Eritrean refugees fly out of Ethiopia for a new life in the United States

News Stories, 5 July 2007

© UNHCR/K.Gebre Egziabher
Nagasi Gorado Becho and his family get ready to leave Ethiopia and start a new life in the United States.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, July 5 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has begun the resettlement in the United States of some 700 ethnic Kunama refugees from Eritrea, flying out a first group of 29 from Addis Ababa after years of exile in northern Ethiopia.

The refugees left Shimelba camp earlier this week and flew out from the Ethiopian capital on Wednesday evening after a pre-departure briefing by staff of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is handling the logistics of the resettlement operation.

The 700 due for resettlement in the United States were displaced by the 1998-2000 border war between their native Eritrea and Ethiopia. The UNHCR-assisted operation is due to last until September and the Kunamas will be flown to several US cities, including Atlanta, Orlando, Seattle and Las Vegas.

The refugees are members of a largely rural ethnic group of about 100,000 people who reside on the disputed Ethiopia-Eritrea border. They crossed into Ethiopia complaining of alleged persecution and harassment by the Eritrean government.

Nagasi Gorado Becho was headed to Atlanta with his family of five, including a seven-year-old daughter born in Shimelba camp. "I opted to go further afield not because I do not like my country, but because I cannot return at this point," said the 45-year-old before boarding the first flight.

His wife, Tokko Masso Anduku, was looking forward to their new life across the Atlantic. "Friends who were resettled some time back are very much appreciative of life in America and I look forward to having better working and learning opportunities there."

But she was also apprehensive. "We are just illiterate farmers from rural Eritrea and adapting to a modern lifestyle in a community whose language we do not understand worries me a lot," she said. She hoped that her son-in-law, who speaks English, would join them soon and make life easier for the family.

UNHCR has determined that the 700 Kunamas cannot return home in safety and dignity and resettlement is the most suitable solution. The people who left on Wednesday and those to follow will all take part in extensive orientation programmes to help them adapt to a new and very alien culture.

Today, almost 1,300 Kunama refugees are in Ethiopia, but not all of them want to be resettled in the United States.

Several hundred withdrew their applications for resettlement, apparently due to their strong sense of kinship and a desire to remain close to their ancestral lands. They hope that one day a lasting political solution will be found and they will be able to return home.

By Kisut Gebre Egziabher in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia