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1 Refugee Without Hope: Eritrean teen does not dare to dream

Telling the Human Story, 5 July 2011

© UNHCR/N.Bose
Salomon cuts a forlorn figure, sitting on the pavement in Sallum.The days are long and he cannot believe that his life is about to change for the better.

SALLUM, Egypt, July 5 (UNHCR) In the harsh, arid landscape of Sallum, there is a small fragile figure, walking alone in the desert sun, shielding himself from the dust and wind, battling his inner fears and insecurities. Meet Salomon, 17, a refugee from Eritrea, who has no one and nothing to call his own.

Salomon is a serious young man who believes that his life is cursed: "I have had a harsh life since I was born. I never went to school, never had a childhood."

He is among 145 refugees accepted by Sweden for resettlement from Sallum on the Egypt-Libya border. And yet, he does not dare to hope for the future he craves. "I am so happy that I have finally the opportunity to go to a better place," he said cautiously. "But I'm not going to believe it until I get there. My life might continue as before."

Salomon was born in Sudan to Eritrean refugee parents he never knew. His father died before he was born, his mother followed after childbirth. He was brought up by a nun named Selas, and sold water for a living.

He was 12 when Selas died. "I still miss her so much, she was the only family I had," he said sadly.

He was given a new caretaker, a Sudanese man who tried to convert him from Christianity to Islam. "I had not recovered from Selas' death and he started pressuring me, so I ran away." He went to the bigger town of Al Faw and sold water for six months, sleeping in the bus station at night. He made enough money to move to the Sudanese capital Khartoum, where he worked as a cleaner in a law firm.

Hoping for better opportunities, he met some Eritreans in a hotel and together they went to Libya in 2009. He was just 15. "I thought there was a better life in Libya, I didn't know any better. The plan was to cross the sea from Tripoli and go to Europe. But it was very expensive."

The others made it to Italy but he stayed in Libya. He felt threatened in Tripoli with its excessive military presence, so he moved to Benghazi, where he worked and lived in a café. On one of the few occasions he ventured out, he was arrested for wearing a cross. "I was put in a dark, small cell, with a small opening for light. I was blindfolded and I didn't know where I was held. They kept saying I am from Israel, and they tortured me with electricity. I was really scared," he said, shaking as he recounted his experience.

When the Libyan revolution began in February this year, Salomon was released along with all other prisoners. Then sub-Saharan Africans started getting attacked, and he made his way to a Libyan Red Crescent camp for safety. In March, he joined thousands of others who were evacuated by the International Organization for Migration from Libya to Sallum in north-eastern Egypt.

Sallum is currently hosting several hundred migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers who fled the war in Libya. Although there are other Eritreans of his age in the camp, he prefers to keep to himself in a little tent that he has proudly made with a UNHCR plastic sheet.

Salomon is still haunted by memories of the torture he went through. He finds it difficult to open up, to make friends or trust people.

"I didn't have a good childhood. When I get a chance, I will make friends," he said, a little unsure of himself. "But what will I talk about? I have nothing to share, except my problems. I can tell them about my life. But I never want to talk about my parents or Selas. I still feel pain, I am not healed."

The only good thing about Sallum, he feels, is the Egyptian authorities. "I appreciate and admire the military in Sallum. They don't touch us, even when we are rude to them." Sounding wiser than his years, he added, "Egypt is in a difficult situation. I didn't expect a country with no government to treat us well."

UNHCR believes that 1 Refugee Without Hope is Too Many. Life has been difficult for Salomon, a hardworking boy who dreams of saving up money for a better future. "I had plans. I wanted to save money so that I could study and have a better life, a good education. I never got that opportunity," he said, refusing to believe that he now does.

He concedes that opportunities can come by: "Nothing remains the same in life. Things can change, dramatically, for the better. If it wasn't for UNHCR I wouldn't have the chance for a better life. But I can't trust my luck."

By Nayana Bose in Sallum, Egypt




UNHCR country pages

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1 refugee without hope is too many. Every day, millions of refugees face murder, rape and terror. We believe even 1 is too many.

Crisis in Libya

UNHCR is working with the Tunisian and Egyptian authorities and aid groups to manage the dramatic influx of tens of thousands of people fleeing Libya. By the beginning of March, two weeks after the violence erupted in Libya, more than 140,000 people had fled to the neighbouring countries, while thousands more were waiting to cross. Most are Egyptian and Tunisian nationals, though small numbers of Libyans and other nationalities are managing to escape. UNHCR is particularly concerned about thousands of refugees and other foreigners trapped inside Libya, especially people from sub-Saharan Africa. The following photo essay gives a glimpse into what is happening at the borders.

Crisis in Libya

On the Border: Stuck in Sallum

After violence erupted in Libya in February last year, tens of thousands of people began streaming into Egypt at the Sallum border crossing. Most were Egyptian workers, but almost 40,000 third country nationals also turned up at the border and had to wait until they could be repatriated. Today, with the spotlight long gone, a group of more than 2,000 people remain, mainly single young male refugees from the Sudan. But there are also women, children and the sick and elderly waiting for a solution to their situation. Most are likely to be resettled in third countries, but those who arrived after October are not being considered for resettlement, while some others have been rejected for refugee status. They live in tough conditions at the Egyptian end of the border crossing. A site for a new camp in no man's land has been identified. UNHCR, working closely with the border authorities, plays the major role in providing protection and assistance.

On the Border: Stuck in Sallum

Growing Numbers of Syrians Seek Refuge in Egypt

Since the Syrian crisis erupted in March 2011, more than 1.6 million Syrians have fled their homeland to escape the fighting. Most have sought shelter in countries neighbouring Syria - Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But a significant number have made their way to Egypt in recent months. They are coming by air from Lebanon after leaving Syria, and also by sea. Since March, UNHCR has been registering about 2,000 a week. To date, almost 80,000 have registered as refugees, with half of them women and children. UNHCR believes there may be many more and the refugee agency is reaching out to these people so that they can receive vital protection and assistance and get access to basic services. The Syrians are staying with host families or renting apartments, mainly in urban centres such as Cairo, Sixth of October City, Alexandria and Damietta. The refugees heading to Egypt say they are attracted by its open door policy for Syrian refugees and by the lower rents and living costs. The following photographs were taken by Shawn Baldwin.

Growing Numbers of Syrians Seek Refuge in Egypt

The end of a long, silent journey: Two Eritreans in Libya Play video

The end of a long, silent journey: Two Eritreans in Libya

Two Eritreans set out on a perilous journey to Europe, crossing Sudan and the Sahara arriving in Libya during its 2011 revolution. They arrive in Tripoli having avoided the risks of detention and despite contending with a crippling handicap: both David and his wife Amitu are deaf and mute.
Sudan: A Perilous RoutePlay video

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Kassala camp in eastern Sudan provides shelter to thousands of refugees from Eritrea. Many of them pass through the hands of ruthless and dangerous smugglers.
Egypt: Seeking SafetyPlay video

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Amid the ebb and flow of fighting in eastern Libya, a steady stream of people continues to seek shelter in Egypt and other neighbouring countries. They tell their stories.