“At some point I don’t feel I have anything to lose”
Interview by Coco Liu, Siddhant Marar
Aman Goitom, a Software Engineer from Eritrea, tells a deeply moving story on his journey leaving his country.
Everyone that comes to Socialhaus starts with writing us a 2–3 intro about them. When I saw Aman’s short description about himself, on how he constantly seek to push his boundaries and stay away from the comfort zone as much as possible, I knew he has a story to tell. Little did I know, he would tell a story this touching, and I hope this story will inspire many.
You’re from Eritrea! Can you tell us how growing up there is like?
Growing up in Eritrea is quite different than anywhere else. One of the reasons for that is because Eritrea is an isolated country. People normally are not allowed to get out of the country. Not so many people come to the country either because the government has restrictions. So the only exposure you have with the outside world is limited to TV channels and books; that’s the best that you have there.
Tell us about what eventually brought you to America.
In Eritrea, just because you are a graduate of Electrical Engineering or any other field doesn’t mean you’ll get to work as an Electrical Engineer or the field you graduated; the government will assign you in any post where there are jobs available. I was assigned to be a high school teacher at some point and in those posts you aren’t paid very much, 150 Nakfa per month, which comes to a few dollars. So you have this degree, but you’re not getting paid or practicing your field. So I had to work at my brothers stationary retail shop to support myself. That got me in trouble with the government and I had to find a way to get out. When I left I secured a scholarship to England, which led to come to the US.
So people are technically not allowed to apply abroad?
Yea. They would say you’re not allowed to go. Even if you have a scholarship that’s going to pay $100,000 for you, you can’t leave the country.
No one in Eritrea is allowed to leave the country?
Nobody is allowed to leave the country except elders and people with serious medical issues.
So I had to speak with my cousin who left the country earlier, I talked to him and I told him I need to get out of the country. He knows some people who could help; people that get paid and they take you out of the country basically. It’s very risky. Because if you are caught it’s 3 years in prison.
But since we didn’t have any option we departed, myself and my friend, and another 8 or 9 people. The rest of the people in the group were all women and children except us. The reason why the women and children leave is because they are not all together legally allowed to leave the country as well, and have to escape to meet with their families that might have left the country earlier.
How long did that take?
We started our journey from a place an hour and a half away from the capital. The first night we walked for 7 hours. You just walk in the night, you’re not supposed to be walking during the day time. So we walked for 7 hours straight, until daylight was coming around 6AM in the morning. There are trees which were very short, but which can cover the whole body so we hid there until darkness comes. All of us were inside the tree, for the whole day; keeping ourselves silent. There were people living around in that area so we would hear sounds of people walking, talking, but we should not make any sound. Our biggest challenge were the children who some of them were 3 or 4 year olds, they wouldn’t understand what’s going on; they would want to play, talk and their mothers would constantly tell them to be quiet.
The second night we walked for 11 hours straight. We wouldn’t have anything to eat except water, and dates for some energy. On this second night as dawn started to approach we reached a mountainous area. There we went up a mountain to hide ourselves in small caves, so nobody would be able to see us for the rest of the day.
On the third night, which was the last one, that’s when we were crossing the border to Ethiopia, we had to walk for 15 hours straight. This was the most challenging one as we had to walk barefoot for some of the way. The reason the people that were helping us cross do that is because we don’t have to leave shoe prints on the way. So the next time they can use the same route to take people out so the government wouldn’t know.
During this time Eritrea and Ethiopia were in no peace no war situation. It was in 2012. There are military on both sides of the border. What we were trying to do was trying to cross the military side of Eritrea and going to the Ethiopian side.
That must be very dangerous since they can fire any time…
Normally if they hear a sound and think something is going on, there is a chance they would start shooting thinking that the enemy is crossing.
So you knew all these potential dangers going into it and you still decided to take the risk, as opposed to staying in Eritrea?
Yeah, I had no option I couldn’t stay safely in the country so had to decide on going out.
