FEATURES
Volume 1 Number 4
Eritrean: Across the Bridge
01 December 1987

The office is that of a typical academic at a `red brick' university, sparsely furnished, shelves with files and books.

The office is that of a typical academic at a `red brick' university, sparsely furnished, shelves with files and books. Only one thing indicates the refugee status of its occupant: a poster of a well-known face with the caption, `A bundle of belongings isn't the only thing a refugee brings to his new country -Albert Einstein was a refugee'.

Like Einstein, Dr Teame Mebrahtu brought more than a bundle of belongings with him. Forced to flee from Eritrea when the Provisional Military Administrative Council took over in Ethiopia, he is now a lecturer in Education and Development in the Third World at Bristol University. Over the years he has become an international authority on development issues. Recent papers he has presented range from `Education for the environment - its effect on development' (a favourite subject in view of the desertification of the Sahel region) to `Peace and development in Eritrea' - presented earlier this year in Cologne. He is, he says, a firm supporter of peaceful negotiations for his own country as for others. `You can't solve problems through the barrel of a gun.'

One recent project close to his heart aimed to make schoolchildren aware of their responsibilities as `global citizens' - a phrase he likes to use. Sponsored by the Rowntree Foundation, he visited various schools to tell pupils how he as an African saw the world. The children loved it and many wrote back to him. A memento of this is pinned to his study wall. From class 1, Gay Elms School, it simply says, `To care for others' - the topic of his talk in that school.

He acknowledges that his fondness for the concept of `world citizenship' was partly forged from his experience as a refugee.

In 1974, when the Derg took over from the Emperor Haile Sellassie, Mebrahtu was head of the Department of Education at Asmara University.

`We had a meeting of the heads of the various departments,' he told me. `The head of the economics department, to whom I had given a lift at lunchtime, failed to turn up in the afternoon. We found his dead body the next day, strangled with piano wire.'

Hearing that he was next on the list for assassination, Mebrahtu decided to leave. A scholarship to do further studies abroad gave him an easy route out and enabled his family to join him just under a year later.

Adjusting to life in Britain was not easy. As Mebrahtu says, refugees often remain outsiders. They are constantly reminded by their hosts that they are foreigners and are unlikely to find new employment, despite good qualifications. As a result many become bitter and tend to look back to the good life in their old countries before the troubles started, rather than looking forward to a brighter tomorrow which they themselves can have a part in creating.

Mebrahtu had to face these feelings himself. `It's part of the bridge that a refugee has to cross.' He does not blame his host community for being exclusive - that is ,only human and natural'. The difficulty comes when members of the host community fail to empathize with the refugees `who after all have gone through some traumatic experiences'. As it was, he and his family decided to accept their new country as home and to care for its people as fellow citizens.

Asked if he thinks of himself as a world citizen or as an Eritrean, he says that there are times when his 'Eritrean-ness' tends to dominate, particularly when he is reminded of the sufferings of his own people. At the moment he is inundated with cries for help from Eritreans, following a visit to a refugee camp in Sudan. It was, he says, heartbreaking to see former classmates, people he had taught, reduced to this state. Feeling bitter that he could do so little to help, he almost decided to quit Bristol and stay with these people.

Determination
`But,' he says, `when I put on my lecturing hat, as an educator that sort of parochialism is shoved aside. Being here I could help them more than if I was in their midst.' Such experiences fuel his determination in working to prevent similar tragedies. In the short term, his colleagues have raised money and given books for the refugees there. He is also touched to see that children from some of the schools he visited have donated books and materials.
Mebrahtu's contact with Moral Re-Armament has, he says, helped him to integrate being an Eritrean with being a global citizen. `It constantly reminds me about my responsibilities to all these five billion inhabitants of planet earth.'

But how does he find the inner resources to cope with being a refugee, I asked. He paused. `In a word I should say, faith,' he replied. `That helps me to know my bearings and it also gives me hope about the future. And I obtain vision, and the vision is: "It's immaterial where I live, it's immaterial who I am; what is important is what part do I play".'

Mike Lowe


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