Lost souls fleeing Libyan violence died trying to reach safety of Canada

By Carol Sanders, Winnipeg Free Press April 30, 2011

WINNIPEG — On her application to come to Canada, the 24-year-old new mother wrote: “I’d rather die than return home” to Eritrea.

Sadly Rahwa Teklegergish did last month, along with her nine-month-old baby Esey.

The mom and her infant son were among six Winnipeg-sponsored refugees who have drowned within the last six weeks trying to leave Libya.

They are among hundreds of refugees from troubled African countries have either drowned or are missing after failed attempts to reach the safety of Europe, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports.

“It is very sad,” said Yonas Zewude. He was helping to sponsor two young Eritrean refugees stuck in Libya, with no means of support and no right to work or go to school.

Teklegergish and her baby were being sponsored privately through Hospitality House in Winnipeg.

“They’re lost souls . . . it’s a huge human tragedy,” said Hospitality House co-ordinator Tom Denton, holding a stack of sponsorship application files that tell the stories of refugees who no longer can.

“I would rather die than return home,” wrote Teklegergish. After Grade 12, she was assigned to military service and ended up as an unpaid maid, cook and cleaner for members of Eritrean military.

“I felt I was a slave,” she printed with impeccable English spelling.

When one of the authorities made sexual advances and threatened to have her killed, she fled Eritrea. She went to a refugee camp in Shegerab, Sudan, and then on to the Libyan city of Tripoli where she was placed in a detention centre with other refugees.

She got out and gave birth. When chaos erupted after Libyans rose up against despotic ruler Moammar Gadhafi, the two boarded a ship she hoped would take them to safer shores.

As did another young Eritrean with hopes of getting to Winnipeg.

Zeresnay Tekeste, 22, ended up a refugee on that deadly voyage because he dared to question authority when he was in high school.

On his application to come to Canada, he wrote about spending Grade 12 like other Eritrean kids — doing forced military training. After a lengthy speech by a commander who condemned minority religions, the Pentecostal youth asked him why the authorities were so concerned about religious beliefs. That night, military police arrested him.

After two months in jail, a guard set Tekeste free and he too wound up in Tripoli where he was locked up with other refugees. When he got out and was able to earn a little cash under the table, he was robbed by street gangs and police, he said. Then fighting in Libya began.

“They were in a very dangerous situation,” said Tekeste’s Winnipeg sponsor, Zewude. The Winnipeg businessman has been in Canada for 13 years and has helped many who’ve come after him.

“His goal was to come to a safe country and get a better life,” said Zewude. “Tekeste died on a boat.”

So did another young man sponsored by Zewude. Bereket Teferi, 25, also died at sea, said Denton.

Tekali Weldemichael, 26, drowned as well. His Winnipeg cousin remembers the last time they spoke.

“He phoned me in March when they started the war,” said Berhe Habteyohanes. “I said, ‘If you can get away, transfer to another country — Tunisia or Morocco.'”

The Canadian government was able to meet privately sponsored Eritrean refugees in Tunisia and get them to Canada — if they could escape fighting in Libya. A group arrived safely in Winnipeg earlier this month. Weldemichael wasn’t among them, although it was confirmed he started out on the boat.

There were 335 Eritrean refugees aboard when the ship left Libya on March 22, said Habteyohanes.


Source : Winnipeg Free Press

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