Hailu Gebre made it out of Djibouti's Ali Addeh refugee camp and made a home in Canada. Then he helped another family get out.
Completely isolated and cut off from communication networks, the Ali Addeh refugee camp slumbers in Djibouti’s desert.
Near the borders of Ethiopia and Somalia, this is a place of continual conflict. And of harsh weather.
“It is no place to live,” says Hailu Gebre, describing strong gusts of August wind blowing through the camp, ripping tents from the ground. He recalls a friend getting tangled in a tent’s fabric, the force of the wind sweeping him up and then dropping him to the ground — and to his death.
Gebre, now 45, immigrated to Canada on Sept. 11, 2000, after being sponsored by the Canadian government. He had lived in the Ali Addeh refugee camp for seven years, having been forced to escape his native Ethiopia to avoid imprisonment and, possibly, execution, because as a student he had opposed the government during the Eritrean conflict.
He has vivid memories of the camp’s unbearable heat. “If you put an egg outside during the summertime,” he says, “the egg will cook.”
After settling in Brooks, Alta., with his wife, Tigist Tadesse, and their then infant daughter, Radet (their son, Baeminet, is 9), Gebre knew he wanted to help sponsor a family that was suffering as he had. But things got complicated.
He was allowed to sponsor only one family, and instead of helping his sister or his wife’s brother, he chose a family of six who were unrelated to him, because with them he would be getting more people out of the camp.
“The decision was very hard and painful,” he says, bowing his head. “Still now it’s bothering me.”
Gebre, who works in maintenance at a meat-packing plant (his wife toils at home making the Ethiopian flatbread injera for a couple of stores), notes that his family blames him, saying “you left us in the desert.”
In 2004, Gebre approached the Rosemary Mennonite Church, which works under the Mennonite Central Committee Alberta (MCCA), for help with sponsoring Yimer Hassen Mohammed’s family. The two clans had been neighbours in the Ali Addeh refugee camp and had kept in close touch over the years.
During a refugee sponsorship committee meeting, the question was asked, “Why are we entertaining the idea of helping Muslims?” Christian churches should be helping other Christians, some said. In the end, it was unanimous that the committee would help sponsor the Mohammed family. This would be the third Muslim family they helped bring to Canada.
They arrived at Calgary International Airport on Aug. 4, 2014. After living in the Ali Addeh refugee camp for 23 years, Yimer Hassen Mohammed, now 51, and his wife, Fatuma Ahmed Indris, 48, were ready to start over again with their four children, who range in age from 13 to 22.
It was an eight-year process to get them to Canada, and six years passed after they were approved. Orlando Vasquez, MCCA program director, says he thinks the family’s case fell through the cracks. He adds that the inventory for sponsorship within the Canadian embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, is too big. It deals with 23 African countries, including Djibouti.
Originally from Ethiopia, Mohammed fled for the same reason as Gebre — political activity against the government. All four of his children were born in the refugee camp.
When Gebre first approached the Rosemary Mennonite Church for help sponsoring the Mohammeds, Yimer Hassen was in perfect health. But in the past four years his muscles started to weaken. The news of Mohammed’s illness scared Gebre, who feared that he would not be able to care for him.
After several weeks in Canada, Mohammed was admitted to the South Health Campus in Calgary and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) within the first day. He stayed in the hospital for five weeks.
If Mohammed had received the same treatment in Djibouti, Gebre says, it would have cost him more than $100,000.
Even though the results weren’t good, Mohammed might have never known what the problem was if he had stayed in Djibouti. “He has come (to Canada),” continues Gebre, “and has seen (what) he was looking for, a better life.