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"Ex-refugee revisits harrowing past; sees bright future"

By Lee Rasizer, CCA Director of Public and Media Relations

Semere Tsegey enters an office at the Student Centre at CentreTech for an interview wearing a crisp, buttoned-up plaid shirt and a matching pink tie. This isn’t a job interview for the CCA student; instead, he’s about to chronicle to someone he’s just met what has been a remarkable journey.

Dr. Jennifer Hellier, director of the Colorado Health Professions Development Scholars Program, lets out an audible cheer when informed of Tsegey’s noticeable fashion sense for the chat.

Hellier designs and runs the CO-HPD scholar program which, last July, included Tsegey as one its participants. The program focuses on rural, underserved, minority, and first-generation collegians. Tsegey secured one of 65 slots out of 180 applicants while he pursues a future in a health-related field and was one of just four community college students admitted to the program.

Dress code at Anschutz Medical Campus requires professional attire. But Dr. Hellier often reminded her students that they needed to dress for success every single day. “If you don’t believe you’re a professional,” she told them, “no one else will.”

Of all the things about Tsegey’s life, which he tells with a passion and conviction that immediately resonates, the notion that success lies ahead is the easiest to believe.

It’s the struggle that marked much of the last decade, before he carefully tied his Windsor knot that, for many people hearing his story, may be unfathomable. For others inside the eclectic mix of nationalities that comprise CCA, it may only serve as an all-too-common, yet unfortunate reality of innumerable pasts.

 War. Sickness. Poverty. Forced relocation.

Tsegay seemingly left all of it behind. He’s not fit to be tied, in that sense. He laughs readily and often while describing events that would have brought many to their knees long ago.

“Sometimes it doesn’t feel real that I went through what I did, now that I’m at such a high level with such great people here,” Tsegey said, summing up his path to present-day student.

“I think it’s just hope and being focused on your plans, just being attentive, and never giving up.  It wasn’t because I was special. I kept up hope.”

Into the world, out of the country
Tsegey (pronounced Tez-guy) grew up in Eritrea, located along the Northeast African coast, nestled against the Red Sea. He was born in Keihmnata, but he moved to the town of Asmara in the fifth grade with his mother, Syriat, and father, Solomon, and two siblings.

Size-wise, Asmara fell between town and city, with a population around 400,000. Cabbage, onion and potato farming are common jobs in the local workforce. However, the most burgeoning industry is the military.

Life was relatively comfortable for Tsegey until he reached his early teens, when, like many his age, it becomes time to leave family and enlist, which is a national requirement.

The well-heeled or uber-intelligent could potentially get into Asmara University. But, for the masses, there would be not even a high school diploma in hand until one has first served country. There has been only about seven years of peace in two decades between Eritrea and bordering Ethiopia. Fighting that ongoing battle takes a steady supply of soldiers.

Tsegey can recall when he was only about six when the Ethiopian Air Force dropped bombs near the apartment where he lived. Fields were burned. Two women were killed. The fear that schools and hospitals would be targets often meant long periods out of the classroom. Many of the skirmishes, as time passed and he grew older, happened near the border, far away, but the impact nontheless was deeply felt.

“It’s a grudge I’ll never forget,” he said.

Still, Tsegey wanted no part of fighting the supposed good fight. He desired a peaceful life, far away from the gnawing fear and possibility of death that was sure to grow had he, like so many others before him, taken the military route. Joining was the choice his father had made. Tsegey was uninclined to follow. He had his own pursuits and interests in life.

His friends were equally disenchanted when they all hatched a plan to flee.

Many have tried, both successfully and not, to escape Eritrea.

It is a process made inherently difficult. In order to travel within the country, a pass permit is required to move unimpeded from one area to another. Those staffing the blockades could ignore red tape with piles of green, a fortune Tsegey lacked.

But good and bad fortune intervened simultaneously. His grandfather died at his home near the Ethiopian border. Tsegey was given the pass necessary to clear the four checkpoints to make the trek. Five friends who had similar thoughts of leaving greased palms to travel alongside him.

