"I had to leave Eritrea. Life there is really hard."
We first meet the twenty-year-old in a refugee camp in northern Ethiopia. It’s dry season, and the temperature is rising quickly during the morning hours, reaching almost 40 degrees. The ground is dusty and the trees don’t have enough green leaves to protect us from the sun.
Eden greets us outside the bright turquoise-painted house as we arrive, asking us to come inside. "I’ve lived here for a little more than a year now," she says.
She didn’t plan to stay that long.
"I want to go to Sudan, then Libya and further on to Europe," she explains. And yes, she is aware that it is a dangerous journey. She has friends who have taken the same route, some of whom made it to Europe. Others didn’t complete the journey.
Keeping her parents in the dark
In 2017, more than 25,000 Eritreans fled across the southern border of their country to Ethiopia. Most of them are youth and minors, and many fled alone. Most cite Eritrea’s mandatory national service, which is compulsory for citizens from the age of 18, as the main reason for leaving the country.
Four years ago, Eden’s 27-year-old brother made it to Germany. He took the long, dangerous journey through Sudan and Libya and across the sea to Europe. In November 2016, Eden decided to do the same. She said nothing to her family.
"If I had told them, I’m certain they would have stopped me."
First, she went to her grandfather’s place to hide from the military. While she was there, she asked her aunt to send her some money, which she then paid to a smuggler. On the day she left, she saw her father in the street. She managed to hide from him.
"I regret that I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to him," she says, tears in her eyes. It was not an easy decision to leave her mother, father and siblings, but Eden felt she had no other choice.
Hid from the military
Along with a group of 16 others, she embarked on the journey from Asmara, the Eritrean capital. They walked for five days before the military showed up and started shooting, forcing them to hide for two days with no food or water. The entire time, Eden was afraid they would get caught. She knew there are penalties for evading or deserting the service. In the end, they decided to go back to Asmara. There, the smuggler called, urging them to continue the journey. Eden, along with four others from the original group, decided to try a second time, and about a week later, they arrived at the Ethiopian border.
"I miss my family. They didn’t support my wish to leave and my aunt considers me a thief. The only family I have now are the girls I stay with."
In the camp, Eden shares a small house with five young women her age. They didn’t know each other before they arrived but have become good friends. All of them left their families and fled their home country in similar fashion. Eden has not been in touch with her parents since she left, but when the internet works, she chats with her sister on Facebook. Earlier this week, she called her brother in Germany.
"He doesn’t want me to leave for Europe and keeps telling me to stay in the camp because there will be opportunities for me in Ethiopia."
Will either fail or succeed
Eden has made up her mind.
"As I see it, I have two options in life: to succeed or to fail. I have heard it’s very difficult, but as long as going through Sudan and Libya is the only way to reach Europe, that’s what I want to do."
- In February 2017, the European Union signed an agreement with the Libyan government, promising more than 200 million euro in exchange for the Libyans interdicting migrant boats, encouraging voluntary repatriation and setting up camps in Libya. Since then, the number of refugees and migrants reaching Europe via the potentially lethal journey across the Mediterranean from Libya has fallen drastically.
- In 2017, 119,000 people arrived in Italy, mainly from Libya, compared to 181,000 in 2016, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
- The UNHCR reports that in 2017, more than 7,000 of those who arrived in Italy were Eritrean, compared to approximately 20,000 in 2016 and almost 40,000 in 2015.
- The number of unaccompanied and separated children among the Eritreans arriving in Italy remained high, with more than 1,200 in 2017, according to UNHCR. At the end of 2017, the number of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in Libya stood at more than 5,100.
Eden is not alone. Most of the Eritrean refugees leave the camps within the first year of their arrival. Many attempt the journey to Europe, often with assistance of smugglers and at great risk to their lives.
"The only reason I’m still here is that it has become more difficult to go. My plan is to go, and I will take the same route as everybody else. I don’t know when. It could be tomorrow, the day after, in a month or a year, but as soon as the sea-border is open, I will go."
Eden spends her time in the camp planning for the future. Along with her roommate Winta, 23, she goes to cooking classes at the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) youth education centre in the camp.
"I am very happy that I have not wasted my year in the camp. Unlike others, who just sit around doing nothing, I have studied and worked hard," she says with a smile.
The next day, she will sit the cooking exam that will give her the Ethiopian government’s official certificate. She is not nervous.
“I am feeling fine. I am well prepared, and our teachers have been very good, so I hope I will pass.”
On the day of her cooking exam, we meet her at the youth education centre. She is wearing her cooking clothes and hat and looks ready.
During the six-month course, she has learned how to cook various meals, make sauces and bake bread. She has followed lessons in proper kitchen hygiene, learned how to make the table and serve customers. On examination day, she is showing her skills to the examination proctor from the Ethiopian government.
An hour later, she has a big smile on her face. She passed the exam.
“I have got a lot of plans,” she says, serving us freshly made club sandwiches, potato bread and salad. “I would like to work in the restaurant of a big hotel, preferably in Europe. Then, with time, I want to open my own restaurant. I will call it Asmara.”