With a record number of Ethiopian refugees entering Yemen last year, aid groups scramble to meet the needs of those fleeing war, political persecution, famine and drought. Lost in the statistics are the personal stories of the people who make the arduous journey to Yemen. Kirubel Lemma, 32, left his native Ethiopia in 2001, and he shares his story with the Yemen Times.
From the Beginning
The son of a mechanic, Lemma was born in Addis Ababa, the middle child in a family of eight. In high school, he was accused of participating in the 2000-2001 student protests against the Ethiopian government. The studentswere demonstrating for academic freedom.
According to Human Rights Watch, Ethiopian security forces responded with “excessive force,” and at least 47 students died. Eyewitnesses reported that security forces fired live ammunition at unarmed students and beat women and children.
Hundreds were arrested and held in secret prisons. Lemma, who says he was not political at that time, was rounded up and taken to a secret prison on the border of Ethiopia and Somalia, where he was beaten and tortured regularly.
“One of the guards, Nasser, would make us walk on our knees, on the hot desert sand in 38 degree Celsius weather. I was interrogated every three days. He was always drunk and took out his frustrations on us.”
Lemma shared a cell with other political prisoners. There was little food—a piece of bread and plate of rice is all they ate each day. Denied mattresses, they slept on concrete floors.
Despite all this, Lemma says he was “the luckiest one.”While some languished for years in secret prisons, with the help of a policewoman he’d befriended, Lemma was released after three months.
Fearing another arbitrary arrest, he fled to Somalia, where he could finally contact his family. Because prisons holding student protesters were secret, police denied Lemma was in their custody. With dozens of students massacred by the security forces, his family had feared the worst.
A Difficult Journey
From Somalia, Lemma went to Djibouti and worked on a cargo dock for seven months so he could afford the journey to Aden, Yemen.
Human Rights Watch reports that, since 2008, “More than 100,000 people have set off to Yemen in boats from Djibouti or the Somali port city of Bosasso. More than 99 percent of them are Somalis and Ethiopians, and many are fleeing war or persection at home. Some have fled seeking protection as refugees, some are looking for work and hope to pass through Yemen to Saudi Arabia and other wealthy countries, and some have left for a combination of reasons.”
Lemma remembers the night of his voyage to Yemen vividly. There were 55 people on his boat, each with their own stories, with loved ones left behind, with dreams for a new life. Only 35 would survive the tumultuous trip; 20 people drowned that first night. Lemma was nearly one of them.
About 4km from shore, the smugglers forced all the passengers to jump off the boat and swim, fearing they would be caught if they came any closer.
“It’s dark, the waves beat you, and it’s raining. It’s a horrible night I’ll never forget in my life. When I remember it, I feel like I’m a child; I feel frightened. We didn’t even know what direction to swim in.”
Lemma said one passenger, about 20 years old, didn’t know how to swim and grabbed onto him. Lemma’s friend managed to separate the two, and Lemma was able to make it to shore with the help of Yemeni’s who threw him and his friend a rope attached to flotation devices.
“He’s dead now,” says Lemma of the boy who held on to him.
When he reached shore, a middle-aged man carried Lemma on his back.
“I was crying. They gave me sugar and water, and it helped with the vomiting. I had some money in a plastic bag attached to my belt loops, but they wouldn’t accept it. They said they did it for Allah.”
In the morning, he awoke to a limitless desert in front of him.
“Where did they come from?” he says, referring to the Yemeni men who had saved his life. “Where did they get sugar and water in the middle of the desert?”
They walked 4 hours in the hot sun before spotting a camel. Soon, they meta farmer who gave them bread and invited them to rest. He told Lemma he looked as though he had risen from the dead.
On their way to the nearest city and desperate for water, Lemma and his friend flagged down a police car. Unlike Somalis, who are granted automatic refugee status by the Yemeni government, Ethiopians are not recognized as asylum seekers, a “discriminatory policy that violates international law,” according to Human Rights Watch.