Tsegey’s parents, grandmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins gathered for the funeral unaware they would be experiencing two goodbyes. That night, Tsegey was leaving, surmising at the time, naively so, that he’d return in a couple years.

“I didn’t want them to know,” he said, when asked why he didn’t alert his family. “Because if they knew, they wouldn’t let me. There are still people dying trying to cross the border.”

And once one flees Eritrea, he becomes a traitor in the eyes of many within the country.

Tsegey left in 2009. He hasn’t seen or spoken to his family since. He envisions his mother in a nursing home. He wonders whether his father remains in the service in some capacity and how he feels about his son’s act, be it cowardice or bravery. As for his younger siblings, Melaka and Yirgalem, he can’t imagine what they’re up to; nor, what they look like. He only hopes that they view him as an example and not a pariah.

“Sometimes it’s a burden, a really big burden. They’re my family. They raised me and would do anything for me. And I didn’t do anything for them.

“… Sometimes I try to avoid those thoughts in my mind to get forward myself. But it’s hard to avoid – really hard.”

Just a glimmer of hope
Tsegey’s journey out of the only country he’d ever known began about 8 o’clock the night of his grandfather’s services. He and his five schoolmates needed about eight hours to cross the border. Tsegey says today that he “was really stupid not to be scared.” He should have been.

The Ethiopian army immediately confronted his group once it exited Eritrea. The language barrier added gravity to the situation. Soldiers shouted at them in Tigrigna; they answered in Amharic, desperately trying to tell them who they were. “They thought we were spies or something.”

Handcuffs affixed to their wrists, they were shuttled to an underground prison.

“It was so dark in there and really short,” Tsegey recalled. “You couldn’t stand up. And there was no light.”

A translator helped their case with prison officials and at least got them to see the light in a couple of different fashions. Having been ultimately dismissed as young, impetuous kids, the group was sent to an above-ground jail facility in another town.

“It was really hard there,” Tsegey recalled. “The hardest was that one, because once they put you in the prison, they don’t give you anything. They don’t give you any food. They don’t give you any water. It’s by yourself. We didn’t have money.”

Fellow countrymen at the prison did have the funds to placate the corrupt guards and ended up in a sharing mood. “We never knew who they were. But they were our guardian angels. There was no help without them. The guards in the prison were throwing us around and said, ‘Don’t even ask about that,’ when we’d ask about water or food. They were treating us bad. The guards were really hard. They were insulting us, even worse. They were like, ‘You traitors, why did you leave your country? You didn’t come here for me. You came for yourself.’”

Harder still was lacking knowledge about whether they were in the prison for the long haul, or what they would do to them.

“It was a blind future, just walking around,” Tsegey said.

In reality, this was a collection site for refugees. Once there were enough people to justify a trip to the refugee camp, they would be on the next vehicle out.

Tsegey’s journey to what would become the next 31/2 years of his life occurred in the bed of an open truck. Packed with people, bouncing through terrain so wildly, the masses huddled in back often threw up. Storms pelted the prisoners, the raindrops hitting their bodies like fallen glass.

“It was one of the worst moments of my life,” Tsegey said. “But there were worse things that happened after that.”

A new life, but what life?
The Shimelba Refugee Camp, where Tsegey spent ages 15-19, should only hold a couple thousand people. There were five times that many people shoehorned into a small piece of desert land that regularly invited temperatures in the 130s.

One of the first lessons learned from camp officials upon his arrival was how to build a house out of bricks and mud. A tent is provided as a roof once the foundation is properly erected. Beds were constructed out of mud, too.

Tsegey preferred the devilish heat to rains, which would lift the tented roofs off and toss them around camps like clothes dancing in a dryer.

The boys with whom he’d crossed the border were out of his life, separated on the trucks leaving the jail. Groups of four strangers picked one another haphazardly as roommates and friends, a system akin to American children selecting kickball sides on a playground.

