An Enduring Legacy
How my 1960s Peace Corps experience led to work for those fleeing the repression and the cruelties of their homeland
By John G. Stauffer (Adi Kayieh 66–68)
DURING MY TWO YEARS TEACHING 6th and 7th grade science at the Lorenzo Tazaz Jr. Secondary School in Adi Kayieh in Eritrea, I got to know a 7th grader named Berhane — an excellent student with an endearing, sterling personality. I tutored him, and he and his cousin were our houseboys for our household during our second year.
One day walking to school together, I suggested, in passing, that he might come to America some day.
All in all, time in Eritrea was a fine experience. I grew to like the people deeply, and knew then that this assignment was going to have a significant impact on me as well as on the Eritreans who accepted me. Little did I know how much this was to be. Upon returning to the United States, I gave “travelogue” slide shows about the experience. I started a 38-year career with a chemical company in Philadelphia. Except for an occasional chance meeting with an Eritrean cab driver whom I would entertain with a smattering of Tigrinya, Eritrea was pretty much out of mind for me. News of Eritrean independence reached me, and membership in the U.N., but still, it was with a reaction of “that’s nice.”
Then, in 2002, out of the blue, I began receiving calls from former Eritrean students, now successful and living in North America. They just wanted to catch up a little bit. At one point, I was told that Berhane, still in Eritrea, wanted to hear from me. I was able to connect with him, exchanging e-mails and later, phone calls. I invited Berhane to come to Pennsylvania and provided a round trip business class plane ticket. The return ticket was for 6 months hence.
He never used it.
After his arrival at my home, Berhane made trips around the US to visit friends who had resettled here. He applied for political asylum, which was soon granted. It was then that I learned the horrible fate that had befallen most of the people of Eritrea at the hands of the brutal regime that had taken control upon independence. The list of ongoing transgressions includes endless military conscription and government work starting right after high school, the suppression of the freedom of speech and religion, the threat of death for those attempting to leave the country without permission. The situation is so acute that hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled the country. Many now are living in subsistence refugee camps in Ethiopia and the Sudan.
Being a loyal person at heart, I agreed with Berhane that we should not rest until the horrible situation in Eritrea is relieved. So we got together with an Eritrean American living in Ohio and a couple of Americans living near me to form an organization we called The America Team for Freedom for Eritrea. Our goals were to create awareness particularly in the U.S. Government and human rights organizations, of the situation facing Eritreans. We also encouraged unity among the disparate Eritrean opposition organizations. We provided information about current events to the Eritrean Diaspora through our web site.
After several years, we added attention to Eritrean refugees to our objectives. With help from my church, we sent the team member from Ohio to Shimelba Refugee Camp in northern Ethiopia, to deliver some cash assistance and establish a relationship with the camp. We devoted attention to the needy refugees hosted in Ethiopia who at the time were not permitted to work. Aid agencies and refugees alike agreed that providing scholarships and study opportunities for refugees to study in Ethiopia would provide hope for them. Studying would allow them to move their lives ahead once they resettled in a place where they could be employed. With help from the UNHCR — the UN refugee agency — we distributed applications in two refugee camps for scholarships in medical-related studies. We had 350 applications, and ended up sending 35 students to college in Addis Ababa, in September, 2009.
In August of 2008 the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration designated all of the more than 6,000 refugees in Shimelba Camp as candidates for resettlement in the U.S.A. They began arriving in late 2008. Our team organized to welcome them. We provided clothing, blankets, kitchenware, toys and food. We helped refugees to deal with issues with the agencies responsible for their initial resettlement. Perhaps 3,000 Eritrean refugees will arrive in the U.S. in 2010.
In 2009, we wrote a 75-page Tigrinya-English Picture Dictionary for new refugee immigrants with basic words illustrated and given in both Tigrinya and English.
By January, 2010, the Team had decided that it could not continue doing both political activism as an opposition group and its humanitarian support for Eritrean refugees. The group reorganized to be 100% humanitarian. We renamed the group The America Team for Displaced Eritreans and launched our website as EritreanRefugees.org.
We limit content to information and resources pertaining to Eritrean refugees. We also publish news about Eritrea. We recruited six Eritreans and one American to join the board of directors. The IRS granted us 501(c)(3) public charity status.
We are always in need of funding to continue our program of scholarships in Addis Ababa and of assistance to new refugee/ immigrants coming to the U.S. RPCVs interested in helping the Team’s effort should visit our web site at www.EritreanRefugees.org. Donations, of course, are needed and most welcome.