The largest Eritrean community in the United States is located in the Washington Metro Area. Half a million Eritreans, nearly all of whom have arrived here since 1974 due to political prosecution first by the Hailesellasie regime and later by the Marxist Government are best-known to non-Eritreans for cabdrivers whose licenses spell out tongue-twisting polysyllabic names. Crossing over deserts and oceans some lost their life. Those who made it to Northern Africa, Sudan, Kenya and Djibouti stayed in refugee camps for years waiting to be acknowledged as refuges by the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and then processed to migrate to a receiving country such as America or Europe.
However, only 10% of the refuges are resettled, that is one person out of ten. The remaining 90% languish in the refugee camps due to restrictive immigration policies of the developed countries. Eritreans at the early stage of assimilation in America stayed largely to themselves. They built an intricate support system, reminiscent of self-help efforts of turn-of-the–century immigrant groups like the Irish and Italian. Based primarily in the Northwest part of Washington DC and in Alexandria, deprived of their traditional extended families, stripped of the elders whose advice in life matter most were lost. Adapting to a new society is very hard, Washington’s Eritreans were troubled. At least 80 percent of the Eritrean who immigrated to America through the Refugee resettlement program or asylum applicants were young single men. These men started living in America, passing days of loneliness and deepening depression.
The young men and women who came to America were hired to do the least preferred jobs, jobs that the regular American person wouldn’t do. Washing dishes in the restaurants, attending cars in the parking garages, women working as house keepers in the Marriott Hotel or Hilton Hotel or working in the seniors’ home as maids for minimum wages. These were the jobs that were available for the new immigrants. A few days after one’s arrival as a refugee, one has to venture out from the apartment, in part because one had been given only enough money to live for a month and now one has to find work. Finding work is easy as there are many low paying jobs available. Wall Mart is one of the famous stores in America. One can find a job there as a porter making $8.50 an hour, in the store room, carting plasma TVs and dishwashing machines. Housing is critical affording to live in a nice area with a minimum wage salary is not possible. Hence one has to find the least expensive place to live and find a suitable roommate to share the rent.
Even then the apartment complex are not safe, it is common to hear that someone had just been assaulted and robbed. During their off work hours they gather outside at restaurants on 9th Street, around pool tables, play Bingo at the Eritrean Club and over drinks to discus and analyze the latest news, and their constant job search. Two studies by the University of Montana and one commissioned by the Federal government found serous mental health problems. The university study, based on interviews with immigrants, reported “High Levels of Depression and Frustration” stemming from worry about life, good jobs, health care and lack of companionship. Most refugees come to America contemplating and expecting quiet, peace, education and safety. They expect a land without difficulty and misery, frivolous and impatient.
They think it will all happen at once, good paying jobs; luxurious housing, college and money to send back home. But for most the slowness of their transition brought them confusion. Many hold menial jobs it is not glamorous, but it represents a level of stability. Too many have fallen, some feel they have failed. The pressure upon the refuges is that the expectation and promises they have made to themselves takes to long, years if not decades. In the early years of their arrival in America, people were thinking that this is temporary, soon our country will be librated and we will return to “free Eritrea”, “we are going back home.” Eritreans were not interested in establishing anything that would tie them dawn, like starting a family and buying a house, but people started to age and realized that America was going to be home, people did not want to live in limbo forever. As people stayed longer and acquainted with the system Eritrean’s started to look for better paying jobs. Some became bell men at the big hotels, or become creative in working as parking attendants and were promoted to be supervisors.
Some started driving taxis. Women started working as waitresses, hair dressers and cashiers in cafes. These jobs offered Eritreans better income. Few Eritreans started to attend classes to become Information technology specialist, web designers and network engineers. Women started to go to medical technical fields to become nurse, dental technicians and laboratory technicians. This new found skill gave Eritreans opportunity to locate higher paying jobs and secure decent income. As the community has grown and aged, Eritreans begun to settle in. Many have moved to the Suburbs into Fairfax County, Montgomery County and Prince Georges County few buying houses, and some renting luxurious apartments and having children. The Eritrean community has moved beyond taxis to establish a community center at 600 L street N.W., restaurants, small convince stores, over five churches and a soccer league. With dispersal, the Eritreans have become less close-knit, and the children as they grow have become more American.
