Tekie Tsegay: An Eritrean refugee struggles to find work in Chicago

[Read the companion story: What happens if a refugee and family move from the location or state where they were originally placed?]

Tekie Tsegay, hesitantly smiles as he opens the door to his building. He slowly turns around and walks towards the elevator, draws the iron curtain, gently slides the door, and presses three. The elevator shrieks.

As he walks through the dimly lit hallway towards his apartment, it seems that the building is still under construction. The top half of the walls are white and the bottom half are green, like the walls can’t decide what color they want to be.

“I don’t like so much green,” he mumbles as he opens his green door.

His studio apartment contains the bare necessities. Glossy white walls, no decorations, a short coffee table, two black chairs, a round wooden dining table, a refrigerator, and a queen-sized bed with gray sheets and one pillow, filling in what is left of the modest room.

Tsegay, 36, has only recently settled in Chicago with his wife Aberhet, 31, from an Ethiopian refugee camp a mere month ago.

Tsegay, with his wife Abrehet behind him, leaving his apartment for his night job at a gas station.

He was born in Ethiopia to Eritrean parents. After a bloody 30-year war with Ethiopia, Eritrea finally gained independence in 1991, prompting Ethiopia to deport over 115,000 Eritrean Ethiopians. Tsegay and his family were among those who were deported.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/T_initial-eritrea.mp3]

The beginning: Tekie describes his life in Eritrea.

Leaving the homeland

In Eritrea, he finished his schooling and attended the University of Asmara. After graduation, he was enrolled in compulsory civil national service. He worked as a history and geography secondary school teacher for three years with no pay during the second Eritrean-Ethiopian War.

“It was like slavery… I was not allowed to work or make income or own property,” he says. “I had to live away from my family.”

By the end of the war in 2002, many, including Tsegay, demanded an end to the militarization and conscription law. When the demands fell on deaf ears, Tsegay decided to desert national service.

“Everyone did that, they deserted from the national service. They did their best to get jobs [in the private sector], till they catch again by the police,” he says. “Fortunately I found a job with an Irish NGO – Concern Worldwide.”

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/T_suspcion-and-deserters_01_02_02.mp3]

Paranoid deserter: Tsegay recalls the suspicion he faced while deserting national service under false pretenses.

For three years, Tsegay used sham documents and cited false medical conditions in order to exempt himself from national service. This way he could work illegally as a social worker. However, in December 2004, on his way to a monthly work meeting in the capital, he was captured by police and sent to a  detention center.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/T_jail.mp3]

The scar that will never fade: Tsegay talks about his capture, detention, and the revolt that eventually led to his escape.

During a revolt in the detention center that left 27 prisoners and 4 guards dead, Tsegay was injured with a ricochet bullet to the face. After severe interrogation at the hospital, he made plans with fellow prisoners to once again desert.

He escaped from the hospital and hid in an undisclosed location for three weeks before crossing the border in February 2005. Because of his national service experience, he was well acquainted with how the border operated and had little trouble getting into Ethiopia.

Tsegay recalls being well greeted by the Ethiopian border police, despite his parents’ fears of Ethiopian retaliation. Even the Administration for Refugee Return Affairs (ARRA) helped him in adjusting to his new life.

“I had become a refugee in the land I was born,” he smirks.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/T_Refugee-camp-prep.mp3]

Refugee in my own land: Tsegay describes the process of becoming a refugee.

For five years, Tsegay lived in the Shimelba Refugee Camp near Shirora, Ethiopia, not too far from his city of birth. He taught English, conducted psychological training for disabled refugees, and worked with peace building organizations. In his spare time, he attended open camp discussions on topics ranging from the impact of globalization to combating domestic violence, watched football (American soccer) and spent the rest of his day preparing food or fetching water.

Not a minute was wasted.

Tsegay held several volunteer and leadership positions, but none of them paid. Unlike many of his fellow refugees, he was allowed to frequently visit the nearby city for training sessions. He met his future wife, Abrehet, at a coffee shop on one of his trips to the city.

However, Tsegay was discontent.

