called the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front during the Independence War, has held the presidency since independence was established. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front has been reincarnated as a political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. Afewerki expressed support for a multi-party government before independence, but Afwerki’s People’s Front is the only political party allowed in Eritrea. The Country has no media sources independent of the People’s Front, so Afewerki wields total control of news coverage. Off the record, Samira and I joked how Afewerki was “maybe a president, maybe not a president.”

Plans to move Eritrea towards democracy have been indefinitely deferred. An election planned for 1998 and the implementation of a constitution approved by the voters in 1997 have been delayed indefinitely. In a 2009 interview with Reuters, Afewerki said, “I have never said that this a successful democracy.” Afewerki’s government denies that it has no desire to implement a constitutional multi-party government in Eritrea, maintaining that wars with countries like Yemen and the old rival Ethiopia make the country too unstable to risk a political reconfiguration. However, in Afewerki’s own words that he spoke before coming into power, “a one-party system will neither enhance national security or stability nor accelerate economic development. In fact a one party system could be a major threat to the very existence of our country” (President Isaias Afwerki’s Biography).

Samira’s father became involved in the independence movement as an intellectual when she was a small child. He had been a teacher before the conflict began. Samira told me, “my Dad didn’t go to fight, however he was helping recruit people to help with money or to recruit people to help with political things.” He was a member of a group in which each person was restricted to knowing just seven other members, so if a member was captured he or she would not be able to divulge the names of too many comrades.

The Ethiopian government, which of course controlled Eritrea at that time, caused Samira’s family great trouble to punish them for her father’s actions in support of the independence movement. Samira told me “He was imprisoned here and there. For example they would tell him “24 hours to get out of the city” so he’d just have to move, sometimes he’d just have to leave us somewhere and then later on we’d join him.” The government ordered Samira’s father to move around a lot. Their idea was to restrict Samira’s father to being in cities where he wouldn’t be effective for the rebels. He was imprisoned many times by the government and unfortunately he was tortured in prison several times: “they put them in cold water they put them upside down” said Samira.

I think that her father’s politics and the failure of the armed struggle to create an equitable Eritrean government influence Samira’s perspective on war. Maybe if her father had not been so involved in politics, Samira would not see her own experiences in terms of the larger events. But surely having a close family member who was so passionate that he would go in being involved after being tortured would guarantee that Samira would be political herself. The fact that armed struggle with Ethiopia led to a long, bloody war and a despotic government colors Samira’s skeptical perception of war.

Eventually, the fighting made living in Eritrea impossible. One day Samira was at school in the capital Asmara when planes began bombing the city intensely. Samira fled the capital with her brother as thousands of people fled the city. The two followed the flow right out of the city. She described that day: “people [were] fleeing anywhere they could. So we just followed the crowd… All the way out of town…because we didn’t know what we were doing.” Samira said that she doesn’t remember how many days she traveled, because they were moving day and night and it was difficult to think straight. They had no time to get their things or tell anyone they were leaving. It was total chaos.

Samira went to a neighboring city where they believed they would be safe, but soon that city was bombed as well, so they continued to flee. Samira said she would “never forget” how everywhere she went people told her to take off her red sweater, but she didn’t understand why until an older woman told her “[the plane] spots you in bright colors, it spots you right away.” Samira and her brother made their way North to Sudan. They walked half the way, then they got a ride from some Eritrean fighters on a truck they had to ride “like goods.” Samira not gone back to Eritrea since.

In Sudan, Samira had to contend with the threat of being kidnapped in the night by the Sudanese government, which sought to relocate the many Eritreans who fled to refugee camps in Sudan. The camps were located in harsh, remote locations where heat and thirst took many lives. Samira told me that her “neighbors, who were also cousins” suffered being brought to one of the refugee camps by the Sudanese government: “They would come early in the morning when you are asleep. You’re not even awake. You are sleeping. They took them. Two of the children died. It’s just sad. They couldn’t tolerate [conditions at the camp]. I was lucky, we were lucky.” In recent years, the Sudanese government, attempting to suppress a rebellion, committed an act of genocide against their own people in the Darfur region (Genocide in Darfur).

