The Habtemariam Family
Nominating Organization: African Services Committee
My name is Eskinder Habtemariam. I was born on March 15, 1969, in a small town called Emba Derho in central Eritrea. My father was a well respected priest of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. My parents sent me to school until the age of nine when I withdrew to join the church full time. I completed all the necessary religious education and was ordained as a priest in July 1999.
I married my wife, Meaza Michael Kafel on April 26, 1999. I served as the priest of Debre Eyesus Orthodox Christian Church from 1999 until 2007 when I was forced to flee Eritrea. My first child Lia Eskinder Habtemariam was born on February 4, 2000. My son Medhanie Eskinder was born June 22, 2002. My daughter Mudayeefret Eskinder Habtemariam was born on September 30, 2004.
Around 2005, the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthdox Church began protesting the Eritrean government’s increased interference in the church, causing tension between the church and the government. The patriarch was arrested in 2006. Then, on January 9, 2007, government officials came to my church and asked me details about my church and our followers. They asked how many people we serve, how much we get paid, and if we support the detained patriarch. I explained that our church always wants peace and love to prevail in Eritrea, that we pray for those arrested to be freed and for those sick to heal and hence we are sad about his arrest and we would want him to be released.
Three days later, the same government officials came to my house and asked my wife my whereabouts. I had left to Asmara for church related work that morning. When my wife told them that I was in Asmara, they took her from our house, from our town to a different town known Beleza which is 10 km away from Asmara. When I came back home that day, my children and all the neighbors told me what had happened to my wife and where she was. My wife was eight months pregnant with our youngest child Meargh (who was born on January 30, 2007). When I heard what happened I was so shocked and rushed to the prison. I went to the prison where she was detained and once I reached there I was told by the officials there that I was the one they were looking for. At that time, they released my wife from prison and took me in.
I was detained from January 12, 2007, until August 16, 2007. While I was detained I suffered a lot. I was beaten and tortured every day. It was only faith that got me through it. They only fed us two slices of bread per day and only two or three cups of water per day. Once a week they took us outside to the river with bare feet and allowed us to take a shower. Another priest from our church was arrested with me and we prayed night and day for our life. While I was in prison facing all this difficulties my family was also suffering. My wife gave birth to our son a month after I was detained and she had a very difficult birth. My children were struggling to go to school.
On August 15, 2007, an official of the prison came and told me and the other priest that we will be out the next day. We weren’t given any explanation as to why we were arrested in the first place. Upon my release, I went straight to my home to my family. I met my son at the age of 4 months for the first time. A week after my release, police officials again came back to my home and took me the police station. At the station, other officials met with me and asked me if I knew why I had been detained for six months. I told them I didn’t know. They said “you and your church followers respected the Patriarch that we denounced and called on his name even during prayers at church as the Patriarch of Eritrea. Your church was going against the government’s will.”
I went back home and met with a government official who was a close family. He told me that the government is going after my family and me and that I should leave the country. I explained to my wife what’s going on and the danger I am in. We all agreed that it would be best if I leave the country.
The next Saturday morning I packed my bag and left to Asmara by bus and then by bus to Tesseney then Omhajer which is a border town between Ethiopia and Eritrea. From Omhajer I had to walk to Hamdayt by night as it was a border town. It was a difficult time but with the help of God it passed. Once I reached the Sudanese side of Hamdayt, I stayed there for two days. I called my family to tell them about my whereabouts and that I was okay.
I was caught in Sudan, and the soldiers that caught us at Hamdayt referred us to their immigration office and processed and sent us to UNHCR refugee camp known as Wad Sharife. Once I went to the camp, the officials at UNHCR were very helpful and they processed my permit quickly and I was transferred to Port Sudan. There was an Egyptian Coptic Church in Port Sudan and I was able to serve the church and stay with some other Eritreans around the area. I stayed six months in Sudan. It was very difficult to support myself in Sudan. There were about 70,000 Eritrean refugees in Sudan at the time that I was there.
At some point, some other refugees and I, about twenty-five of us, decided to go to Israel. We heard that Israel had more job opportunities from other refugees. I also didn’t have any means to support myself in Sudan.
We were smuggled by the Rashayidas to Cairo. It took us three nights and three days to get to Aswan, which is about 12 hours away from Cairo. I don’t think there are enough words to explain it. The Rashayidas gave us water mixed with gas to drink and I don’t even know what kind of food we were eating. It was the most difficult trip I have experienced in my life.
Once I reached Aswan, the smugglers let us stay two nights at their station and they brought us clothes and food before we headed to Cairo. They took us by train to a hotel that the smugglers owned in Cairo and we stayed there for eight days. They locked us in an empty house where we didn’t see any sunlight or communicate with the locals. Then they prepared us to leave for the Sinai. We had to cross barbed wire. It was a big risk. We were caught by Israel’s border control right when we scaled the barbed wire. They registered us and took us to Holot Detention Center. I called my family right away and told them my status. They all had a lot of questions but I just told them that I was fine and alive and that I would call them more often now. I stayed two months at the detention center and then I was transferred to Tel Aviv.
I was able to work and support myself in Tel Aviv. I lived in Tel Aviv for 7 years. When I was able to get on my own feet in Tel Aviv, I collaborated with others to establish an Eritrean Orthodox Church for the Eritrean refugees living there. I was serving as the head of that church for six years.
During my stay in Tel Aviv, I was able to call my family and talk to them as often. I sent them money whenever I could. I talked to my children often. It broke my heart to hear them cry. My children were expelled from the public school they were attending with no reason. My wife began receiving threats about me and my church in Tel Aviv. I discussed with my wife and we decided that it was not safe for them anymore to stay in Eritrea and that they should leave to Ethiopia. I couldn’t bring them to Israel as I didn’t have a permanent status. I only had conditional permit to stay there.
With all that was going on with me and my family and the problems we were facing, the Eritrean Orthodox Church in Washington D.C., petitioned for me to come from Tel Aviv to the U.S as a religious worker. I was able to come to the U.S on July 8, 2014, as a religious worker. My family left to Ethiopia around 2015. I stayed in the U.S with a valid visa as a religious worker for two years.
I applied for asylum around 2015 with the hope of finding refuge in the U.S and a permanent place to live and bring my family. My asylum application was approved on December 29, 2016. My petition to bring my family has been approved and now I am able to bring my family. I am eager to meet my younger son who I haven’t seen since he was four months old. He has already reached 10 years of age without a father. I am excited to reunite with my family after 10 years. I am looking for jobs in order to save and rent a place for my family and me to live in. I am grateful that I am receiving support from different organizations in the United States, such as yours. I could never thank you enough for helping to make our family one again.