Exchanging favors: Ethiopian refugee Esayas Mesfin’s survival kit

“You help somebody, he help you. Yeah man, always had help,” Esayas Mesfin says of his life as a refugee.

It is a concept that has been with Mesfin since he fled Ethiopia in 1998. As a refugee at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, Mesfin always had help from family, friends, and even strangers. About seven years after Mesfin’s arrival in Kenya, their generosity helped him to relocate to the United States as a refugee.

Since arriving in Chicago, Mesfin has been repaying favors to those who once helped him. He works two jobs in order to make enough money to send to his parents, who still live in the country Mesfin fled twelve years ago.

Memories from home

Life in Ethiopia was comfortable for Mesfin and his family before a war erupted between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998 over a border dispute. Though Mesfin was born in Ethiopia, his parents are Eritrean by birth, and the anti-Eritrean sentiments and uneasy political climate in the area put the Mesfin family in a dangerous situation.

According to Mesfin, the government attempted to seize his father’s auto-shop business because it was quite lucrative. His father refused to give in to their demands, so the business was taken by force.

“The government soldiers come to the house. They want to take everyone to jail,” Mesfin recounts of the day the government retaliated against his father’s refusal and arrested Mesfin in the process.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/day-he-went-to-jail.mp3]He’s my brother, he was young, he said, ‘why you do like this?’ He want to hit him you know, with a gun. He goes down, you know. He’s flat, you know. He’s faint. Yeah he want to hit you with a gun.  He want to take everyone to jail you know. After that, I didn’t have a choice, you know.”

In prison, Mesfin survived each day on a single piece of bread and a cup of tea. He never slept for fear of what might happen if he closed his eyes.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/audio-flow-back-home.mp3] “The first day when I go to jail, you want to hit me. They want to bring the gun, the stick. Everybody want to hit you. After that, you don’t say nothing you know. You want to take somebody. He want to take him, he want to kill him. That’s why you don’t sleep. You know, no reason. Just you want to stay alive. Just he want to kill you tomorrow, today. You know you think it and you can’t sleep, never.”

“My friend, he was in jail too,” Mesfin recalls. “He is dead already. They kill him because he say, ‘why you do like this?’ So I don’t say nothing you know.”

Mesfin quickly learned to stay quiet in order to avoid being noticed by the prison guards. After two weeks of calculated silence, he appeared before a judge. The judge gave him two options; leave Ethiopia or remain in prison (with no sleep and very little food). He chose to flee to Kenya despite the dangers of illegally crossing the border without proper papers. He had to exit quickly, leaving his family and all of his possessions behind.

On his solo journey, Mesfin had help in the form of a check his father had written before being thrown in prison. He used part of the money to pay for a bus to a city near the Kenyan-Ethiopian border. There, he found a friend who walked with him to the border in the night. He bribed the border guards with the remainder of his money so that they would allow him to enter Kenya without travel documents. Now with no money, Mesfin crossed the border into a country where he was not welcome.

Life in Kakuma  and its refugee camp

Only 16 years old at the time, Mesfin recognized the dangers of traveling without papers, and worse, without money, in Kenya.

“They have corruption, you know,” Mesfin says of the Kenyan bureaucracy. It’s a way of life, he recalls, and one he learned to live with.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/audio-flow-camp.mp3] “Yah, corruption, you know. You don’t have  a paper, you can’t live like that in that country. Every time you need some money. Every solider, e want to take a dearl. You want to give me some money, five dollar, ten dollar, you want to give it to him, he leave it for you, you know.”

Mesfin did not have any money, but he did have one resource not available to most refugees – a family member already settled in Kenya. He immediately began to search for his uncle who had been in the city for the past twelve years.

“I go to the city and I ask this guy ‘you know him?’, and he said no, so I go to next guy, restaurant owner, and I say ‘you know him?’” Mesfin recounts. “And this guy, he know him.” He had found his uncle in a matter of hours.

Mesfin’s uncle used his wealth and prominence in Kakuma to quickly get Mesfin settled into the refugee camp, which had about 65,000 people at the time Mesfin arrived in 1998, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). His encounter began what Mesfin calls his “good life” in Kakuma Refugee Camp.

In Kakuma, he also met Zelalem Gebre, a fellow Ethiopian and journalist who himself had fled the country after being tipped off that the government had charged him and two dozen others with treason.

“He help me, yeah man,” Mesfin says.  “He help me with everything.”

Gebre helped him build his one-room home of tarp and tree branches. He helped Mesfin, who had grown up in a modern home, learn to bathe in a lake and live in a home with nothing but a mattress on the floor.

“You don’t buy comforts,” Mesfin says.  “Just a mattress and no comforts.”

Mesfin spent one year trying to adjust to life in the camp, but it was very different from what he had known growing up in a wealthy Ethiopian family. Despite Gebre’s mentorship, he could not accustom himself to the small rations and the lack of activity. He wanted a job. He wanted money. Mesfin’s uncle provided him with the opportunity to fulfill these desires, including lessons on how to drive a car.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/job-in-camp.mp3] “I go to my uncle’s job, you know the business.  He have too many business, you know, like my father you know.  He have a mechanical shop and first I do it for him like that. I’m working together with him.  He teach me  about drive. After that, he give me car – a mutatu, like a taxi – a big one, 25 passenger.  After that, it’s good you, I’m going a good life you know.”

Mesfin spent seven years in Kenya working for his uncle – three in the camp, and four paying rent in his uncle’s home. In 2005, Mesfin’s uncle decided to help him once again by arranging for Mesfin to enter the United States as a refugee.

Life in Chicago

Mesfin’s host parents, Ahmid and Latbray Husar, accompanied him on his flight from Kenya to the United States and filed the necessary papers for him. A process that is often frustrating and even scary for some seemed almost enjoyable to Mesfin.

“My uncle, my mom and dad [the Husars] did everything for me,” he says, smiling. “I didn’t do nothing. It was easy.”

They took him into their home, and just as Gebre had helped Mesfin adjust to life in Kakuma, the Husars helped him settle into the American way of life.

Almost immediately upon arriving in Chicago, Mesfin began to find his way and to repay those who had helped him get here. He found his first job at an airport one month after entering the U.S. even though he spoke almost no English.  He moved into his own apartment two months later, though he remains close with the Husars.

Mesfin hasn’t forgotten his friends from Kenya either. When Gebre arrived in the U.S. shortly after Mesfin, Mesfin taught him to drive. This skill allowed Gebre to acquire a job with the valet company where Mesfin currently works.

His skills and experience allow him to help friends like Gebre who have followed him to the United States.  However, in some ways, his hard work prevents him from caring for his parents who still live in Ethiopia.

“They don’t want to live long time here,” he says.  “They’re too old.  Everybody’s working, nobody to take care of them in the home.”

He wants his entire family to join him in Chicago, but he knows that his parents will never leave Ethiopia. He can’t care for them in the physical sense typical of Ethiopian families because he is too busy working, to busy even for school, so he continues to support them by sending money whenever he has some to spare.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/audio-flow-america.mp3] “I don’t want to go to school because I don’t have time. I need some money, you know want to send to my family.You can’t work hard, you can’t live here you know. I changed my life, you know. I’m helpful to my family, my brother, my sister, you know. I’m happy.”

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