I can only imagine that being separated from most of her family and hiding from the maniacal Sudanese government must have been a difficult adolescence for Samira. She had already known a great deal of strife at that relatively young age. This is the age where most people start to think about politics and things like that, so her adult perspective on war must have been forming during this time. Clearly, Samira and her country were not benefiting from the conflict and the immediate view of it would not have yielded the kind of distance a person needs to have to romanticize a conflict. She must have been truly “sick of war” by this time.

Samira continued her education during this time with help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She completed high school on time, then went on to Cairo to study at a technical institute for secretarial work. She had wanted to study medicine, but that was not really possible because of her status as a refugee. She said “it would have been different” if the conflict had not happened. This is one more reason for Samira to be “sick of war.”

Eritreans weren’t allowed to work in Egypt, so she went on to Baghdad, but left because of the Iran-Iraq war and general dissatisfaction with being there. Even though that war did not directly affect people in Baghdad, she had had enough of being in war zones by that time. Samira came to the United States when she was 19. She lived in South Dakota for a while, then moved to San Francisco.

Samira was reunited with her family in the United States, as family members have left Eritrea over the years. Samira still has extended family in Eritrea, but no immediate family members remain in that country. It reminds me of how Edward Said said that his home Palestine became “a series of Israeli locales” (Said X) and how all of Said’s family and acquaintances were gone from Palestine. Samira was reunited with her father after being separated for about ten years: “I can’t even put a word on it. I’m so blessed.” Samira must have some trauma from the events of her childhood, but she has lived most of life in the United States in reasonable comfort and does not seem like an unhappy person.

In conclusion, Samira’s flight from Eritrea, her difficult time in Sudan and the despotic nature of Eritrea’s independent government made her dislike war as a political tool. Those who only experience war in movies and video games sometimes have romanticized notions of what war is like. They don’t imagine what a bombing raid does to an ordinary little girl and her brother. When people call for a bad government to be driven out by some freedom fighters, they don’t necessarily think about what happens when those freedom fighters become the next government. Now, as a reservation, I don’t believe that Samira feels that Eritrea should be a part of Ethiopia! What I am saying is that Samira stopped believing in the armed struggle. We talked a little after the recording stopped, and she said something that stuck with me: “peace for all the people is my mission.”  When we were talking about the tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea is asked her if parts of Eritrea “are still occupied by Ethiopia.” Samira said, “I think it’s an excuse for just…an ego of the government. It’s not to do anything with the people. They could live safely and peacefully, actually.” Samira doesn’t believe in fighting or in those so-called “freedom fighters,” who are now dictators.

Works Cited

“Eritrea.” Central Intelligence Agency of the United States, 3 May 2007. Web

“Eritrea: Selected Social Indicators.” Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations. Ed.               Gall, Timothy L. and Gall, Susan Bevan. Online ed. Detroit: Gale. Global Issues In Context. Web. 22 May 2013.
“Genocide in Darfur.” United Human Rights Council, 2013. Web.
Masci, David. “Famine in Africa: Are Affluent Nations Doing Enough to Avert Disaster?” CQ Researcher 12.39 (2002). Web.
“President Isaias Afwerki’s Biography.” Madote. 13 Nov. 2010. Web.
Said, Edward W. Out of Place: A Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1999. Print.


Samira warns me that she speaks softly, then the recording starts. I am surprised by the sound of my voice. My additions to the conversation are written inside of [—] marks like [this]. My comments on what is happening in the conversation are written on the right side of two forward slashes like //this. Be aware that this is not intended as a word-for-word copy of the mp3 file. The goal is to capture the meaning of what was said rather than the exact words. What appears here should be considered my translation of the conversation from the language of conversation to the language of text.

Me: I’ll just put it [the recording device] closer to you.

Samira: [laughs] ah, ok.

Me: Ok Samira, I’m Thomas. So, tell me about where were you were born.

Samira: I was born in Eritrea; it’s a town called Abudat [SP?].

Me: Is that a small town?

Samira: It’s a city.

Me: In a valley?

Samira: No, actually it’s a low land. But I didn’t grow up there, I was just three months old when I left so I don’t know [the city].

Me: Why did you family leave?

Samira: Well, my dad was a teacher and also politically involved, so they [the government] were putting him from city to city [to impede his political activities].