“I was not permitted to work in Ethiopia. If I can’t work then how can I live?” Tsegay questions. “I wasn’t working in the camp, it was just voluntary..I was just volunteering.”

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/T_eritrean-escape-to-ethiopia.mp3]

Struggling for work: Tsegay speaks on Eritrean refugees attempting to work illegally in Ethiopia.

In 2008, Tsegay began his resettlement process. He was given the choice of three host countries; Australia, Canada, and the United States.

“I didn’t choose America. Any place I can work, I wanted to go,” he says.

By 2010, Tsegay had taken several cultural orientation classes in preparation for his resettlement in Chicago. He felt more confident in his abilities to adjust to his impending new lifestyle because of his work as a refugee camp translator, exposure and experience with different cultures at the camp, and advice from several resettled refugees.

“My friends had told me that there was going to be hardships in America as far as jobs,” he says. “They told me that life is difficult, but if you challenge that, maybe you’ll succeed.”

Coming to America

Tsegay had never flown on a plane before. He didn’t want to seem nervous in front of his wife, who was also flying for the first time. Over the next two days and 7,200 miles, all Tsegay could think of was keeping a watchful eye on their immigration papers, which he had stuffed into a large bag and kept by his side at all times. When they finally landed, he was sad to see his fellow Eritrean refugees separated towards their connecting flights, but happy that they had reached solid ground and that he could finally hand over his immigration papers.

The couple was greeted at the door of the plane by immigration authorities and, after an hour wait, they were picked up by Tsegay’s case manager, Yusuf Ali,  from his resettlement agency, RefugeeOne. Tsegay recalls that it was Sept. 8, 2010, 4 p.m. to be exact, and the sun was still shining outside. It looked pleasant.

Ali led the way to their building complex and their green-doored studio apartment. Ali demonstrated how the appliances worked and indicated that there was some food in the refrigerator for the two of them. He suggested that they get some rest because he would pick them up the next morning to fill out some important paperwork. Then he left them alone as they wondered what was in the refrigerator.

“Is this chicken? A real chicken? Maybe it’s an eagle..or even an ostrich?” Tekie exclaims.

He had never seen such a large chicken before. Though he thought he had thoroughly prepared, he recalls that nothing could have prepared him for the tiny details of a resettled refugee’s life, like realizing that even chicken wasn’t the same between Eritrea and America.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/chicken.mp3]

Chicken, it’s what’s for dinner: Tsegay’s culture shock moment with an ostrich-sized chicken.

The greatest obstacle

Tsegay had spent his initial month in Chicago completing medical screenings, paperwork for a social security card and drivers license, and learning how to navigate the train systems.

But most of all just waiting; waiting for paperwork to come through so he could look for jobs, waiting for job opportunities to appear so he could apply for work, and waiting for applications and interviews to finish so he could finally work.

“I was waiting years in Eritrea under conscription, then five years [in the refugee camp], then waited another month here for papers, and now wait more? No, no more waiting, now living…life [was] on hold,” he asserts.

Once again, not a minute was wasted.

He was proactive in his resolution to find a job as soon as possible. Despite Ali’s suggestions to slow down, he eagerly tried to register at Truman College. While his wife was busy with ESL classes, he sent out 25 applications and interviewed at countless places. He sought newly found relatives from Washington D.C. for advice on whether moving to a different state for work was the better choice.

READ more about Tsegay’s decision in possibly moving states.

Before coming to America, his friends had advised him that he would find work eventually, but it would be an entry level position not related to his profession. “They said, ‘you will feel tired, exhausted, but the money is not enough'”, he recalls. “You can’t save enough money. I know that I can not find jobs in my profession…I need to work any kind of job, even if entry level…maybe I re-certify my documents and continue my education.”

Furthermore, Tsegay was disappointed with the lack of involvement by his resettlement agency in his job search. He had even seen a senior staffer at the job development office, but was told that, though his resume was nice, the slow economy and winter season were to blame.

“They said they could find a job within a year or maybe two,” he says. “But I can’t wait idly, I need to work now.”

After a month of applications and interviews, Tsegay was offered two jobs. The first position was an airplane cleaner at O’Hare International Airport.

