Refugee hopes to raise awareness of Eritrean plight

By: Ryan Crocker

Bereket Yohannes often lies awake at night in his East Kildonan home and wonders where his relatives are or if they’re even alive.
His sister, Esther Yohannes, her husband, Petros Soloman, and their three children are among Eritrea’s many missing and unaccounted for citizens.
“My brother-in-law was arrested on Sept. 18, 2001,” Yohannes said, visibly nervous just talking about the subject.
“It was just after the terrorist attacks in the United States and the president took the opportunity, while the world’s attention was focused elsewhere, to get rid of his enemies.”
His sister, who happened to be out of the country at the time, returned to find her three children. She made it to the airport in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, but hasn’t been heard from since.
“It’s hard not knowing where they are,” he said. “I don’t know what’s happened to them since they went missing.”
Yohannes managed to escape. He fled across the border to Sudan, making his way to Hong Kong and eventually Canada. In his new home he found it difficult to be so consumed by a tragedy that his new neighbours knew nothing about.
“In Canada, people don’t know what happened in Eritrea, what’s still happening there,” he said, shaking his head.
“There are so many ways people can help if they’re just aware.”
Yohannes has made raising awareness of the situation in his former homeland his mission. He recently established the Eritrean-Canadian Human Rights Group of Manitoba in an effort to support Eritreans with missing relatives and encourage others to help in that effort.
“It’s an advocacy group and we’re trying to be a voice for the voiceless,” he said. “The missing can’t talk and if we don’t speak on their behalf, no one will.”
The group will host an exhibition on Sat., Sept. 18, beginning at 11 a.m. at the Bulman Centre in the University of Winnipeg. With a theme of Tiny Country: Giant Prison, the exhibition will detail the various human rights violations ongoing in Eritrea and encourage visitors to help.
Janine LeGal, a writer and human rights activist, is one of Yohannes’ most passionate supporters.
“There are approximately 3,000 Eritreans living in Winnipeg and that number is growing because of the many problems in Eritrea and the growing number of people forced to flee as refugees,” she said.
LeGal said because so little is known about the Eritrean community it is especially vulnerable.
“This is an opportunity to learn about a group of people that has been silenced by their own government for a long time,” she said.
“Learning about the Eritrean community, their history, their plight, and the continued human rights violations in their country helps us to broaden our knowledge base and to better understand the people we live with. An injustice against one is an injustice against all.”
The group has created a website at Hidmona means  our refuge. That’s what Yohannes hopes Eritrea itself will eventually become.


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