The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


A new future

Lutherans resettle young refugees who are on their own

Tesfaye Gebre was 14, living with his family in a small town in the east African nation of Eritrea, when authorities announced they would begin removing children from school and forcing them to join the army. Gebre wasn’t in school that day and didn’t go back. Instead, he and a cousin set out on foot, crossing the border into Ethiopia. The date was Feb. 1, 2008.

The cousins weren’t the only ones to leave. Today more than 50,000 Eritreans live in refugee camps in northern Ethiopia. From January to May 2013 alone, nearly 4,000 people fled Eritrea, according to the U.N. News Service.  

They fled what the U.N. Special Rapporteur calls “blatant disrespect for human rights.” Among the concerns are military conscription of children, indefinite national military service, arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention and religious persecution.

Gebre’s 2008 exodus wasn’t his first trip across the border. When he was 10, he and four friends ran away after arguing with their parents, intent on reaching his older sister in Ethiopia. They were quickly apprehended by U.N. troops monitoring a cease-fire along the border, turned over to the Eritrean police and jailed for two weeks.

At one point, Gebre said, the soldiers lined them up and tied their hands around the trunk of a large tree overnight. “It was very hard,” he recalled.

A year or so later, police came to interview Gebre and his friends, demanding to know which boy had the original idea to cross the border. When the boys couldn’t remember, “they tried to scare us and make us fear,” Gebre said. 

Eventually, just to end their ordeal, one boy said it had been his idea. The police let the matter drop.

Fast forward to 2008, when Eritrean authorities announced that anyone who had crossed into Ethiopia would have to join the military. “[I] was very scared because I couldn’t do anything and I was very young,” Gebre said. He saw an 18-year-old cousin and a much younger classmate taken away.

So Gebre and his cousin — a 16-year-old girl — fled. They were picked up by Ethiopian soldiers who moved them from place to place for three weeks before they ended up at the Shemelba refugee camp.

The sprawling camp is mostly comprised of small thatch-roofed dwellings with grass or twig walls. Many refugees have lived there for years, and the camp’s school, administrative buildings and shops make it seem more like a village than a temporary sanctuary.

Gebre stayed in Shemelba for three years. “At the refugee camp it was very tough,” he said. He and his cousin struggled to get by on their monthly food ration (33 pounds of flour, 2 pounds of beans, 1 pound of sugar and a cup of salt) and what they could earn helping out around the camp. They did odd jobs — cutting grass, farming and carrying water.

Resettled in the U.S.
The U.S. is the only country that has a program designed for unaccompanied refugee minors, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is one of only two U.S. voluntary agencies designated to manage resettlement for these children. In fiscal year 2012, LIRS provided reception, placement and support services to 8,701 refugees, including 104 unaccompanied minors. 

In 2011, after a determination that third-country resettlement was the best option for Gebre, LIRS assigned him to one of its partners, Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSSNCA), which found him a foster home in the area. (His cousin was resettled in Ethiopia.)

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