Goodbye, Ethiopia: Nuria Ibrahim

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By Sumia Yusef

As Nuria Ibrahim recalls it was like any other day when the war escalated and her family realized they needed to leave their country, what was formerly known as Ethiopia and is now known as Eritrea. There had always been tensions in Ethiopia between the Ethiopians and Eritreans with the cultural differences that created strife between the two groups. There had been political altercations and violent ones. Nuria and her family considered themselves Eritrean becoming a target to the Ethiopian government. These tensions continuously increased until Eritrea was able to gain independence in 1991, becoming its own country, 13 years after Nuria left.

She was walking home from school one day, which took the usual 15 minutes with her siblings, kicking rocks and discussing what they did in school. At the age of 14, although a middle child, Nuria had already felt like a mother. She was an important caretaker for her younger siblings, with a total of 11 kids in her family. Her Father was a successful barbershop owner that was always working, while her mother stayed at home and designed and sold various clothing’s such as hats, sweaters, socks and even wedding decorations. They lived in a small apartment-like building with two bedrooms inside, a kitchen and one bathroom, which were located outside the home. They had two king beds, one in each room, with 6 people sleeping on each bed every night.

Once they got into their neighborhood from walking home from school, Nuria and her siblings started hearing gunshots firing. Thinking quick on her feet, Nuria grabbed her brothers and sisters and ran into the nearest home. Lucky they had a tight knit community so their neighbors were more than happy to help keep them safe. Continuous screams and shots were heard all throughout the night, forcing them to stay in that home until the next morning. There was no way of communication to let their parents know they were all right, they could not make a sound or they would risk their own life. They were unable to inform their parents of their location, “If we got out we would have been shot. My mom was crying all night because she didn’t know if we were safe,” Nuria recalls.

With wide open eyes, due to lack of sleep, streams of light flowed through the window as Nuria started to hear people going out onto the streets, realizing it was safe to go out. Getting up and waking her siblings, they slowly left their neighbors home. As they went out into the streets she saw piles of dead people, blood everywhere, and people crying hysterically. In shock she rushed the kids home, walking as quickly as possible. They entered their home to find their mother and father sobbing, as they saw their kids they released a gasp of relief that they were all safe. Bits of relief and anxiety flowed through them as they realized they had to leave their country, “I felt I could die any day,” she explains.

Attempting to flee, the government set restrictions on people leaving, making it much harder to escape. As tensions rose more violence occurred, “The Ethiopian [military] tortured [Eritrean] women. They cut their breasts off and cut their ears. They killed a lot of women and children,” Nuria explains. As they kept being shoved away from leaving there was finally one day, in 1978, when Nuria and 3 of her siblings were able to find a getaway, leaving 7 siblings and her father behind.

They had to walk between 8 to 10 hours to a village where they were able to stay for a few days, with nothing but the clothes on her back. Her mother came with them just to make sure they were safe however she did not stay because she needed to make sure the rest of her family at home was safe. This left Nuria in a state of grief for months because she never found out if her mother ever made it back home, until 6 months later when she saw her again, “The worst thing in my life was not knowing if my mother made it home. There was no communication at the time. No one tells you if your mom is safe. You just worry and you cry the whole time.”

After leaving the village they spent 5 hours every night walking to Sudan, taking them 21 days in total to reach their destination. To put it into perspective, a normal flight from Eritrea to Sudan takes one hour. They had to walk at night to stay unseen, with small flashlights, unable to see much of the area surrounding them. “They watch us. They could bomb us and kill us if they see us,” Nuria says. They stayed in Sudan for one year, sleeping in a tent made of leaves and a bed made of rope, “every night I cried myself to sleep. I missed my family and the conditions were worse than home.”

The next stop was Saudi Arabia where they stayed for 3 years. It was also where she got married to her husband, Yusuf Ahmed in October of 1981. Yusuf was a family friend who had also fled Ethiopia around the same time Nuria had. Together, they later traveled to Italy for 3 months to seek refuge. They were given a refugee responder from the Italian government who then sent them to Washington DC. One of Nuria’s brothers and her cousin had migrated straight from Ethiopia to DC on a student visa so she had decided to go live with them, reuniting with part of her family. Throughout her life in the U.S. she became a citizen and went to school, attending TC Williams High School. She balanced school with work and learning a new language. Always being a social person, she found the most difficult thing about living in the U.S. the language barrier, this resulted in her learning English as quickly as possible. She graduated from TC just a year after she had her first child, juggling parenthood with American life.

Over the years the rest of her family, her mother, father and siblings, slowly migrated out of Ethiopia and to the United States granting them all a safer life. By this time Nuria and Yusuf had started a family in northern Virginia, with one son and three daughters who were all given the amazing opportunity of living a safe, lively, and educated life. Nuria continues exhibiting her motherly qualities not only at home, but also in her career where she is a childcare provider. Although it was a long and tough journey getting to the U.S. was the best opportunity Nuria had, stating, “You would never wish that life on anybody. It was a bad childhood that I had but the struggle I went through made me a stronger person, better person. It was a learning experience. But the greatest opportunity for me was coming here.”

Like most Americans, Nuria Ibrahim came to the U.S. with a dream to have a better life and more opportunities for her and her family. She says that dream came true. Although her innocence as a child was quickly taken by war and poverty her family will not experience that living in the land of infinite prosperity. She now enjoys a more safe and secure life where her children and grandchildren are able to be who they want.

Source: Stories of Immigration and Exile

Feras Nabulsi