Me: So, did you grow up in a particular town or did you move around with your dad?

Samira: I actually moved around. I didn’t grow up in a particular place.

Me: And you were going to school?

Samira: Yes.

Me: So, can you tell me about your father’s political involvement?

Samira: My father’s political involvement is a long story. You know about partition of Africa, right? So what happened was Europeans took all of Africa. Eritrea was taken by the Italians and was ruled by the Italians for about 50-60 years. And then in the second world war, Italy became allies with Germany the British kicked out [the Italians]. I’m making the story shorter!

Me: That’s fair.

Samira:.. kicked out..

Me: …the Italians…

Samira: … and they took over…

Me: …Eritrea…

Samira: They took over Eritrea for 17 years. And then what happened was, when all the other countries got independence, Eritrea did not. What happened was the British, or the Eritreans, couldn’t make up their minds.

Me: They couldn’t make up their mind if they wanted…?

Samira: There was a political thing; the US was also involved with that. They wanted to be part of Europea [Europe] and there were some Eritreans who wanted to be with Ethiopia. But when [Eritrea] was federated with Ethiopia without the people’s will, the Eritreans started movements. The teachers and students participated in demonstrations and stuff. My dad was a part of the movement.

Me: For independence?

Samira: First for the demonstrations and stuff. But then what happened was, when the brutality started [I don’t understand this part. It’s around 3:38.], Ethiopians took over, and people didn’t like that. They started grassroots movements called [the seven people?], everybody would know seven people so that way when someone got in trouble they…

Me: Oh, I see //this part isn’t clear to the listener: someone in the movement would know seven other people in the movement so that when somebody got caught by the government, they wouldn’t be able to divulge the names of more than seven comrades.

Samira: He was one of the people that started the movement, in 1961. He started to get watched; he was in prison, all these things. That’s how the trouble started. And after that, when more and more brutality more imprisonment and killing started, Eritreans stated an armed struggle in 1961. At that time what happened was that people went to fight. My Dad didn’t go to fight; however, he was helping recruit people to help with money or to recruit people to help with political things, so he was imprisoned here and there. For example, they would tell him “24 hours to get out of the city,” so he’d just have to move; sometimes, he’d just have to leave us somewhere and then later on we’d join him.

Me: Can you tell me a story about that happening?

Samira: Ok, so one story is this: [PORT] is part of Eritrea. However, it’s very far; it’s very hot. So they put him in 24 hours to go from the city to go to that place [the port]. So he left us there in the city because he could not get us to another city. He left by himself. There were others going there too.

Me: They were telling him to go to this port town?

Samira: To port town. For example, he cannot move from there. He cannot go anywhere. [Father’s birthplace] is his birthplace; they told him he cannot get there; he cannot go to that city. He can go to work, but he cannot move from that city.

Me: He was being kept in the port? He was arrested in the city? And you were with separated from him with your mother?

Samira: Yes, with my mother and two siblings; others were not born. So, after a year and a half or so we joined him in that port.

Me: how old were you when this was happening?

Samira: Hm, when this was happening, I was eight years old. So, we went to there; however, it’s like the climate is harsh so my mother was sick. So we, my mother and me and siblings, not my father, we moved to Ethiopia. It’s not far away [from the port]. Later on he could go to [Ethiopia] but that’s the only town he could go to.

Me: Yeah. So, you were right across the border, and you dad was in this port, and the government didn’t want him to leave this port.

Samira: Yeah, however, they allowed him to that city in Ethiopia because it was Ethiopia it was not Eritrea. Any Eritrean city he could not go in. So, when we would go to Eritrea, we were kind of smuggled. We would go see my grandparents.

Me: How exactly did they smuggle you?

Samira: Well, we would go from Ethiopia; nobody would know. However, when we got to [Asmara?] everybody knows everybody, so they would not say, “they are the kids of so and so,” because that’s how you were known, as “the kids of so and so.” There was curfew there. At six, we would go just right before the curfew and stay in my grandparent’s house and if we had to see another family we would go just before the curfew and not tell anyone that we were coming to stay there for a week or so.

Me: Where were you going?

Samira: To Eritrea. To see my grandparents and uncles and cousins. We would go there, go, go, go, and come back to the city where my parents were born.