Tsegey chose not to attend school at the camp. The distance of nearly three miles one way was deemed too far in the heat. Those that tried to make the journey – through sand – regularly fainted on the way.  Clubs and groups created by refugees became his new normal. He played soccer and volleyball and attended clinics initially.

Also, in the first six months at Shimelba, he and his friend created a little business baking donuts. They would mix flour, sugar, yeast, and salt, then let it ferment overnight before rising early to fry the batter.

The entrepreneurial spirit didn’t last long. Tsegey contracted tuberculosis and bronchitis in part from the smoke emanating from the wood used to heat the cooking oil.

It was shortly thereafter that he had his first real taste of the medical profession, such as it was in the camp. He began volunteering as a nursing assistant in the community hospital.  He was paid 400 Ethiopian birr for his eight- to nine-hour workdays, five days a week.

That was the equivalent of $20 a month by today’s exchange rate.

Tsegey endured long lines just to get paid. The proceeds bought onions, tomatoes and a little sausage to eat, purchased from businesses run by long-term residents of the camp.

But even a little extra food could do little to improve what was becoming deteriorating health.

“Everybody has tuberculosis in the camp, about 95 percent had it,” he said. “There were people who died of it, but most people I think, adapted to the bacteria, and I think their immune systems are different here. That’s how they survived.”

At the same time, it wasn’t much of a life for Tsegey. It appeared miserable, insufferable.

“Every night when my friend was sleeping I’d have to cough and walk outside the room – the house – just coughing and vomiting blood.  Every morning I woke up bleeding from my nose. I thought it was a routine lifestyle. Every morning I woke up, I knew I’d bleed. This went on for about two years. I just accepted it as normal.”

Waiting times for the community hospital were measured in days. There were no short cuts for someone volunteering at the facility, either.

Even when it got bad enough that Tsegey committed to seeing a doctor, treatment through the use of the antibiotic amoxicillin was futile against the bacteria that he carried.

Eventually, two years into his regimen of suffering, and with as much of the 400 birr he could possibly save, the doctors and nurses working with him in the community hospital helped him to get a pass permit into a medical facility in the nearby city of Shire.

An X-ray confirmed the presence of tuberculosis, and with an eight-month supply of another antibiotic, the process of recovery finally began.

It must have felt as close to heaven as he could inside hellish conditions. Outside of the persistent cough and regular vomiting of blood, Tsegey frequently would feel the effects of malaria, another regular refugee camp visitor against which he’d never received preventative medication.

“In 2011, I almost gave up everything,” Tsegay admitted. “I felt so bad about the illness. And it got worse. I felt I was going to die. Day and night I started vomiting. I was coughing blood. My nose was bleeding. Plus, I had malaria. I was very anemic. There weren’t foodstuffs to replace my strength. Think about it: You’re bleeding every morning, and the only way I knew I was anemic was when it got hot, I started having dizziness and when I’d stand up, I’d fall down. A lot of people had that in there.”

And, through it all, Tsegey somehow managed to keep his wits about him.

Even presented with a chance to possibly flee again, during the hospital visit outside the refugee camp fence, he never considered it. This time, he had no idea where to go, where to turn. And he was looking at life differently than the child who left his grandfather’s funeral years earlier.

He had hope. Of what, perhaps he’s not even sure of today.

“When you look at things that you cannot see right now, when you look at things that aren’t currently present in your situation, and when you look farther than the curtain in front of you and can see the future behind it, that’s hope,” he said.

“All those years I was hopeful that whatever bad was happening now was going to pass and I’d make it through it. There were times I felt so bad, for a moment, hopeless. But one hour later, I felt like I should be strong.”

The future calls
One tangible sign of hope was the prospect of resettlement in another country.

In the summer of 2008, upon his arrival at Shimelba, Tsegey signed a paper stating that he agreed to move elsewhere, if provided the opportunity.

The only reason he’s even in the United States to attend CCA is because the person in front of him in line checked “USA” as his resettlement option. He just as easily could have landed in Europe, Australia, or Canada. Those were other options on the form. He simply parroted what he had seen.

