Rare is it to hear TV news or read articles on Eritrea. Some people might roughly locate the country in East Africa, but where? Eritrea is one of the countries in the Horn of Africa, and unlike its neighbours, it possesses a long coast line on the Red Sea facing the Arabic peninsula.
Among the 4 million Eritreans, I met Beyene who has recently left Brisbane to start a new career in Melbourne. Beyene is from the Tigrinya tribe and speaks his native language among many others. He explains that his small country is home of nine different ethnic groups: Tigrinya, Tigre, Afar, Saho, Bilen, Rashaida (Arabs), Hedareb, Kunama and Nara. His description of Eritrea’s cultural, linguistic and religious diversity evokes this beautiful mosaic of cultures in one small country. One of the many beauties of Eritrea is that all diverse groups fought over 30 years for their independence from Ethiopia to become one nation in 1991.
This country is an incredible coming union of nine tribes, a mixture of Muslims, Catholics, Orthodoxes and Protestants who have chosen to live together, and a territory geographically shaped by low and high lands.
To continue and understand Beyene’s journey to Australia, we need to see the current political system that has kept one man in power for the last two decades. Having studied in South Africa, did further studies and worked in Ethiopia with USAID on rural enterprise development, and travelled to Europe and America, Beyene affirms “I had never had plans to leave Eritrea. When traveling to other countries, people tried to convince me to settle here and there but I always wanted to live in my country with my wife and my three children”.
His ambition to make a difference in Eritrea and his experience as a Journalist forced him to secretly escape his beloved country. On a wet rainy night, he traveled from Eritrea to the border city of Sudan for 18 hours on foot. Later he arrived in Karthoum (Capital of Sudan) to collect his passport that he had previously sent to the Australian Embassy in Kenya. A friend of him based in Nairobi sent it back to him with a visa for Australia. Soon after, he landed in Brisbane full of sadness to be separated from his family and his country.
Beyene worked as a Maths and Business Teacher for the Queensland Department of Education until he obtained the opportunity to join the Melbourne SBS team as the Executive Producer of the brand new Tigrinya Program. I first met Beyene in Brisbane and was touched by the telling of his journey to Australia. When I met him again in Melbourne, I sensed his hope for his family to get a visa as well as I could see how proud he was of achieving so much in the last three years.
Eritrea is a resource-rich country in diamond, potash, possibly oil and offers an attractive coast line on the Red Sea. The resources and potential to develop tourism could make Eritrea wealthy and developed as we First World people perceive it. Beyene brings a different perspective on wealth and talks about the potential of his country by describing Eritreans as “hardworking, social, welcoming and peaceful people”. He adds “they strive for better life albeit all the difficulties they are facing”. Saying that, Beyene, a name meaning ‘Justice’ in Tigrinya, is happy to be the voice of his compatriots back home or based overseas who are ready to take their future into their own hands. In this sense, Beyene advises young Eritreans in Australia to “study and become involved in the economic system to improve themselves. Know the system, the education opportunities, the language and participate to the economy”.
Today Beyene’s biggest wish is to be reunited with his wife and three young children in Melbourne. Nonetheless, he still holds the dream to acquire a small farm in Eritrea that would produce lemons, onions, chili peppers, tomatoes as he used to. For now he keeps counting the days and nights that separate him from his beloved ones.