Telling the Human Story, 5 July 2011
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