Eritreans in Faraway Australia

By Woldeyesus Ammar

Posted :  July 1, 2005

In the old good days when Eritreans were not yet  afflicted by the virus of exile, Oceania or Downunder or Australia, as it is commonly known, was considered as a faraway fairy-tale land beyond the reach of any Eritrean. The only compatriot I knew who went that far by 1971 was Mensura Abdalla Baho from my hometown, Keren, who settled there with her husband of Australian nationality. I thought that would be about it except, of course, a few isolated cases like her relatives or a few friends for whom she would naturally become a “pull factor”, as the jargon in migration studies would have it.

Nearly 35 years later, Ph.D. holder Mensura Abdalla Baho is still there, but not as the only ‘Aussie’ of Eritrean origin. There are approximately 5,000 Eritreans – rather,  Australians of Eritrean origin – in a country/continent that takes tiresomely long flight time to reach it from our part of the world. But once you are there, it turns out to be nearer home, with some homelike social environment.


A Sampling of Eritreans in Australia

Guess the identity and quality of those who had to join Mensura in Australia in the course of the past few decades? They are some of Eritrea’s great patriots, their families, the widows of our heroic martyrs and their orphans, who, in a just world, should have been among the most welcome citizens Eritrea after liberation. Of course that could not be the case due to well-documented reasons that all of us by now know.

During the 1980s, a trickle of asylum seekers opted to go to that distant land when the prospects of rebuilding the ELF (i.e. its various factions) faced continued setbacks. In spite of the regrettable situation of the political atmosphere of their organizations,  most of the veteran freedom fighters, their families and the families of many martyrs of the liberation struggle had no choice but to remain in the vicinities of Eritrea, mainly in the Sudan. A few luckier ones stayed around the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf region – always waiting with the hope of returning home after liberation. 

Come 1991, independence arrived but empty-handed. The hope of returning home received its first brutal blows when the new regime unceremoniously announced its “Hashewiye Wudibat decree.  People waited with disbelief. No one wanted to accept as  fact that a new ‘Eritrean’ government was not welcoming its rival comrades in the struggle days and old caseloads of refugees.

After 1992 and well before the referendum, all hopes for return and reconciliation faded and old liberation fighters tried to reorganize resistance in exile. But Eritrea had its share of small breed of optimists who still wished to give the benefit of the doubt to Isayas and his regime and returned home as ‘individuals’. In the long last, many of them (except a few, including Amna Melekin and Dr. Mohammed Qusmala, who are unnecessarily taking long time to drop PFDJ) had to admit that they were wrong to expect free participation and accommodation in PFDJ’s Eritrea. And no surprise that it was after Eritrea’s liberation and during the past 14 years that a large  majority of Eritreans were exiled to Australia. Also it is not surprising to find the majority of them to be of Jebha origin. Their social composition and origin also has its own explanation. By the time those Eritreans in the Sudan, North African countries and the Middle East despaired of going home, the ground for seeking asylum in Europe or North America was already saturated. Australia was the available third country for resettlement of Eritrean refugees from Cairo, Khartoum and the rest of the Middle East region. (The plight of our refugees in the Middle East and North Africa regions up to Australia is being researched by Hassan Ibrahim Ennati, who is doing his Ph.D. project on that subject. Hassan is a courageous Eritrean in Melbourne who lost his eyesight during a surgical operation but has not lost his determination to live and pursue his studies in order to succeed in life against all difficulties.)

During the latest visit to Australia as part of ELF-RC delegation, we had the honour of visiting some of those distinguished families in their Melbourne homes. Many other patriots of long standing in the struggle were met either at intervals of meetings or at pre-arranged tea parties. The short listing below, consisting of families and persons visited or met during our visit in Melbourne is hoped to give an example of the kind of people exiled to Australia – and the names will for sure ring in the ears of many readers:

–                     Sons and daughters of Martyr Omar Ezaz.

–                     Widow and children of Martyr Mahmoud Hassab.

–                     Widow and children of Martyr Idris Hangala.

–                     Widow and children of Martyr Mahmoud M.  Saleh, ‘Hanjemenji’.