Thomas: So then, uh, you must have grown up moving from place to place as your father was getting told where to go, I guess they wanted to restrict his political movements so they were telling him where to go?

Samira: Exactly.

Thomas: What about when you were a teenager?

Samira: Ok, so now…a teenager…I’m like 12, 13? So, when I’m 13…what happened was…when I was 13, the Ethiopian government was overthrown. It was the <<can’t make out, sounds like name of leader who took over>>… It was a communist country, Ethiopia. So, kind of like my dad’s restriction going to Eritrea, was kind of lightened; like he could go Eritrea! But not to his birthplace, but to Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea. So we went there, like he want[ed] to move, so we went there and there was war and stuff. It’s like one day me and my brother, we were like at school…my younger brother…and we couldn’t go back to our house.

T: Why?

S: So…what happened was like…there was bombing and stuff…so we just moved with the crowd, we just went with the crowd. We didn’t know where we were going; we didn’t know what we were doing; we just like…because we…in Ethiopia, when we were there, when the revolution was there, there was also war and stuff, but not bombing. So, we really didn’t know the exact what was going on. So, anyways, what happened was we went to a city by foot…I don’t know how many days we traveled. At first daytime, and then at night.

T: You were fleeing the capital because of the fighting there?

S: Because of the fighting…because of the bombing. The bombing was not only in the city, but the city that we were going to, it was bombed also. We didn’t know that. Nobody knew that, but it’s like the planes and stuff, you know, and people, I think were accustomed <<?>> There was this older woman.

One thing I’ll never forget: I had a red sweater on and like everybody shout[ed], “take the sweater off, take the sweater off,” and I didn’t know what was going on. So this woman came in and took out the sweater, because it’s bright color; it spot you right away…the plane.

Anyways, we got to another city called Keren and that happened to be my parents’ birthplace…

T: When you fled the city, was that immediately when you left school that day or was this more…

S: It was bombing, so it’s not like school was let out, but we have to go; we have to leave. So the thing is our house…and it’s like people are fleeing anywhere they could. So, we just followed the crowd.

T: So you just ran out of school and followed the crowd all the way out of town?

S: All the way out of town…because we didn’t know what we were doing. So, anyway, when we got to the city, it is like everybody is ok [with] what you guys [are] doing. It’s like people are so kind and stuff and they’ll ask you and we say we don’t know where our parent are; we were just at school. Kind of everybody ask[s] you whose daughter or whose son, it’s a small community. Everybody knows everybody. If you don’t know me, then somebody else will know me. So they asked someone and they knew; they came and they took us to their place. Still, they are scared because still the bombing is going on.

So anyways, so it kind of start[ed] in the morning and there was a lot of people who died in the bombing. Actually, somebody I know lost three daughters.

Then, after 15 days staying [in] that city, we decided we couldn’t go back to Asmara, to the capital, so what happened was…

T: So you left all your things in Asmara

S: Oh, yeah, nobody can get anything. So, we decided, somebody, that it’s not going to be safe, so they contacted our family; like, they contacted my mom, my mom.

T: They must have been worried about where you were?

S: Oh, yeah. They didn’t even know where we were, and there’s so many people died. At the same time that my dad was also in prison. That’s why they contacted my mom. So, my mom was like, whatever you could do, you could help them. We went to Sudan by foot…halfway. And then halfway the freedom fighters, they had this lorry that they take like so many…it…we were good

T: People had questions if you were good?

S: No, no, no. We were up, we were on this van, this lorry.

T: Oh, you were riding…a truck?

S: A truck, yes, like we were goods…everybody’s on like everybody there are so many of us.

T: Were you riding on top?

S: There were other people outside the truck. Some people were just holding outside on the truck. If you were lucky, if, you were inside the truck.

T: So, when you were walking from Asmara…and then you walked toward Sudan.

S: We stayed in that city, Keren, for 15 days first. And then we walked halfway to Sudan, and then halfway on that truck.

T: And were you still with other students?

S: We didn’t know. I don’t know if they were students but there were young people. Because we were new at the <<??>> we don’t know. Because we knew…when the bombing started everybody just fled in all directions.

T: So it was just you and your brother looking out for yourselves? The adults were nice?