On my early college years my parents were telling me, stay here, complete your education, and things might change. So I said okay, I’m going to study and see what happens. 5 years went by, nothing changed. I was fed up at that point and safety wise I couldn’t stay longer; so had to take that risk.
How did it feel, crossing the border?
I was praying every step of the way. I was telling myself if I can make it now safely, then I can make it anywhere. But God, I was literally praying every step. I was saying words to God, to let me cross that border safely. It was not just me; my parents knew I was crossing the border as well and it would be a disaster for them to know I didn’t make it safe. My mom went to a church to pray to Saint Mary after I left. When I made it to Ethiopia… just making it to the other country… was the best thing ever for me in this life. Because anything could have happened; I could have died, gone to detention. If you go to detention you go for 3 years, but once I am out from there I would go try to escape again. And when I do so again and I am caught, then it’s not just going to be 3 years but more in detention.
Do you know what percentage of Eritreans escape? Are there stats on that?
The percentage is hard to tell but normally so many people were leaving the country on a daily basis.
How has the experience of living in a country like Eritrea and getting out of there has shaped how you look at the world?
Coming from there and remembering what I saw over there, and observing the things people worry about here, it’s a culture shock. People would talk about things like which restaurant to go that evening. I mean at some point you also become that person to be honest with you; we’re all human beings. But I want to make sure I still know that my friends, brothers and sisters are still going through the same thing. So I tell myself I got to be as successful and productive as possible, so that I know one day things are going to change and I might find space to deliver going back.
But right now I find it challenging to propel so many things to action as well; to be innovative, to be an entrepreneur, because I never had a chance to entertain that kind of mindset in the past. But I still try to do things I have missed; so at the moment I tend to shuffle a lot of things at once, learn as much. Which is kind of hard since I have to start things from scratch but rewarding on the other hand.
You mentioned that you like to push your boundaries and stay away from your comfort zone as much as possible. Do you have specific examples?
Normally people would hang out with people from the same upbringing because you feel that you can communicate easily. But I try to expose myself to places like Socialhaus, to meet more people and have more exposure. Because I know I have to learn so many things that I never got a chance to learn from the past. I feel that I’m going to find different perspectives and solutions when I engage and talk to others who have never had to go through what I had. At the same time I believe that I can also come with fresh ideas to things when talking to people as well, which makes the process mutual.
That’s the reason why I like to push boundaries, try different things. And at some point I don’t feel I have anything to lose to be honest with you.
You also wrote you “love to learn and engage with people as that’s the culture that you were raised in”, can you elaborate more on that?
It’s a small community that I was raised in. Everyone knows everyone; everybody cares about everybody. It’s not like most part of America where the society leans towards individualism. For me, the first thing I see in you is that you’re a human being, not a degree, not career or working for Google, none of that is a concern to me. You’re a human being and that’s how I will treat you. That’s the kind of culture I was raised in.
I grew up in the capital city, Asmara. It has a main street and everybody would go there from 6pm onwards. Everyone is there. We would have coffee; we would talk. You literally see everyone everyday. When you make an appointment with your friend, “let’s meet at 7pm tonight”, before 7pm you would meet that friend 5 times, because it’s just a single street!
A couple questions I always ask to wrap up our conversation — Do you feel you fit within San Francisco?
Yes. I like San Francisco because it is diverse. I know a lot of people with the same story and dimensions of life. I like the culture here.
Do you see San Francisco as home?
I came in 2014, it’s been close to 5 years. It’s hard to say. To be honest I want to go back, not to Eritrea obviously but to Africa. Because I feel I am gaining a lot of experience in the US and at some point I would have to find a place where I can implement it. It would be more productive and impactful to implement my experience and ideas there.
What’s something that you miss about Eritrea that you no longer have?
I think the people. I don’t want people to have wrong feelings about Africa or Eritrea. People are nice with some issues with governance. For example, my parents, the only thing in the world that would make them happy, is me being safe. They don’t care if I send them money. The culture there is not about you it’s about somebody else. I think that’s the part that I miss the most.
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