James Baldwin once theorized—when he made the decision to move to France at the age of 24, without any money or any plan of action—that nothing worse could happen to him there that hadn’t already happened to him here in the United States.
For the better part of their existence in this nation, black Americans have experienced some of the most inhumane treatment ever documented in history. What other reason, other than constant pain, physical and emotional, misery and the very real threat of death, would prompt a person to leave the home they’ve known their entire lives? To be sanctioned by a government who ought to be serving you is a unique sort of social terror that no person should be subjected to. But it was a terror my parents knew well, too.
I was 6 years old when the opportunity of coming to the United States arose. Just like Baldwin, my parents took the risk of changing their environment in hopes of finding the closest thing to peace. I recognize, now more than ever, that if it weren’t for their brave sacrifice, their active pursuit of life and liberty, I would not be living the ideal life I lead today.
Though I’ve fully integrated into American culture, my national identity remains tied to Eritrea, a small, embattled country on the eastern coast of Africa. It is infamously recognized for its consistent violation of human rights. The U.N. Human Rights Watch has recently reported that approximately 5,000 refugees escape Eritrea every month; this number is shocking when you consider that the country only holds a population of 6 million. It is a crisis of epic proportions, only matched by the current Syrian refugee crisis. Isaias Afwerki, the man who was once revered as our hero, has completely transformed into a dictator from hell. He appears to be an insecure leader (though that may be because he rose to power without being elected), enhancing tension in the region to maintain his role as supreme ruler. Any inclination of dissent from his regime is met with severe, merciless punishment. There are journalists who remain in prison to this day, and have so for the past 15 years—blind, ill and awaiting a horrible death, for simply bringing attention to his crimes.
My memories of Eritrea are vague. I was in fact born in asylum in Saudi Arabia. Before I’d acquired legal permanent residence here in the States, the first six years of my life were spent under Shari’ah Law, a legal system that seeks to control, in the name of Islam, the public and private lives of those in its jurisdiction. As oppressive as those conditions were, especially to women, the least I could say was that I did not live my life fearing imminent death. It was the intention of my parents, who grew up with war in their backyard in Eritrea, that my siblings and I would never have to know what that feels like.
I get chills whenever I think about how narrowly I evaded a miserable life. I don’t know if I would have had the strength to do what my parents have done. They risked an act of faith in hopes of giving their future children the quality of life they never had, and they succeeded in their goal. I am a product of a successful refugee story and I count these blessings bestowed upon my life every day. It is this upbringing that has made me into the passionate social advocate I am today. Currently, I am an integrative studies major with a concentration in social justice and human rights at George Mason University. Upon graduation, I hope to pursue a law degree and become a human rights attorney. I do not want my parents’ sacrifice to go to waste. As fortunate as I have been to be given the opportunity to live a fulfilled life, I wish to extend that fortune to as many people as possible.