S: They were nice, but we don’t know them actually. We really didn’t know them.

T: They gave you food and water?

S: Yeah. When we were from the other city, we didn’t have any food. When I say we didn’t have food it’s like, we had just like minimal things like you would get from the villagers. Everybody give you but you don’t even feel like eating. And most of the time, we are trying just to go. But in the city we had food and everything, and after that…so we couldn’t go back to Asmara, because the thing got worse; there was no bombing. But the chaos and the killing continued.

Now, the people who took us from that city, so people who we know…we didn’t know them but our family knew. So we’re going toward to Sudan. Halfway we walk, and then halfway we got the truck. We went to a refugee camp in Sudan.

We stayed in the refugee camp about…how long? Not quite a month. Then UN came…

T: Was there enough food?

S: Not to start. Not the ideal food. There was food. But not the type as here. You just don’t…we were not poor. We had food…

T: At home, but not in the refugee camp?

S: It was not enough; it was not appetizing.

T: So, I’m wondering, when you fled the city and were heading to Sudan, when you came to a village…what would happen when you came to a village…would everyone be fleeing and go on the road with you?

S: No…people in the village stayed there because the villages at the time were liberated and were not under Ethiopia, but under the rebels, the freedom fighters. They were always afraid of the bombing and stuff because everybody else would be hiding. Some of them might, but some of them not.

T: Why did you decide to go to Sudan and not stay in one of the villages?

S: Because, as I said, it’s not stable. You never know. The other thing also, is like…I don’t know. Everybody else was doing it. You’ll end up fighting too.

T: It was safer to go to another country?

S: It was safer.

T: So, you stayed in the United Nations refugee camp in Sudan for about a month, and then did you go back to your parents or did you go some place else?

S: No, our parents were still in Eritrea. What happened was the UN was opening a high school in Sudan, in Kassala, so they took us to Kassala…it’s a city in Sudan that borders Eritrea. There are many Eritreans there; they have been refugees for a long time…probably since the ‘60’s, since the war started, or the conflict started.

So, we came there and my brother went to middle school. I went to high school. They were giving us, usually they called it Unesco…it was not ruled by Unesco; it was run by the UNHCR.

T: When you were in Sudan, did you feel alienated from the native people in Sudan?

S: There were so many Eritreans refugees there; it’s bordering Eritrea. There’s always inter-marriage, you know, family here and there in both places. On the border you know how it is, many are relatives. Especially in that areas there are so many refugees for a long time, so, it’s like so many Eritreans were there already.

But, but, what was happening in the Sudanese government was always threatening the refugees. You cannot be in the city; you have to go to the refugee camp. It’s like always you’re on the run, always you’re in the hide. Even though we have papers for the UNHCR, still we are afraid that somebody will take us to a really, really bad places, very, very hot places, that has nothing, not even stable refugee camps.

T: The government tried to put the refugees in the most inhospitable places in Sudan, in the middle of the desert. No water.

S: Exactly. Yes. That is exactly what has happened to many unlucky people. I remember at one point, one year that we did that so many people died, especially…there was really high…

T: High temperatures, not enough food, not enough water?

S: Nothing, nothing at all. Very remote area.

T: It was not violence but the conditions.

S: Yeah, it was the conditions. We were lucky.

T: Did you experience this yourself?

S: No, I did not experience myself, but I knew about it. My neighbors who also happened to be my family…my second cousins…they took them to Abroham <??> a very remote area. They would come early in the morning when you are asleep. You’re not even awake. You are sleeping. They took them.

T: Kind of kidnapped.

S: Exactly, kidnapped. Two of the children died. It’s just sad. They couldn’t tolerate. I was lucky; we were lucky, didn’t get to that.

T: Did you complete high school there?

S: Yes.

T: When did you learn English?

S: In Eritrea or Ethiopia, you start taking English as a subject in 2nd grade. When you are in middle school all the subjects are in English. That’s how I started learning. In the UNHCR schools all subjects are in English. We had to sit for GEC, compatible to English school if you passed.

T: Were you working? And did you reconnect with your parents when you were in high school?