–                     Widow and children of Martyr Yemane G/Michael ‘Baria’ (abo Segen).

–                     Widow and children of Martyr Michael Ghaber.

–                     Widow and children of Martyr Saleh Ahmed Eyay.

–                     Widow and children of Martyr Azien S. Yassin.

–                     ELM/Haraka and ELF founding member Adem Melekin and family.

–                     ELF founding member Mohammed Saeed Antata and family etc.

The list would be inexhaustible, even if limited only to the most senior leaders and cadres in the liberation struggle. Equally long would be the list of families of fighters languishing in PFDJ prisons or those whose whereabouts are little knew: think of Ghenet and her son Ghilay, who were exiled to Australia years after the kidnap by the Asmara regime in 1992 of  Woldemariam Bahlibi, an ELF-RC leadership member, or take families of fighters like  Suleiman Adem Suleiman, an ELF leader, whose family is in exile until the expected return back home.


I am tempted to add more names, and beg the pardon of readers, if it is getting boring. Do  you recall that the  EPRDF government of Ethiopia, under pressure from PFDJ, shut down ELF-RC offices in that country in 1994 and imprisoned nearly 30 ELF-RC leadership cadres? In 1995-96, international humanitarian organizations approached and convinced a number of countries including Australia to give shelter to those persons whose lives were at risk because of PFDJ demanded for their extradition from Addis to Asmara. Eventually, 12 of them were given asylum in Australia, among them Haile Ghebru, the current ELF-RC representative in that continent, who shares the town of Brisbane with other known cadres like Michael ‘Wedi Qeshi’, Tsegai Tesfai and many other old comrades. And who else is not in Australia? I met in Melbourne Abdalla Saeed ‘Elaj’, Saleh Jimjam,….. Woldeyesus ‘Manjos’, and many, many of old Jebha’s manjosat, including the indomitable Haileyesus Ghebray Meles who, alongside a few others, can be considered as the real face of reconciliation and unity among Melbourne’s relatively divided Eritreans. Also former Kassala’s ‘UNESCO’ high school teaching staff like  Memhir Gheremedhin Tsegay and Istaz Mohammed Omar of Perth are exiled to Australia with many of their former students, some of them now holding Ph.Ds …e.g. Dr. Berhan Ahmed, Dr. Salah Ibrahim, Dr. Salah Asenai and others.

But Australia is not hosting only ELF/Jebha  members. Also former EPLF/Shaebia members who rejected the regime since 2001 are residing in Australia, among them Makonnen Woldu, whom I knew as a militant schoolmate in Asmara 41 years ago. Former senior government official, Tekeste Habtu, who served as Mahmoud Sherifo’s close assistant till early 2001, is also in Melbourne, and now actively contributing in the strengthening of the opposition camp represented by the umbrella alliance, EDA. And whether Amna Melekin joins them soon or not, their number is likely to show fast and steady increase. To wit: the former PFDJ Consul in Australia, Teclu Ogbamichael of Ashera (my village!), is also now in the opposition camp entrenched in Australia, as has been the case with Eritrea’s former ambassador to China, Mohammed Nur Ahmed (who, by the way, was head of International Relations of the ELF-RC in the early 1990s before he opted to be among those giving benefit of the doubt to Eritrea’s new government.)

The majority of Eritreans in Australia live in Melbourne (circa 3,000-4,000), with another estimated 800-1,000 residing in Perth,  in Western Australia. Other smaller groups live in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney.

Eri-Community Centres in Australia

Our compatriots in Australia have community centres in a number of cities. In some cases, those in the opposition camp and supporters of the regime co-exist and are managing it fairly well – a good example being the small community in Brisbane. Melbourne, with the largest number of Eritreans, has not been successful in maintaining minimum unity at least at the community level. The PFDJ side had split taking only a minority of the community members. This happened reportedly because of irresponsible steps taken by the Eritrean Embassy in Canberra. The Embassy, which is not anyway needed for economic or any other good reason, maintains a consulate in Melbourne, whose sole function is to harass people for illegal extraction of money from its victims. Naturally, its victims succumb to all those abuses solely for the purpose of visiting home at times of exigencies and social obligations.

