Mussie Zena on his family’s US citizenship
My Heart for Eritrea and the Gift of My Family’s US Citizenship
I am writing this story on the special occasion of my kids’ becoming US citizens on April 15, 2015, a naturalization ceremony that included 25 children from 18 countries. My name is Mussie Zena and I am originally from Eritrea. To appreciate our journey to US citizenship I must give some background about my country Eritrea. It is located in the Horn of Africa, bordered with Ethiopia in the South, the Sudan in the West, Djibouti in the South East and the Red Sea in the East. It has been only 23 years since gaining its independence from Ethiopia and unfortunately it has emerged as one of the largest sources of refugees in Africa – as well as one of the most militarized societies in the world. It is increasingly displaying signs of fragile state structures and an unsustainable humanitarian situation.
Eritrea is sometimes referred to as the North Korea of Africa. President Isaias Afewerki – the only leader this young nation has known – used the 1998 border conflict with Ethiopia as a pretext to eliminate all domestic opposition and indefinitely defer implementing the constitution and holding elections. At the moment there are not any human or democratic rights of any sort in Eritrea. 1.5 million Eritreans are estimated to live in the Diaspora and out of this number about 350,00 migrated just after independence, since 1991. Reliable data on the size of Eritrea’s population is hard to come by, but estimates range between 5 and 6 million people. The United Nations documents reported that the average number of people fleeing every month has now reached 4,000. While the regime is in denial of the deteriorating conditions, Eritreans are voting in masses with their feet. The vast majority of the refugees are young people, and hence significant portion of Eritrea’s productive workforce has either fled the country or find themselves indefinitely conscripted in the military. It is also estimated by world human rights organizations that there are more than 10,000 political and prisoners of conscience in known and unknown prison cells inside Eritrea.
Those who flee the country to get to Europe through Libya or to Israel via Egypt usually fall victim to human traffickers where they can be kidnapped, tortured, and their families in the West extorted for ransom money by regional criminal networks. The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea has identified the involvement of leading figures in the Eritrean military in these criminal networks, the participation of high-level military personnel in these activities – which also include the trafficking of weapons and forced labor. At times the kidnappings by human traffickers reach to the extent of harvesting organs of the victims in the Sahara and Sinai Deserts. Those of them who have escaped from the hands of the cruel human traffickers also use very crumbly and unstable wooden boats to desperately cross the Mediterranean to get into Europe, specifically to Italy, and an uncountable number of them have died in the past 5 to 10 years. The Lampadusa tragedy of October 2013 which resulted in the drowning and death of 350 Eritreans including pregnant women and children, and other similar incidents including the hundreds who were just lost in the month of April 2015 in the same Mediterranean Sea is totally outrageous and heartbreaking.
Currently, the Eritrean society is almost totally militarized. An indefinite, compulsory and universal military conscription policy applies to most of Eritrea’s adult population. All students become conscripted soldiers at the end of high school. The students must go to a military camp called Sawa to finish their last year of high school and become soldiers in due time. Eritrea’s army is now one of the largest on the continent, and has the highest number of military personnel per capita in the world next to North Korea. In 2011, the Isaias regime took the additional step of arming a large section of the civilian population believed to be loyal to his party, the only party in the country i.e. People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, PFDJ. Although huge amounts of resources have been devoted to Eritrea’s military, political power is very much personalized in present day Eritrea, and remains largely in the hands of the president and a handful of military generals, who are rivaling and contesting each other over power, influence and control over financial resources.
I was born and grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I was in Ethiopia up until my 10th grade of high school. In 1992, one year after Eritrea got its independence, I went to Eritrea and finished both my high school and my first degree studies. There was one university in Eritrea before 2006 in which I did my 1st degree in Economics in 1999. It was officially closed by the dictatorial regime in 2006. I have a first degree in Economics from the University of Asmara in Eritrea. In the middle of my undergraduate studies and after my graduation I served my Eritrean national service mostly as a conscripted soldier for 2 years. After serving for two years in the national service I got a scholarship for graduate studies in South Africa. I left Eritrea in March 2001 for my Mphil program in the field of Tourism Management at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. During that time (2001/2002) I never went back to Eritrea because I became a political activist during my student years in Pretoria. Despite my hard feelings and observations of the Eritrean regime’s wild and boundless abuses of all kinds of human and democratic rights while I was in Eritrea, there was not any room for me to express my feelings inside Eritrea. Because, the result would definitely be to be killed or if lucky to be rotten and thrown in an unknown underground prison under extremely appalling conditions forever. When I went to a democratic country South Africa, I couldn’t accept the same kind of treatment, level of pressure and control coming from the same Eritrean regime through its embassy to South Africa. This coupled with the crackdown on all kinds of decent, the imprisonment of the regime’s higher officials commonly known as the G15 (group 15) just for demanding reforms inside the party and the banning of all private newspapers by the regime including the jailing of their journalists in September 2011, which literally turned the nation into an open prison made me officially decide to openly oppose the totalitarian regime of Eritrea. I sacrificed my graduate study scholarship from the regime because of my opposition to its wicked policies, but I managed to complete and graduate and to get my Master’s degree on my own terms.
After I stayed as an activist and a student in South Africa for 3 years (2001-2004) I left South Africa for Ethiopia to become a full time political activist and help my people from a closer range. This was the time where Ethiopia started to be flooded by thousands of Eritrean refugees. My 5 political activism years (2004-2009) that I spent in Ethiopia were the best years of my life. I was doing everything to the fullest of my satisfaction. I was able to learn more about Eritreans in general and Eritrean politics in particular. I was freely and deeply involved in exposing the true color and the undemocratic nature of the Eritrean regime in plenty of occasions, meetings, seminars and demonstrations both inside and outside of Ethiopia in neighboring countries such as Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa. I also used to often visit the remote Eritrean refugee camps in the Northern part of Ethiopia to help tell their stories and their poor living conditions to the world communities, Eritrean opposition Medias and the government of Ethiopia.
In the extremely cold month of January in 2009 I came to the US to the city of Indianapolis, IN through the UNHCR resettlement program. My US life is great, especially for my family. To be honest, they (my wife and my kids) are happier and more satisfied than me in the US. It gives me pleasure to see that. I have 3 children who were born in Eritrea, Ethiopia and the US respectively. This is another indication of how our Eritrean family life is totally distracted and unstable at present. We do not know where we will end up year after year. For my family, life became stable after we got to the US. For my kids, since they have been growing up in the US from an early age, the US is their home country and they are always extremely pleased for being here. For me, I always have the burning desire to finish my long started but unfinished business of democratizing and freeing Eritrea from the most brutal tyrannical regime of our time, the present Eritrean PFDJ regime. I am usually physically here, but mentally in Africa. The best thing that I like about the US is its freedom of movement, that I can always do my activities freely. Regarding employment, I have a sub teaching license for the state of Indiana, I am a Natural Helper, and I grade State student exams for several states including the Indiana ISTEPS. I also serve as a member of the IRSC (Immigrant Refugee Service Corps) at the office of employment services with the Catholic Charities of Indianapolis.
To close, I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to all the governments and people of the countries of South Africa, Ethiopia and the US for giving me and my family another opportunity to live and a place to belong to when we were/are stateless. My special thanks also always goes to my colleagues at the Catholic Charities of Indianapolis for helping all of the refugees resettling through our office and for their exceptional and all-time friendly assistance and cooperation including processing the US naturalization application for my whole family.