S: Yes, my last year in high school, my mom and my three siblings came to Sudan. They had to flee. My dad was in prison so they had to leave the country. They couldn’t go to school and my mom was tortured…they would come to the house and take stuff. She didn’t know where my dad was in prison so she had to leave the city. I saw her briefly there and then I had to go to another city to take the exam for the GEC, the General Education.

While I was there after we finished the exam, I just stayed in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. I stayed there about three months and UNHCR was also giving scholarships for Egypt and Kenya. They told they want us to apply to get scholarships. So we applied…they just give you a general English exam that you can pass. So I passed both for Kenya and Egypt but then Egypt was business secretary school and the one in Kenya was for nursing school. But then my friends were going to Egypt so I just go…I don’t have nobody to go with me to Kenya even though I want to do something medical field. I just went them to Egypt, to Cairo.

T: You went to Cairo and started university there?

S: It’s not university. It’s an institute for studying secretarial business.

T: It would have been tough to focus on school while you’re running from all the violence…yeah?

S: That’s very true. It’s been hard but the thing is doable. You also want to try because our father and mother wanted education so bad. They educated themselves, not universities and stuff, but still education was so valued…they value education. They instilled that in us. Even in the refugee camp, you just read. In Sudan, I’ll tell you, in Kassala, we have electricity, but you pay for electricity…but we have to say hi to my teacher.

<<interrupted by teacher in 33:40 — 32:30>>

T: Seems like you have a really good relationship with all your former teachers.

S: They are amazing. I mean, I love my teachers. Even from my childhood. My dad was a teacher.

T: He would have had to stop teaching with the political thing started, when he got involved in politics.

S: I mean, when he got out…he’s here now…yeah, I saw my dad after 11 years, 12 years…

T: I asked you, it must have been difficult to study because of the violence and then you started to talk about the electricity.

S: You pay for the electricity, no matter what. The problem is this: no electricity most of the time, we don’t get electricity…and it goes dark all of a sudden. We have to put kerosene and we have to study hard. Let me give you an example, for history: Compare the American Revolution to the French Revolution. It’s an essay, it’s not like ABC and whatever like you can give.

T: I’m not sure if I would pass that question.

S: (Laughs) I don’t know. No American will pass history. I’ll give you that. That’s what I tell my daughter. I’m being judgmental.

T: It’s sort of true. Even though I’m American, I’ve lived here my whole life, there’s just so many basic things that I don’t know about my own country. It’s embarrassing a little.

S: That’s OK. You know they give you a citizenship exam and I don’t know if any American would pass it. That’s what I tell my daughter. When I say American, I mean anyone who was born here and my daughter was born here.

T: I saw some studies where they asked Americans from the exam and it was abysmal scores.

S: So yeah, we have to study, like oil, it’s lights…we still pay for electricity.

T: So you went to Cairo and study at the institute for secretarial business…

S: It’s a language school, and international language institute but it’s a comprehensive school…it has language, secretarial, business college. Ours was a combined business, secretarial.

T: So you were not able to study medicine.

S: I was not able to do that over there.

T: Do you think it might have been different it you didn’t have to flee from Eritrea?

S: Yes. It would have been different.

T: You managed to avoid getting kidnapped.

S: Yes. It was sheer lucky. We were sleeping here next, and the next door people got taken out, they would go. It was always fear.

T: We had this book about illegal immigrants that has this quote about how the people are afraid of being picked up by the INS and ICE. You must be deal with all the time in your work with asylum seekers.

S: Yes, that’s true.

T: Did you finish the secretarial school?

S: Yes…some of my subjects were transferable here to City College.

T: Was your father still in prison when this was going on?

S: When I was in Egypt? Yes…

T: He had been in prison continuously?

S: Yes.

T: I don’t want to make you talk about things that are too painful, but you said your mother was abused and your father must have been abused in prison.

S: Oh, yes…torture. Torture…he talks about it now. They put them in cold water; they put them upside down.

T: And your mother, did she follow you to Egypt or stay in Sudan?

S: She stayed in Sudan.

T: And were any of your siblings with you in Egypt?

S: Yes, actually one of my brothers was there. He went there on his own from Sudan.