The incumbent president of the largest Eritrean community in the opposition camp is Dr. Berhan Ahmed, who took the chair from his predecessor Omar Jaber. We may recall that Eritreans in Australia have in recent years demonstrated a progressively growing militancy in opposing the Asmara regime and in support of the Eritrean opposition. This is a duty they have done, and should continue to do, as a contribution to our struggle for change and democratization in Eritrea.

On the other hand, one can rightly expect our compatriots in Australia to rise up, as Australian citizens, to stop the Eritrean embassy from its exploitative activities and harassments against free citizens. There is a need to raise a legal action, to the extend of demanding closure of the that meaningless embassy in Canberra together with its security surveillance and intimidation unit in Melbourne. Both are already identified as sources of hatred and disunity among Australians of Eritrean origin. Any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia through the right channel is entitled to receive citizenship at the end of two years and almost all Eritreans have been granted citizenship. Thus, the case of our refugees in Australia is quite different from the situation of other Eritreans in the Diaspora.

Eritr eans in the Horn’s Community Network

An interesting development in Australia is the ability of Eritreans, Ethiopians, Somalis and Sudanese to have created in 1999 a joint community centre for the whole of the Horn of Africa.  The Eritrean Omar Jaber, now the president of the Horn of Africa Community Network, believes that this was a step towards creating mutual understanding and reconciliation among all the peoples of the region.

At the initial period, there were reservations between the Somalis and Ethiopians, among the Ethiopians themselves (Oromos Vs others) and among the Sudanese (North Vs South). With time, all have come to accept one another and the joint leadership of this expanded Community is doing quite well. The Network estimates the total number of people originating from the Horn of Africa at about 30,000 – e.g. about 10,000 Ethiopians, about  9,000 Somalis, about  6,000 Sudanese and about 5,000 Eritreans.

The Horn of Africa Community Network has training and skill-upgrading programmes for youth and the elderly; makes efforts to find them suitable jobs; organizes joint cultural events as well as sports programmes. It even publishes a periodical entitled Ambassador which contains articles in Amharic, Arabic, English, Oromiya, Somali, Tigrinia and other languages. The Horn of Africa Community Network in Melbourne, which is served by volunteers from all the involved communities, is encouraged and funded by the local authorities of Victoria State. It is indeed a welcome initiative worth imitation by Horn of Africa communities in other parts of the world.

Awna, Farajat, Al Nahda and Voice of Eritrea

Horn of African Community Network’s Ambassador is not the only media outlet for our people in Australia. Melbourne is also the location for three steadily maturing websites run by young Eritreans who are devoting their free time to keep people informed in Australia and other parts of the world. Some of the young webmasters admitted that, in the initial period, they were less objective in their writings and postings. The aim was to see their websites visited by as many people as possible and to achieve this any “hot and sensitive” material was posted.  They say that this is no more the case for their websites. “We are part of the political struggle with our own evaluations of he situation and political inclinations, yet we are determined to serve the best interest of all Eritreans by providing objective news reports and responsible analysis”, some of the webmasters confided to me. I felt like trusting them without, however, taking for granted the claims of all three of being ‘independent’ of any political partisanship. One can point out at this juncture that the lingering  unfortunate thing about most Eritrean websites is that they do not translate their postings to other languages. Because of this, many of important  messages fail to reach to all interested readers and political actors.

Awna, run by inspired young men like Ahmed M. Ali and Abdulwahab Jeme, was named after the 1 December 1970 massacre of largest number of civilians in the village of Ona/Awna 34 years ago.

