On September 27, Yahya, Almaz, and their 8-year-old son stepped off a plane in Greensboro, North Carolina. For them, arriving in the United States was nothing short of a miracle. “Really, God saved us.”
Yahya and Almaz were born in Ethiopia when the Derg, a communist regime, was still in power. Yahya’s family were farmers in Oromia. They grew coffee, raised cattle, and kept bees to produce honey. Acting as the town’s merchant, his father would take the village’s produce on the 2-3 day journey to Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa to sell. For the most part, his village was left alone to work and live.
In 1989, the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPDRF), a coalition of various forces, joined the ranks of revolutionary movements across the world that were rising up against communist regimes. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) stationed themselves in the forests that bordered Yahya’s village.
At night, the OLF would come into their village, kidnap the young men, and take them into the forest to train as soldiers. Later, when their families saw their children again, they found their loved ones altered. “After one month, they would be with them and make them change.”
After an OLF raid at night, the government would then come the next morning. Government officials would interrogate the village to discover who had supported the rebels. The government would then take men prisoners, torture them, and a few weeks later, release them. Once the government came, however, the OLF would return at night and question the village about who had told the government that they had come. “We became in the middle,” Yahya says.
In 1991, when Yahya was about ten years old, the EPDRF finally ousted the communist Derg government. The new transitional government called for free, democratic elections. Candidates and political parties campaigned. “At that time, Oromo was happy, and my father supported OLF.” In 1992, however, the OLF withdrew from the Federal Democratic Government and all who previously had supported them came under threat.
“After [the government] found out who supported who, they collected people and sent them to detention camps. The government came and collected all our property and sent my dad to jail.” Yahya was just 12 years old when his family fell into poverty. As the oldest son, it fell to him to begin working to support his mother and siblings. “Later, they came for me. They government focused on my family. They took me to prison for 1 year and 2 months.” Whenever OLF activity spiked, the government would come back to his village and take him back to prison. They would release him again when things calmed down.
In 2004, Yahya traveled to a local city to take produce to the market to sell. That same day, however, Oromo were staging protests against the government. Police arrested Yahya. “They said, “You come from there. It is far from here by foot—about 3 hours. This problem, you make it.” Yahya spent the next four years in a political prison. “I was only going to the market to sell things….I am nothing political….We have no time [for politics].”
Eventually, a family friend helped him get out of prison. Yahya’s father’s friend knew one of the officers in the camp. The friend paid the officer money to release Yahya on condition that he would not return to his home village. Exiled from his home and family, Yahya fled to the north of Ethiopia in the Amhara region.
Though the Amhara and Oromo region are both within Ethiopia, the two tribes are very different. “When we Oromo go there, we are strangers.” A woman who owned a small restaurant noted that Yahya did not speak Amharic and asked him where he was from. “When I met her, she said, ‘My father is from Oromo.’” He learned that this woman’s name was Almaz. They eventually married.
For a time, things were going well for Yahya and Almaz in Amhara. Because he could speak various languages, he worked as a middle man for Sudanese businesses hiring Oromo seasonal workers. His success, however, drew unwanted attention from powerful locals.
Amharic and Tigray men threatened by Yahya’s business savvy, reported him to the local police. “One day, they arrest me. An officer comes and talks with me. He is Oromo. And I tell him, “I am new here. I am just doing a little business, and I have no family here.” The Oromo officer had no power within the local Tigray political powers. He gave him a warning and released him.
Yahya knew that if he were arrested again and the police searched his record, he would be at risk. In 2012, he discovered that two Tigray businessmen were waiting for security to go to arrest him. Yahya and Almaz could only think of saving themselves and did not have time to pack. Almaz’s uncle paid a man to hide them at night. The next day, he smuggled them across the border into Sudan.
Yahya did not want to leave his country. He was hoping that the political situation would improve, and then he could return to his village and his family. Instead, Yahya and Almaz found themselves in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
Their situation proved equally dangerous in Sudan. Yahya and Almaz wanted to register as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Yet, to gain refugee status, they first had to be legal residents of a second country. This requirement proved complicated. The Sudanese government often return political refugees back to Ethiopia. Yahya knew of an OLF officer who had fled to Sudan. When the Sudanese government caught him, they sent him back. “If you go to the Sudanese government, they just send you back.”
Yahya and Almaz decided to attempt to travel to Egypt. At that time, smugglers would take refugees from Sudan to Egypt through the Sinai Dessert. “In this border, they sell people. They traffic people. They call family and say they must pay. If you are a woman, they beat you.”
The “Death Trip” as refugees have come to call the journey usually takes 4 to 7 days, if you survive. “In that time, the brokers had a problem with each other.” For Yahya and Almaz, the journey through Sinai lasted about two months. Their child was only about 2 years old at the time.
Life in Egypt turned out to be difficult as well. Yahya secured residency, but the process took two and a half months. “I went [to the Minister of Affairs] at 4 o’clock the day before, and I was number 40 for the next day.” The residency status only lasted six months, but day one began—not when you were granted residency—but when you had started the process two and a half months previously.
Even though they gained legal status as asylees, Yahya and Almaz had to navigate the capriciousness of police and local gangs. “Sometimes the police will say, ‘Give me money,” without reason, and you have to give it just to save yourself. Not all of them are bad, but it was dangerous.” In 2016, Yahya initiated the request to be resettled in a third country.
Two years and seven months later, he and Almaz sit at home with their son and offer me tea as they share their story. Yahya, who has strong English language ability says, “From first day up to now, I feel like family. From airport, I feel like family.” He has been struck by the welcome he and his family have received—the first time ever someone has asked him how he is feeling or if he is having any problems.
Almaz speaks through a translator, “Everyone is very friendly, but I need more time to know more about Greensboro. I am concerned about the language.” Sometimes she gets nervous because she does not know what she needs to do. “For him,” nodding towards her husband, “it is fine because he speaks English.” Yahya smiles in agreement.
What is clear is that Yahya and Almaz believe that God has kept them safe until now. From his small village in Ethiopia, through the Sinai dessert, and now—of all places!—in Greensboro, they trust that God will provide.
When asked what advice they would give to US-born locals, Yahya said, “Start a relationship and open your heart to these people to know more about that. Refugees are human beings…and don’t let them feel that they are strangers.”
This story is the last in a series that CWS will be sharing with the community leading up to Giving Tuesday (Nov. 27). Church World Service Greensboro is grateful to refugee neighbors like Yahya and Almaz who bring their courage, hope, and faith to Greensboro, and we are grateful to all our supporters who through their time, prayers, and money make the transformative opportunity of resettling refugees in Greensboro possible.