T: He was an older brother who had had already been there for a while…

S: No, not the one that went with me, but another brother. We’re six siblings…I have 1 sister and 4 brothers. One of my brothers went to Egypt on his own. This one was on his own, he flew there from Ethiopia. And then my sister came when I was there…I went to Sudan and brought her to Egypt.

T: When you finished at the institute you must have started looking for work.

S: Yes, but in Egypt you cannot work because you have to be an Egyptian citizen. They are very strict. However, because the UNHCR school had some kind of connection with like they were training us with different companies. The companies didn’t employ us; they take us as trainees they give us some pocket money. The UNHCR was giving us some money too for the education and to survive.

So, after we finish, we have to go somewhere, we cannot stay in Egypt because our student visa expires. Even though we were refugees still we couldn’t live there.

T: How old were you at this time?

S: I was 18, 19.

T: You had to leave Egypt because of the rules. Where did you go? Were you thinking about going back to Eritrea at this time? Was the fighting stopping?

S: No the fighting was still going on. The US and Canada were giving resettlement if you apply. I didn’t want to go far away. So, I went Baghdad to go to university. Stayed there a month or so. But it was not for me. So many things.

T: Everything was different. Language was probably different?

S: No, I knew Arabic. I speak Arabic. It’s not the language, but the political thing. Iraq at that time was good, many Eritreans there…I don’t know…

T: The weather?

S: No, Iraq is beautiful; the weather is beautiful. Baghdad is very beautiful…

T: Something about the culture…

S: I can’t pinpoint exactly…

T: Because you didn’t have family there?

S: Probably. But the other thing there was the Iraq-Iran war. Baghdad was not affected that much but still you could feel the…I was sick and tired of war. So I came back to Egypt again…so, it’s like, where to go? Like nowhere. Did have a choice, so I applied for US resettlement. Got accepted and came here, and went to South Dakota.


The funniest thing is at the UNHCR office in Cairo, Americans like, “Where are you going?” “I’m going to South Dakota.” And the Americans…not anybody else…”South Dakota!?” As if I’m going to the moon or some place. This was 1985.

It’s different there now. At least you can see diversity there now, but when I went there…

T: You must have been the only African in town.

S: Yeah, well, I was not even in town. I was on the outskirts of Sioux Falls. I was not the only African; I was the only colored person there.

T: Was it kind of awkward? Were people really racist there? Or just confused?

S: There were some of the nicest people there. They would go out of their way to do stuff, but they were not racist. They were confused. That’s how I would put it. I would speak English and they would ask, “How do you learn American?”

T: How did you learn our obscure unknown language? (laughs)

S: Exactly! (laughs)

My favorite thing is this…I would be eating…and I’m a Muslim…I would say “Insha’Allah,” the name of god. That’s what you say when you start something. And they’d say, “Pardon” and I would say I’m just calling my god. Oh…she’s not even Christian and she knows about god.

T: So, it’s probably like everyone goes to the same church in this town.

S: Yes.

T: The people were nice but you decided to leave South Dakota pretty quick?

S: I decided to leave South Dakota pretty quick not because of the cultural but because of the weather.

T: It was freezing

S: It starts at the end of October, the first of November, the thing just changed, like over night like freezing. So by the 10th of November, I have to…I came here actually to visit a friend.

T: You came to SF to visit a friend?

S: Actually to LA, to Orange County. My cousin joined me [in] South Dakota. I stayed there about three months. She was there about 10 days. We came here to visit a friend but the weather was so good. I had a friend in SF and I told my cousin, “I’m going to visit.” We just made up our mind; we’re staying here; we’re coming back here. We went back (to South Dakota) and we came back here. When we came back here, I told my cousin, “I’m not crazy about Orange County for me. SF is the perfect place.” I found a place. My place is here.

T: Yeah, this is a great place. A lot of immigrants end up here. I’m one of the only people I know that’s born in San Francisco.

S: You were born in SF? I have a couple of people who were born in SF.

T: I probably have one of the most boring life stories.

S: No, San Francisco…you have a story. Trust me. Believe me.

T: You haven’t told me about any jobs. You were maybe 20 by now and looking for work.

S: I applied to this place and accepted in South Dakota. But I have to leave. So I came here in San Francisco; I got a job at childcare.

T: Did you have work in South Dakota?