The other website, Farajat, was named, according to Munir Karrar, after the following anecdote: a few months before the collapse of the Ethiopian army in Eritrea, a person wearing the semblance of semi-lunatic (‘oro derwishai’) and living in one of the Eritrean towns started proclaiming in  public “farajat! farajat!” The repeated word can translate something like this:  “May the dawn come soon!!” or “May these bad  days be over soon!!” Soon after that, Mengistu’s Dergue collapsed and Isayas Afeworki’s PFDJ came to power. In recent years,  the same ‘derwishai’ again started shouting in public: “farajat! farajat!” It is said that the ‘semi-lunatic person was apprehended by the PFDJ regime and threatened to never again shout that ominous phrase of his!!  But Munir Karrar and colleagues in Melbourne wished to be a voice of that derwihsai and all what his shouting stood for, and thus called their website Farajat!

The third website in Melbourne is Al Nahda (Renaissance) which is not much different in meaning than Farajat, as much as it implied change, the future.  Al Nahda is run by Ali Shiya who is  assisted by people like Amal, a promising young lady in the opposition, and hopefully a future journalist. Amal is the daughter of old/new Jebha’s Suleiman Adem Suleiman.

Also in the field of information,  the Eritrean community in Melbourne is served by a weekly radio programme – The Voice of Eritrea – managed by Berhan Ismail, another energetic young man who is fluent in many languages, including Arabic, English, Tigre and Tigrinia, and consciously working towards creating harmony among all of Eritrea’s mosaic of linguistic, ethnic and confessional groups represented in Australia.

Melbourne – an Extension of Keren or Kassala?

By the way, almost all of Eritrea’s ethnic and linguistic groups are represented in Australia’s Melbourne – some with a few families, others in greater numbers.  I met some  persons who claimed that Melbourne reminds one of Keren. (In some aspects yes: in my case, it indeed reminded me of many nostalgic events of the past when I met in Melbourne my 958-60 school headmaster, Mohammed Ahmed Idris Nor, and the families of teachers and education inspectors in Senhit in the 50-60s, like Inspector Beshir and Sheikh Saadadin of my childhood!).

May be Mensura Baho and Amna Melekin played roles of being effective “pull factors” for Kerenites. But, seriously, it is not Keren but Kassala that comes to one’s mend in Melbourne. A good part of the community in Melbourne can remind one of Kassala and everyone who had stayed there with his family as a freedom fighter or a refugee for quite a big part of his/her life. Naturally, and as in Kassala, the vast majority of Eritgreans in Melbourne communicate with each other in Arabic. I securely say the vast majority because those below the age of 30-35, who should constitute up to 70-75% of the community, and who grew up in the Sudan or the rest of the Middle East can communicate well only in Arabic. And this is in many cases without distinction of ethnic identity or religion. 

Unlike in Kassala, though, opportunities for higher education are available in Australia. Equally readily available are job opportunities for Eritreans in Australia than is the case  elsewhere these days. Because of that, many of the youth easily get tempted to discontinue pursuing higher studies and join Australia’s workforce.

Full Political Participation!!

Also in Australia, as elsewhere, many Eritreans are not participating in politics as card-holding  and fee-paying members of the Eritrean political organizations. On the other hand, any Australian adult citizen is expected to cast ballot in all local and national  elections. Anyone who fails to respond to this call to duty is penalized with a specified fine. And, at least because of this, I was told, almost all Australians of Eritrean origin cast votes in every election! This should be the only place where Eritreans are showing full participation in politics these days and since 1991!!

 It was also rumoured that most of them vote for the Australian Labour Party, as the majority of Americans of Eritrean origin would vote for, or at least sympathize with, the Democratic Party. Many Eritreans in Australia have reportedly become members of the political parties. For example, Omar Jaber is member of the Labour Party (not to be confused with Jebha’s LP – kidding) and Dr. Berhan Ahmed, himself a devoted environmentalist, is member of the Australian Green Party.

Well, well, for now this much should be enough about Australians of Eritrean origin most of whom are, at this moment in time, still expressing the wish of one day packing and returning home for good. But who does not express that wish? Throughout history, almost all migrants and refugees vowed to go back home when the right moment struke. But the right time hardly strikes as wished. … Anyway, and in our case, let’s keep hoping that it will be exceptionally different for us the 1.2 million Eritreans – according to Mahmoud Sherifo’s statistics –  now found scattered everywhere in the world, and many more still joining our ranks from the country supposed to be our permanent home.


W. Ammar

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