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Eritrean woman finds refuge in Winnipeg

05/17/2017

ST. BONIFACE — Maria fled from her country in 2011. Thanks to the support of St. Alphonsus Parish in St. Boniface, Maria’s cousin was able to welcome her to Manitoba in 2014.

Born in Eritrea, Maria spent about 10 years of her youth hiding from her own government. In her country, there is a law that when one reaches Grade 11, in order to complete schooling and attend university, one must go to the Sawa military camp. It is compulsory for boys and girls alike.

The government states that this national service is for one year, but in reality it is for an indefinite length of time. Once you get there, there is no leaving. It is the government’s way of recruiting child soldiers.

Maria, like many other young men and women in Eritrea, refused to go to this military camp, even though that meant the end of her schooling. Her nightmare was just beginning. Maria explains that, even when you accept to quit school, the government forces you to have an identity card which you can only obtain at the military camp.

Government personnel often conduct random searches in the country. If they find someone without an identity card, they are sent to the camp in Sawa. Moreover, no one is authorized to leave the country, even those who have served. Maria had no other choice than to go into hiding for 10 years before being able to flee, on foot, with the help of a smuggler.

In her first attempt at leaving Eritrea, Maria was arrested and sent to prison for three weeks. She was fortunate that one of her friends was able to bribe the prison’s director, and that is how she was released.

Finally, in 2011, after having walked through hills and mountains for two nights while hiding in bushes during the day, Maria arrived, exhausted, in Ethiopia. But the journey — which had cost $3000 US (the smuggler’s fee) — was far from over.

Once in Ethiopia, Maria was safe from the Eritrean government, but there was still a river to cross. She knew people who had perished in the attempt. She survived being away by the river, and eventually received her refugee card.

Although there was no need to hide any longer, living conditions in the refugee camp were difficult: no electricity, no schooling past the elementary level, no work (and therefore no possibility of earning money) and not enough food. Maria was dependent for help on relatives.

Finally, thanks to a private sponsorship, Maria’s cousin in Winnipeg was able to get her out of the camp. The young woman landed in the Manitoba capital in Sept. 2014 after 13 years of hiding or living in deplorable conditions.

Maria points out that, in order to be sponsored, her cousin had to count on the support of her parish, St. Alphonsus. The parish became a co-sponsor by attesting to the fact that her cousin was a serious person who would be able to support her for a year. The parish priest helped fill out the necessary forms and submit them to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Maria now has a steady job and is a tenant at a transition house. She says she is ready to start living again.

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