S: Yes, childcare…but I was accepted at nursing school. But I moved here because of the weather. So I came here, worked in childcare. They told me to get PPD testing (TB)…a skin test for TB. I went to refugee clinic to get the PPD test and as I was talking to this lady. She’s a nurse, and she said, “your English is good, and we are looking for an interpreter and someone for our pre-natal program, the doctor wants an assistant.” I said, “I have no medical training but, yeah.” She said they train me. So I applied there and I worked there almost 10 years.

What I was doing at the refugee clinic…I was working at the pre-natal program doing vital signs. Refugees from different countries come, but I was responsible for Eritreans and people who spoke Arabic.

T: So you speak Arabic, but I don’t know what language you speak in Eritrea.

S: I speak Arabic, Tigre…in Eritrea we have 9 different languages. So I speak Tigrinya. I was taught Amharic in school. I speak Tigre, Harari, Arabic and English.

T: You speak five languages fluently?

S: Yes…well, if you think I’m fluent in English, then, yes.

T: I noticed you’re wearing a jacket. Do you find it cold here?

S: No, it’s not cold. I’ve been here 30 years, so I don’t when it’s hot. But my body is always cold. Not because…it was windy outside. I’m always cold.

After that I found a job at UCSF Aids project. I was doing HIV triage and counseling.

T: Was it people who just contracted the disease?

S: No.

T: Why was it triage?

S: We will get calls and prioritize this person, this needs. If somebody calls me and says “I’m HIV positive,” I tell them where to go. If somebody calls and says, “I want to get tested,” I tell them to go. I was coordinating. We have nine different sites, so coordinating that. I worked there about 10 years also. Then I got sick and surgery on my hand. I had nerve thing. It was painful, so they had to surgery. After that I had some health issues, so I didn’t go back to work. So I was laid off, also because of funding stuff. I had priority hiring but I couldn’t go back to work for a while.

T: That brings up to the present? You have family in the US?

S: Yes, I live with my daughter and my husband. My family were living in different places, some in Sudan. First, I brought my two brothers, and then my mom, and then my other two brothers. And my sister in Cairo. And the last person I brought to the US was my dad.

T: You told me your dad finally got out of prison after about 10 years. Were you about 30 then?

S: I don’t know…I’m not not good at the timing now. I don’t know if it was the whole ten years. In the time we lost contact. We heard about him from other people. He contacted us.

T: He was free for a little while and then managed to contact you again. And did he come to the US?

S: Yes, after a while. It was a process. They have a family reunification.

T: What was it like seeing your dad after so long a time?

S: I can’t even put a word on it. I’m so blessed.

T: And there’s been continued fighting in Eritrea and Sudan. Has that impacted you since you left Africa?

S: Yes. I don’t have immediate family there but I have cousins and uncles. I have friends. The things is this, Eritrea got independence in 1991 and was recognized as an independent state in 1993. However, right now, the people who were fighting to liberate it, supposedly, are the one’s who are torturing the people. Right now, my story might be like nothing compared now to the thousands and thousands fleeing the country. They were kidnapped from the refugee camps. They’re being sold to the Bedouin in Egypt. And they’re being sold to organ traffickers, their organs being sold. They are being asked to pay $50,000 to get out from the capturers. It just continues. The cycle, the violence just continues.

T: There are still some parts of Eritrea that are occupied by Ethiopia?

S: There’s a border in conflict about it. Whose is this town; whose is that town. I think it’s an excuse for just…an ego of the government. It’s not to do anything with the people. They could live safely and peacefully, actually.

T: Do you think Ethiopia wants to control Eritrea because of the Red Sea?

S: Ethiopia doesn’t have a port, and Eritrea has two ports. Yes, some Ethiopians really want the port of Assab. There are some who say openly that in the government right now. They say they don’t [need] Assab because they are using Djibouti. But it’s easier for them to use Assab. But right now, Assab is a ghost city, not even used by Eritrea. It’s so sad because that port was very alive and very…

T: That’s the place where you separated from father for a while…

T: Do you feel like an exile from Eritrea? Did you have to leave?

S: Of course. There was no choice. I was not given choice.

T: There was day the bombing…

The mp3 Ends here. We continued talking for a couple minutes. I remember she said “my mission is peace for all peoples.”