Eritrean Catholics caught in Libyan civil war flee to Canada

Eritrean Catholics caught in Libyan civil war flee to Canada

  • June 22, 2011

Salamawit Mehari tells the story of her cousin, Nardos Haile, who tried to make the desperate voyage from Libya to Italy with her three children. As the boat began to disintegrate in the Mediterranean and her husband turned to help neighbours, Haile held tight to her 16-month-old — and watched helplessly as her four-year-old and six-year-old were swept overboard.

At Toronto’s St. Nicholas of Bari parish, a new community of Eritreans are mourning friends lost to the Mediterranean. Wedlep  Habtemical thinks he knows 20 who died at sea. Goitom Abrha recalls 25. Selam Tesfaselasy remembers 14 members of her church choir.

These refugees are part of a growing group of Eritreans caught in the Libyan civil war who have made their way to Canada. The tiny Toronto Eritrean Catholic Community of St. Nicholas Bari, under Capuchin Fr. Vittorio Boria, is supporting 35 refugee sponsorships through co-sponsorship and doing its best to help new arrivals settle and focus on their futures.

To be a refugee in Libya is its own circle of hell. Add in a civil war and it gets worse.

Abrha wound up in Libya in May 2009. He and 138 others were trucked across the dessert from Khartoum, Sudan to Benghazi, the Libyan port city that now serves as provisional capital to anti-Ghaddafi forces. On the way there, the refugees ran out of food and water. In Benghazi, things got worse.

Abrha was one of 120 refugees who were stuffed into a container to be carted like cargo to Tripoli.

“One hour in the container and people were passing out and falling apart. They couldn’t breathe,” recalled Abrha.

Desperate refugees banging on the inside of the container attracted the attention of police, who took the refugees immediately to two prisons — one for women and children and the other for men. Getting out of Gaddafi’s prisons is simple, but not easy.

“People who give money, they get out,” said Abrha. “The people who don’t have, they stay for months, years.”

It cost Abrha U.S. $900 to get out of prison and into a rooming house where his share of the rent was between $200 and $300 per month. But Libya is not a signatory to any of the United Nations conventions on refugees. Any man out on the street without papers could be swept up and put back in prison. At St. Francis Catholic Church in Tripoli, Fr. Daniel and Fr. Sandro  helped the local refugees survive and contact the UNHCR to receive official refugee status, said Tesfaselasy. Then the war broke out.

“We were so scared. This was the worst situation,” said Abrha. “We were targeted as if we were the mercenaries of the regime. The houses of black people were being burned. They were chasing us from house to house, chasing black people.”

The parish kicked in $50 for a three-hour taxi ride to the Choucha camp run by the UNHCR on the Tunisian-Libyan border. Eritreans with UNHCR papers fled.

“There was no time to even buy bread,” said Tesfaselasy.

Tesfaselasy admits to feeling guilty about having survived and making it to Canada when so many are still in Libya or caught up in the Choucha camp. At the same time, she knows her life has been returned to her.

“What I have found here, right now, I am reborn again,” she said.

At every stage, the Church has been a lifeline for Eritreans, said Abrha. Without telephone or internet, in hiding from a population suspicious of foreigners, the Church in Tripoli was their only source of information. When they got to Choucha camp, one of the tents was set aside as a church for the Eritreans.

“If you don’t have belief, you don’t have life,” said Abrha. “Everything we’ve got is from God.”

Abrha supports the rebel’s cause in Libya. “There was no election, no democracy, no education” under Ghaddafi, he said. “The people are right to rise against him.”

Tesfaselasy, 29, hopes to be reunited with her husband, who fled Libya on a boat and is now in Swtzerland. Abrha’s wife, four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter are still in Eritrea.

The 37-year-old construction worker wants them with him in Canada.To reconstitute their families, learn English, find work and more, the Eritreans are still relying on the Church, said Boria.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.