“It was something like a miracle for me”
This week we’re using the daily update to tell Yafet and Segen’s backstory.
After Yafet arrived in Sudan and made his way from the refugee camps to Khartoum, he started living with a relative in a shared room with five other people.
One day when he was out in Khartoum he met an old high school friend from Asmara, and the two of them decided to rent a room together where they would both be more comfortable.
Initially, Yafet and his friend were living off money that their relatives were sending them from abroad. “We weren’t looking for a job until we knew… how we can survive, which place is safe,” Yafet explained.
After a little while, they met another Eritrean man who was living in the same building complex. He told Yafet and his friend about a job working as cleaners in a supermarket. They both accepted.
“It was the finest supermarket in Khartoum,” Yafet said. “All the customers… were white people, or diplomats or rich people.”
Yafet worked 12-hour days six days a week to earn the equivalent of about $150 a month. Transportation home from work was provided and the supermarket served them three meals per day. But the store was large, and it employed only a few cleaners. It surprised him.
“The place was too big… We were a few people. It was really a hard job,” Yafet said. His relative who sent him money told Yafet he would help him apply for a scholarship to study in the United States and, since Yafet didn’t think that he was going to be in Sudan for long, he quit.
“I didn’t accept to see myself as a cleaner. I was proud of myself because I am the child of a teacher. My family is from the middle class. I am the one who used to go buy something from the supermarket,” Yafet said. “That was the main reason that I left.”
“I didn’t have any life experience,” he continued. “At that time, I didn’t understand Sudan; I didn’t understand Khartoum. I found out later.”
After he stopped working at the supermarket, the unforgiving reality of refugee life in Khartoum started to close in on him.
About a month after Yafet quit the job, the friend he was living left for Uganda, and his relative in the United States stopped sending him money and stopped responding to his phone calls. Yafet’s dream of receiving a scholarship and going to the United States was brought to an end.
Without a job, without his friend and without money from his relative in the United States, Yafet could not afford rent. He left the house and sold the furniture and household items that he had bought with his friend and used the money he got to pay for places to stay in underground hotels run out of people’s houses.
“There were some nights that I spent outside like a homeless [person],” Yafet recalls.
Yafet still spoke minimal Arabic at this point. “I used to go join those join those homeless people, but without any words. If I spoke with them they would know that I am not from an Arabic country,” Yafet said. “If anyone asked me [something] I would just act like a drunkard.”
For about a month, Yafet bounced between staying in the underground hotels and living on the streets. During this time he started looking for a job and eventually found one, at a bakery where he could work in the shop during the day and sleep in the back at night.
Again, he was working as a cleaner, but this time the circumstances of life in Sudan forced him to accept the position.
He was paid the equivalent of about $3.50 per day, working 7 days a week and earning just over $100 a month. He didn’t need transportation to work, because it was also his home, but the bakery did not provide meals, just a couple loaves of bread each day. The position at the supermarket seemed like an excellent job in comparison.
The rest of 2008 passed with Yafet working at the bakery. His dream of going to Europe, the United States or elsewhere seemed far away. But, even though life was mostly the daily drudgery of work, he had a little bit of stability and still cherished the comparative freedom of expression he had in Sudan. But things were about to get worse.
Yafet remembers January 2009 being cold by Sudanese standards. “I was adapted to Khartoum’s hot weather, and when the weather changed I felt ill,” Yafet said. “It was normal. I didn’t care about it. I thought it was like a normal, common illness.”
But, the symptoms got worse. Soon, Yafet wasn’t able to work. He couldn’t control his hands or his legs. He was weak and couldn’t walk. When he tried to drink he felt discomfort inside of his lungs.
His coworkers initially helped him by feeding him a bit of food, but they grew afraid that his sickness might be contagious and told the bakery owner that they didn’t want Yafet around anymore. Yafet’s boss gave him the equivalent of about $15 and told him to find another place to stay.
Yafet didn’t know where to go. “I felt shame because of the illness that I had. People were afraid of me,” he remembers.
One of Yafet’s coworkers told him to go to a nearby mosque that was run by a charity organization. Initially, the people at the mosque refused to help him because he was not Muslim — but an Eritrean man who worked there took pity on him and let him stay in the compound.
The mosque sent an Ethiopian man who had converted from Christianity to Islam to help take care of Yafet. The message was less than subtle: we will help you, but you should convert.
“I wasn’t happy I had to accept their religion in order to get help. At that time, I preferred death to converting,” Yafet said. “[But] the Ethiopian guy, he was really good to me.”
Yafet stayed in a private room in the mosque for two or three days and then he had to sleep outside in the mosque compound.
“At that time I was so weak I wasn’t able to stand on my own legs… I wasn’t even able to take a shower. I wasn’t able to go to the bathroom,” Yafet remembers.
The Ethiopian man would take Yafet to the hospitals and he was getting injections twice a day, but nothing helped.
“I thought that I would die,” Yafet said. “I wished to kill myself… but, if I killed myself, I was thinking about my mom. What would she feel?”
“That time at the mosque was the only time that I felt regret about leaving Eritrea,” Yafet continued.
There was an Eritrean man who was a member of the charity that ran the mosque and supporter of the government back home. He offered to help Yafet ask for an apology from the Eritrean government so that he would be able to return to his family.
“At that time I was thinking about it. Would I accept it or not?” Yafet said.
Yafet stayed in the mosque for about three weeks. One day, the Ethiopian man told Yafet that he had to stand up and try to walk. “He helped me to stand up for myself. The moment that I saw myself stand up and I saw my legs move… that was the moment I really felt happy in my life until now,” Yafet recalls. “I walked for two meters. It was something like a miracle for me.”
Tomorrow we’ll be publishing episode 4.
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