For several years Eritreans social clubs in the Washington Metro area sponsored children’s classes in the Tigrigna language, soccer leagues and Eritrean History classes, but the scattering of émigrés through out the area killed the schools. Hence, the Americanization of the youth began and Eritrean parents are not quick to accept the changes in their children. Many parents are troubled by lack of discipline and outright disrespect they see in their children. Drug problems, violence, anti-social behavior and dropping out of school have become so common happing with the adolescent. For some America has been a blessing some young Eritreans are successful in completing their education and gain meaningful employment. The youth in general have been a mix some ending up in jail while others have become successful. The conservative Eritrean culture is in conflict with the more liberal Western culture. The Eritrean American who is well educated is more independent and likely to make major decision without consulting his or her parents. The Eri-American might have no problem with getting married to a Non-Eritrean, but the parents are more likely not to agree. The changes in the social values, behavioral and decisions making process are some of the social conflicts that arise between the old and new generation. Few parents accept independent, free mode of life but the majority conservative Eritrean family is more unlikely to accept and the parents fill that they have failed. Eritrean parents frequently work extra jobs and double shifts to make life better for their children. For many former professionals and new graduates, it is a dismaying transition. The resumes that fill file cabinets at employment agencies and head hunter’s offices describe what must be the World’s best-educated fleet of cabbies and waiters. The Eritreans with advanced degrees in liberal arts, accounting and sciences is not an unusual figure in the ranks of Washington Metro area’s unemployed or underemployed. The underemployed Eritreans life is hard; apartments are expensive, medical insurance is hard to find, and finding a life met or a partner is almost impossible. Life in the Washington Metro area for the very few is good, they earn good salaries and have big houses. There are a few more with a middle-class life, but for the majority life is hard and unpleasant. The dreams and promises made have not materialized. There are very many single mothers who raise their children in a low income government subsidized housing complex which has its own disadvantages such as drug problems, poor performing schools and safety issues. Single young people who do menial jobs live with no improvements in the standards of living as the employments have no room for growth. Finding a life partner who is compatible is one of the most difficult tasks that many face. The Eritreans who arrived as young people are now in their late 50’s and about to retire. The difficulty that one faces when he or she reaches that age in America is humongous. At that age health, having saved enough money to live on, having worked all the years to qualify for a decent retirement benefit, where to retire and relation with your children becomes an issue. One can’t depend on their children for f nancial help as the children have their own life to live. Most children who are born and raised in America adapt to the American way of life and once they reach adulthood they no longer are your children. As we have witnessed, men and women who have recently come of age or become so ill that they can’t work have no choice but forced to live in Government subsidized seniors home. Most due to financial constraints and for some no family member could take responsibility for their daily life. Majority of Eritrean Americans will be working up until the age 65 to pay off their debts, save enough money and to secure full social security benefit. Now that we all have come of age we need to seriously consider where to spend our golden age, putting in mind life is not an eternity. Retiring and living in the Western World at the age of 65 becomes problematic if not impossible. Your income can not cover your financial needs as it is very expensive. Your social ties will disappear and you will be left all alone. Some have a wrong preconceived idea that it is hard to come back to Eritrea and live a good life. As there are no medical facilities, medication, entertainment and convince. These wrong preconceived issues are like a handcuff, preventing many people from breaking that chain of ties, and they conclude all is difficult and they see no hope of returning to the homeland. That is so far away from the truth. The truth is that one can live a very happy and nurturing life in Eritrea. For the young who has recently migrated, less than 3% of Americans are rich, there are over twelve million children who live under poverty. America is not all roses; you need to learn from those who preceded you. You need to see, what kind of life they have had? What is their economic status? What is the success rate? What is the family composition like for those who had kids? What was their quality of life in America like? Where and how are they going to end? A word of wisdom; Do not be fooled time goes by fast so plan. My advise is that; do two jobs save all the money you can, limit your expenses, rent cheap, do not buy a car use mass transport and do not get tangled in the American system of buying on credit. Come back home with your savings, invest and live a quality life with your family. For most of us who migrated to America we had no choice, it was a decision between living and dying at the hands of the Marxist Ethiopian Government. Life is composed of a series of luck over which we have no control. For most of us this included, crossing deserts, oceans, living in cramped refuge camps and migrating to America. However, once we are presented with twist of fate, we face choices and now once more we are challenged to make a choice. There is nothing to fear all is well in Eritrea and it is a good place to live. The best place is home. As the saying goes there is no place like home. Home is home. The writer has worked with Refugee resettlement program for over ten years, resettling refuges from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, East Asian and Eastern Europe. In addition, the writer was the program director for refuges with the states of Virginia, Maryland and District of Columbia.