That paperwork, though, became the carrot at the end of the stick.

It prevented him from attempting to smuggle himself into another country and steeled him to endure the hardships he often experienced in camp.

Tsegey’s signing of the paper had an element of luck attached, too, as he narrowly beat a cutoff date that offered possible resettlement as a choice. Those who wanted to affix their names even a couple of months later were too late. They, in turn, couldn’t share the same sense he did of a future.

Even so, Tsegey knew that he probably would have to stay at least a decade before getting that chance. Receiving notification of a positive outcome regarding resettlement came only after a lengthy process and was hardly guaranteed.

He’d need to pass multiple interviews and medical exams to even have a chance. And when it came to the interviews, Tsegey would have to remember answers to questions he gave years before because those in charge of his fate were checking to see if all the information aligned perfectly.

After 38 months, his lottery ticket cashed. He was going to be allowed to leave for the U.S. “I had seen people that had been in camp 22 years. So when people look at me they’d say, ‘Three-and-a-half years? That’s baby time.’”

It had become easy to decipher the information contained within the letter informing refugees of their fate. ‘Yes’ meant a thicker envelope, filled with papers. ‘No’s’ were light – too light. A friend opened Tsegey’s letter for him.

“I felt like my dream had come true,” he said. “I forgot everything I had been through within five seconds of opening it.”

He would be 20 years old when he would walk out of Shimelba, a man now without a true childhood. A two-day trip from Ethiopia through Cairo and into New York gave him his first glimpse of America. He still remembers the cars moving at high rates of speed and all the noise. The cold and snow at first were beyond his imagination. The number of people, the architecture of the buildings and bridges resonated.

He’d soon be off on a plane to Denver to meet a case manager through Lutheran Family Services. Tsegey wore a badge in the airport that read, “International Organization of Migration.” It might as well have been a passport stamp.

Months later, he was living in a rented apartment on food stamps and secured a job at Whole Foods in its bakery department. The freezer was so long it seemed to cover an entire city block. It’s safe to say the donuts were better than the ones he once cooked up in the smoke-filled hut.

“I was one of the luckiest people in the world at that time.”

Getting to work required frequent passage by a CCA sign that got him thinking again about continuing his education. He took the Accuplacer test and first enrolled at CCA in February 2013.

“I always wanted to go back to school and see what my future looked like.”

It may look something like the health-scholars program. The intensive one-month enterprise included lectures covering math, chemistry, organic chemistry, biology and physics. There was hands-on activities such as job shadowing, CPR, first-aid, and HEPA training, along with career exploration in the fields of nursing, physician’s assistant, dentistry, general medicine, public health, medical research, behavioral health, and more.

Tsegey will have an opportunity to apply again next year or when he joins a four-year institution so that he can continue to become a stronger applicant in his chosen field, Dr. Hellier said.

Into what field Tsegey eventually settles remains an unknown. But where he’ll practice down the line and the patients he’ll treat is no secret.

“What I’ve seen in my life in the refugee camp changed me a lot,” he said. “Seeing people going through such difficult situations and being part of the suffering that happened made me think about how I could change the future.

“Going to school and getting into health classes –whether it’s being an M.D., P.A., or nurse – I’m going to go back to help at a refugee camp, any refugee camp. I just want to go back, not necessarily where I came from, because I’ve seen how life in the refugee camp looks like, and I believe there is a lot of suffering and shortage of health services and diagnostics. I feel like it’s something I need to do, because I remember what I’ve been through.”

Somehow, it isn’t hard to picture Tsegey, dressed in a shirt and tie covered by a lab coat while he once again endures the searing heat with a warmer heart.

“I think about the people currently living in refugee camps,” he said, “and if they can get the help I didn’t get, I’m sure they’ll be a great help to other people, too.”

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CUTLINE: From top, Semere Tsegey outside CentreTech campus; Shimelba refugee camp; Tsegey during his stay in camp ... and today.

 

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