They walk alone or in small groups, sometimes for days. Soldiers may shoot at them, and hyenas may prowl nearby at night. Still, in recent years they have crossed the border by the thousands. They are just children -- some as young as seven or eight.
I met them near Shire, Ethiopia, at dusty refugee camps for Eritrean refugees. Throngs of children crowded around us, pushing the youngest ones to the front so they could see.
Zemen, who said he was ten but looked much younger, said he saw his friends leaving his town and just followed them. He didn’t tell his parents. A smaller girl, Rahan said she was looking for her brother and began to cry. Abel, age eleven, said he almost didn’t make it. He was walking alone toward the border when Eritrean soldiers started shooting. He didn’t know what to do and was so frightened that he just sat down. But some adults saw him and grabbed him and they ran together.
PRM Deputy Assistant Secretary Catherine Wiesner and officials from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) speak with children who have just arrived in the Endabaguna Reception Center after crossing the border from Eritrea [State Department Photo]
The children flee Eritrea, like thousands of older teens and adults each month, to escape hopeless poverty and mandatory conscription which they fear will condemn them to a lifetime of forced labor. The children have dreams, and a poor grasp of geography.
Fifteen-year-old Etbaret explained, “We came to support our families. We all thought we would be able to leave here immediately, that if we walk just a few days more we will reach Europe, or maybe make it to the United States.” No one had told them there were seas and oceans in the way.
Refugee children in the Adi-Harush Camp talk about how they crossed the border from Eritrea in spite of the danger. Many hope to leave the camp for Europe or the United States. [State Department Photo]
Many still see Ethiopia as a way-station. Smugglers troll the area at night and offer to take them north. This is exceedingly dangerous. Traffickers use children to extort money from relatives. Sometimes they kidnap, sell, abandon, starve, rape, or kill them.
Our mission is to protect them. In part, this means giving them reasons to stay in Ethiopia. The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration funds programs run by aid agencies that provide children with food, water, shelter and medical care, education, and recreational activities.
I stopped at the Endabaguna reception center for new arrivals. A few months ago, hundreds of unaccompanied children there just waited on benches under the blistering sun. PRM funding helped build new dormitories, bathrooms, and a shaded recreation center with games and ping pong tables.
Refugee children learn to play keyboards at the youth center in Mai-Aini, run by Jesuit Refugee Services, and funded by PRM [State Department Photo]
At Mai-Aini Camp, I watched kids reciting lessons, dribbling basketballs, and performing traditional Eritrean dances. Instead of setting off on journeys that could ruin or end their lives, the teenage folk dancers were circling, shimmying and smiling.
Our programs also organize foster parents for children, who arrive without their parents. At the Adi-Harush Camp I met a lovely older couple who were caring for sixteen of them. Outside their cinder block shelter they had planted a small garden to make the place feel more like home.
A teenage girl performs an Eritrean folk dance at the youth center in Mai-Aini, run by Jesuit Refugee Services, and funded by PRM [State Department Photo]
Still, it is hard to see children’s dreams slip away. All they want is the chance to make something of their lives, to someday glimpse what children elsewhere take for granted.
As we left Adi-Harush camp, a thin 12-year-old girl in a red dress ran to catch up and stared with imploring eyes at my colleague’s big purse.
We asked if there was something she wanted. She replied, “Please, can you carry me back in your bag to America?”
What can you do, but take her hands in yours, and tell her you are sorry and that you will not forget her?
For a video of recreational programs funded by PRM at Mai-Aini Camp, please click here.
About the Author: Catherine Weisener serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.