They were taken to Taiz Central Prison, where Lemma spent the next 6 months. He was visited by the Ethiopian embassy, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Red Cross. The Ethiopian embassy told him to go back home, but UNHCR documented his story.
After teaching English to the children of the prison’s chairman, he was released with the Somalis. Other Ethiopians were deported.Lemma then hitchhiked to Aden to retrieve his protection papers from UNHCR. Although the U.N. officially recognized him as a refugee, the Yemeni government, whose policy toward Ethiopians is to “track them down, arrest them and deport them,” says Human Rights Watch, did not.
Al Kharaz Refugee Camp
Lemma spent only two days in Al Kharaz refugee camp. It’s a “hopeless place,” he says. There was little food, little water and long waits. After speaking with people who’d lived there for 3 to 5 years, Lemma left the camp with the clothes on his back, less than 48 hours after arriving.
“I didn’t see a future in the camp,” he says. “People had been waiting for a long time, and all they could do there was to keep waiting and hope that the world would start caring about them.”
A New Life
After arriving in Aden, the Ethiopian community took him in, and he found work as a receptionist in a hotel, thanks to his English language skills. Lemma taught himself English as a teenager, listening to hip-hop, reggae and country music. His favorite musician is country singer Don Williams. He starts to sing a few verses from his favorite song, “Come Early Morning”:
I been walking, walking in the moonlight
Tripping in the starlight, Lord and I’m feeling down
Walking in the shadows, sneaking down a side road
Come early morning I’ll be there on the edge of town
In 2003, with $4,000 in savings and family loans, Lemma opened Ethiopique, a music shop. He focused on international music and found a large customer base amongst the expat community in Sana’a.
“They were not only my customers, they became my friends,” Lemma says.
Lemma met his wife, a French woman, at a party he DJ’d, and she became a regular customer at his store. They fell in love and married, moving to Paris for a short while before returning to Yemen.
“She was reluctant to come back because she thought it would be too painful for me to return here. But I love Yemen. I spent my 20s here, I fell in love here, I married here … my destiny is to be here.”
Fighting for Justice
Lemma works to ensure that refugees—all people—can lead a life of dignity. He made a short documentary, “Young and Invisible,” and he wrote a booklet in partnership with the United Nations Development for Women (UNIFEM), called “Wake Up! A Guidebook for Domestic Workers in Yemen.”
He created a support group, United for the Improvement of Domestic Works (UNIDOM), with UNHCR, the Red Cross, UNDP and ILO. The group opened a safe house for women escaping abuse. It is the first safe house in Sana’a, according to Lemma.
UNIDOM also opened a school to educate workers about their rightsand teach skills such as cooking western food—domestic workers had complained that their lack of skills resulted in abuse from employers. The school taught 360 students and employed mostly Iraqi and Ethiopian refugees.
Lemma nowruns the News@Cafe in Hadda, where students, musicians, refugees and qat-chewers gather. He’s preparing to open an Ethiopian cafe and art gallery called Sheger Café.
The cafe will display borrowed art from a collective in Ethiopia. All the artists are from the Diaspora, and their works have been featured in exhibitions in New York, Norway and Paris.
The cafe will be a place for people to learn about Ethiopian culture and life and to introduce people to modern Ethiopian painting. The restaurant will have shisha, various drinks, burgers and, on Thursday evenings, Ethiopian food.
Lemma will work with the Ethiopian community to make sure they have access to the space to discuss Diaspora issues, the plight of Ethiopian refugees, current events and life in Yemen.
Lemma is most excited when he lists the music his cafe will play: Bob Marley, Teddy Afro, Kenny Rodgers, Michael Jackson and plenty of Don Williams.
Music as Medicine
Despite all the difficulties and injustices Lemma has faced, he becomes most emotional when talks about the recent loss of his mother.
“She was my other anchor in life. When I lost her, I felt like I was lost at sea again … I felt disappointed in being a human. Why I am alive? Why did my mother die at 49? You don’t know the logic of this life.”
Music helped heal Lemma, helped save him, he said.
“I love music more than anything. It was the only medicine for me; it made me feel human again.”
Human rights watch