“I don’t want that job cause it’s very very bad. So many people claimed that it was bad, the management is also bad. So I left that job and preferred the gas station,” he says.

Though it wasn’t his ideal job as a social worker, Tsegay accepted an offer to work at a gas station an hour away from his apartment. He would work the graveyard shift Monday through Friday, and sometimes Saturday, attending the pumps, the register, and the general store.

“I passed so many procedures, but the job I do is very simple,” he says. “Trying to find a job in Eritrea is easier, cause you know where you stand. It’s based on education and competence.”

For Tsegay, the greatest obstacle in America was the search for a job.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/T_expectations-unmet.mp3]

Much more than expected: Tsegay explains his struggle in finding a job.

Building a community

Tsegay and his friends at Royal Ethiopian Coffee House

Now, after two months of resettlement, Tsegay has fully accepted his green door and indecisively painted hallway. He has hung several religious paintings of Mother Mary, Jesus, and African saints, pushed the bed towards the back wall, and filled in the room with a study table and computer donated by the refugee agency and a TV and DVD player donated by an Eritrean family from church.

On Saturdays, he makes a habit of visiting the Royal Ethiopian Coffee House, about a mile from his apartment. He met up with other Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees and immigrants. For Tsegay, the restaurant serves as a thriving networking center of Eritrean and Ethiopian contacts.

Attending church on Sundays is the most vital component in Tsegay’s life. “You meet so many people, you practice your culture and your religion, and worship there,” he says. “It is good to worship with your community and in your language.”

Tsegay and his wife prefer attending the Eritrean Orthodox Church of St. Mary in Chicago. But because of its distance from their apartment, a community member drives them to services when possible. Otherwise, they attended the 6 a.m. services at the United Church of Rogers Park, which is shared with other congregations.

He admires the organization of the Eritrean Church members and the support they give each of their constituents. He has already received Eritrean movies and music, a TV, and a DVD from one of the members, but he recalls a particular incident of church good.

Recently, two refugees had died in an accident on the South Side of Chicago and within an hour the church provided $2000 in cash assistance to the distressed family. “They give a lot of support,” he says. “This is why we pay $10 a month in fees for the church.”

When it comes to religion, Tsegay feels no boundaries in America. He sees little difference in practice between Eritrea and the US. “They have the same Bible and they pray the same way,” he says.

For Tsegay, religion is the most important aspect of his life, especially when it comes to building a community. “Religion is important to me because I have to believe. I believe in God. There is something you miss if you don’t believe,” he says.

Building a future

Though the majority of his two months in America have been spent struggling for job opportunities, Tsegay acknowledges the advantages his American life has given him.

“I feel like this is home…I can move from Chicago to any state and no one asks for permit. In Eritrea you need passport just to move from one area to another. There is a restriction on movement,” he says. “So many youngsters are spending their time on unnecessary adventures for national service…US is better for democracy.”

Though he’s accepted America as his new home for now, Tekie is reluctant to call himself an American just yet. He knows that being an American is much more than a passport.

“Technically I’m not a citizen, I’m not naturalizing with this American society. Green card and citizenship is the technical one…I know the cultures of America but I need to know deeply. That means you need to speak like an American, your accent needs to improve,” Tsegay asserts.

Even then, Tsegay feels that Eritrea will always be his real home. But he’s saddened at the prospect that he may never return there.

“They consider us betrayed of the government, so unless the government situation changes I can’t go back,” he says. “But ideally, I would want to eventually move back to Eritrea.”

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/T_not-come-to-america.mp3]

Eritrea is my real home: Tsegay admits that if he weren’t a refugee, he would never have come to America.

The future is uncertain for Tsegay. He knows he must stay in Chicago until his lease ends in ten months. But, he claims, if he ever finds a job opportunity better suited to his profession as a social worker, he will have no hesitation in moving.

“I’m here just two months, I don’t know what will happen in the future, we’ll see. But so far, so good,” he says. “First let’s see if they finish painting the hallway.”

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Tekies-week.mp3]

A typical week: Tekie’s describes his typical week in audio


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