Eritrean refugee's journey to Tucson was a long, tragic one

Now Eritrean refugee faces challenge of a new language, culture
2013-03-03T00:00:00Z 2013-03-04T11:19:03Z Eritrean refugee's journey to Tucson was a long, tragic onePatty Machelor Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 03, 2013 12:00 am  • 

When Negisti Kurban cares for young children, language doesn't matter.

Their faces and energy are what she loves. Children have helped her rekindle her own joy, her laughter.

Kurban, 40, is among more than 600 Eritrean refugees who have resettled in Arizona in the last 15 years, and one of 274 in Pima County, Arizona Department of Economic Security records show.

Like so many refugees, Kurban's story is one of horror and hope. The transition hasn't been easy but Kurban is determined and, she said, "so grateful" to be here.

Tigrinya is Kurban's first language, and she is working hard to learn English. But as a single mother with a young son, a teenage daughter and a full-time job cleaning hotel rooms, there's little time left for study.

"Because of the language, it used to be very hard as I did everything for the first time," Kurban said through an Eritrean interpreter, Tesfu Telinte.

She dreams of opening a child-care center and worked briefly at one after arriving three years ago, but lost the job because she didn't speak English well enough. They told her to reapply later.

"I need to go to school, but my children ..." she said, struggling to find the words in English. "It's so hard."

Kurban's focus since she arrived three years ago has been being reunited with the daughter she left behind in Eritrea 10 years ago.

In November, her dream was realized.

Harmon Berhan was just 3 when Kurban left her with grandparents and set off, desperate for a new life.

She would send for her daughter once she was settled. Soon, she prayed.

Poor record on rights

Kurban doesn't share much about her life in Eritrea, but Human Rights Watch lists it as having one of the world's most repressive governments.

Random arrests and torture are common, the group says, and nearly everyone 18 and older is subject to forced labor in the military.

When Kurban left, she stayed with relatives in Sudan for three years while saving up for an illegal journey into Libya by way of the Sahara Desert.

When the day of the crossing arrived, Kurban dressed as a man to protect herself. She squeezed into a Land Cruiser with 33 others, including six relatives, and began what should have been a three-day journey.

Caravan attacked

Here is how she describes what happened next: Traffickers had a caravan of three vehicles, and in the car ahead of Kurban's were six women, including one riding with her husband and three children.

Along the way, the caravan stopped. Either the traffickers or bandits attacked the car ahead of hers. The women were raped, and the young parents were killed.

Kurban shares the story with long pauses and tears. She cared for the couple's three young children for several months until they found an aunt in Libya.

But that was much later.

Back in the desert, in the stifling heat, traffickers demanded more money. "If you say you don't have enough money and you can't do it, they will just kill you then," she said.

Some people had money braided into their hair or hidden in shoes. But most couldn't pay, so they were all left with the provisions they'd packed for three days.

As the days passed, Kurban watched helplessly as people died of dehydration and exposure. None of her relatives survived. They buried people in shallow, sandy graves.

When the traffickers at last returned, only one car was needed for the rest of the trip to Libya.

"I used to cry every single day when I would think about that," said Kurban.

Trip took 7 years

To calm her mind, Kurban, a Roman Catholic, read the Bible every night and "prayed and prayed and prayed." Even now, she finds it difficult to sleep more than a few hours at a time.

She spent time in refugee camps, hiding in Libya and waiting in Malta, for her chance.

It took seven years.

Then, at last, the United States accepted her plea for refugee status.

"I thank God every time. I am in the United States," she said. "I feel this is not reality. It is just a dream."

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or pmachelor@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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