By: Ismael Mukhtar
The son of the elegant city
I was born in a well-to-do family in the city of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. Asmara was a city of half a million people and was known for its temperate weather, elegant Italian style streets and cafes. It was a multi-cultural and multi-faith city. When I was young the city was relatively quiet, despite the growing and looming political tension. As kids, we went to school, we enjoyed outdoor activities and we had a normal life. We used to hear of the ongoing battles in rural areas between government forces and rebels, stories of imprisonments and displacement, but our city was overall peaceful. As the political tension escalated, things were gradually changing.
A fateful night
In a fateful Friday night, the city’s relative calm came to an end. The city was rocked with a sudden wave of explosions and gunshots that lasted throughout the night. By Saturday morning the city was calm, markets were opened and people went out to their businesses. But that deceiving calm abruptly came to an end. By noon the shooting resumed, army units were deployed across the city, people were scrambling for safety and streets were completely deserted. A dawn to dust curfew was imposed on the city, food was running short, electricity was cut off and the city was in complete darkness. Foreigners were leaving the city in droves; schools were closed and travel outside the city was banned. Government sponsored death squads, dressed in civilian cloth were kidnapping, assassinating, liquidating young people, and spreading terror and fear across the city. My elegant city’s hey days were over. The city lost its glamour and turned into a place of horror.
A ghost town
After one year of school shutdown, the schools were re-opened. To my surprise, half of my classmates were not there; some were killed, some imprisoned, some joined the rebels and others migrated to neighbouring countries. The classes became dull and fear was all over us. In one frightening day, a team of the death squads stormed into our school. We all ran to our classes while our principal and teachers hid themselves in their offices. They came to my class and they looked at our faces one by one with their frightening looks. They picked few students and they drove them to the world of unknown. Death and disappearance became the daily norm in the city. In another fateful day, just two blocks from my home, people were gathered in a popular cafe to sip coffee and play billiard. Suddenly the death squads stormed the café, they sprayed the people with their bullets leaving behind carnage and blood bath; some of my acquaintances were among the dead.
Time to leave
The city was becoming increasingly deserted. Despite the travel ban, people were leaving; many of my friends by now had left. Parents were in a dilemma and they had no choice but to arrange for their children’s smuggling out of the city. My family had to make that difficult decision. Some of my siblings have already left and it was now my turn to leave. My mom wept for weeks but had no choice but to let me go. I left my beloved city under the guise of visiting relatives in a village and from the village we were secretly smuggled by our guides. After a frightening journey through mountains and bushes we were joined by a large group of young men and there we begun the lengthy journey on foot and camel. We crossed the arid desert, under scorching heat in two weeks. Water was short and at times we only had half of a cup of muddy water to drink per day; snakebites, attacks by wolves and bombardment by government jets were real threats. Finally, to our great relief, we arrived in a border town in Sudan. We said goodbye to our guides and their camels. I said goodbye to my native country, with a solemn determination to come back once peace was restored. We headed to the temporary UN refugee shelter. Our destination was Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. By bus and train and after many hurdles we arrived in the Capital.
A new challenge
Arriving safely to Khartoum was not the end of our challenge, but the beginning of a new set of challenges. We were now “stateless”, “refugees”, “pariahs” that no country would willingly welcome. Refugees scramble to rebuild their lives and take different directions. I was clear in my mind that I had to find a place where I can pursue my higher education. The USA was my preferred choice but getting there for a refugee like me was a farfetched dream. Our group of refuges were scattered all over, some stayed in Sudan, others went to Gulf countries and some to Europe. Like many others, my personal journey was long, full of challenges and setbacks.
After a lengthy wait, my application to migrate to Canada was accepted and I arrived in Winnipeg in mid June 1986. The only thing I knew about Canada when I was young, was what my grade 5 geography teacher told us that it has temperature of -20’s Celsius. Given the moderate weather of my native city, that was beyond my comprehension. Adjusting to life in Winnipeg was not easy, but by now I was a hardened young man. I took some minimum wage paying odd jobs to survive, but education remained my priority. After some upgrading, I made it to the University of Manitoba. The first day of class wasn’t comforting as sitting with 19-year-old students who were much younger than me sounded odd, but I persisted and graduated with an honours B. Comm. degree. For the next few years, I pursued the accounting professional designation and graduated successfully with the CGA designation.
Finding a job after graduation from university was not easy. Canada was in recession; jobs were scarce and I had no corporate work experience. Also being an immigrant with a noticeable accent made my chances of being picked for a job even smaller. I accepted an entry-level job in a large company, making my way over the years to the higher levels.
Counting God’s blessings
Not all refugees are as fortunate as I was. Experiencing challenges opens your eyes to the many blessings of God. From a stateless refugee, I became a citizen of a great nation; from someone with only a high school education, l became an educated professional. Winnipeg became my home; in Winnipeg I made new friends, established a family, and became a member of my warm local community that embraced me and gave me multiple opportunities to serve it. I still miss my elegant city, Asmara. Today, it is certainly in much better shape than when I left it, but it still has a long way to catch up to my adopted city, Winnipeg!! dit.