first person

Will My Tigrayan Family Ever Really Be Free?

In 1990, we escaped from a Sudanese refugee camp. Now my father is trapped in Tigray again.

From left, the author’s mother; the author next to her grandfather, and her father standing to their right; at a Sudanese refugee camp in 1989. Photo: Courtesy of Maebel Gebremedhin
From left, the author’s mother; the author next to her grandfather, and her father standing to their right; at a Sudanese refugee camp in 1989. Photo: Courtesy of Maebel Gebremedhin

One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather’s attempt to rescue my family. We were living in a refugee camp in Sudan, where I was born, the first of four from parents who were nearly children themselves. My parents had met in another camp in 1984 after fleeing the Derg, a military junta that took power in Ethiopia ten years before. They were among the 300,000 mostly Tigrayan refugees who arrived in Sudan that year fleeing persecution and famine. My grandfather had also braved the gruesome war in Tigray and traveled over 500 miles to cross the Sudanese border with hopes of getting us out of the camp.

My grandfather still sits in my mind’s eye with the outfit he wore on that trip: a tan suit, a wooden cane, sandals, and his signature white gabi. With a full head of hair that looked like white clouds, a beard made of cotton candy — he was so beautiful and incredibly cool. “IYiYi! IYiYi!” I called to him from the entrance of the camp. He risked his life to somehow save me from his bleak vision of my future.

By 1990, we had left the camp, which closed a few years later. My grandfather’s attempt to bring us back to Tigray was unsuccessful; instead, we were sponsored by a church in Colorado, giving us a future in America. Before we left, my grandfather sneaked back into Tigray; because it was still under bombardment from Ethiopia’s government, he traveled using a complex secret system set up by Tigrayan guerrilla fighters. Almost all the surviving members of my family remain in Tigray to this day. As we settled into our new reality as refugees in the United States, we watched from a distance as Tigray and Ethiopia began to stabilize.

Thirty years later, on November 4, 2020, more than 6 million people living in the Tigray region were dispossessed of stability, normalcy, and basic necessities. While the rest of the world was engrossed in the United States presidential election, the Ethiopian government unleashed a gruesome genocide on its own citizens. As many as tens of thousands have now been killed, according to estimates by Tigrayan opposition parties, millions have been displaced, and women and girls are being subjected to horrendous sexual violence, all because of their ethnicity. These circumstances forced our people to flee once again; the refugee camp I was born in reopened.

More than 60,000 displaced Tigrayan refugees now live in camps across Sudan. Although these Tigrayans fled in hopes of finding refuge and safety, many have instead faced malnutrition, a lack of medical attention, and fragile shelters that collapse in the rain. Even though the camps are under the management of various international NGOs, residents endure scorpion stings throughout the night without any pain medication or medical devices to stop the venom from spreading. They are forced to live in squalor and generally uninhabitable conditions. But because the Ethiopian government has shut down all internet and phone access in Tigray, the camps are the only place Tigrayans can contact the outside world. There, they have the opportunity to share their stories. And with each harrowing experince they share, they still express the hope that, by educating the world on this underreported genocide, aid will come. Thus far, the world has failed them.

At 17, I returned to Tigray. I got to be with my grandfather again. Even through our language barrier, I felt such a sense of belonging, safety, and contentment with him. The ESL courses I had been placed in that “corrected” my English and accent in America made English my default language with Tigrinya a distant second. Now I could no longer fluidly communicate. Even still, next to him, I felt protected. This small, sweet man made me feel free, made me feel at home. That trip unveiled for me the lesson I began to learn during my grandfather’s visit to us in the camp — that in an alternate reality, I would have had a hundred moments of joy with him, a hundred moments of joy in Tigray.

When I was younger, I fought off becoming a U.S. citizen; I wanted to keep my Ethiopian passport and Ethiopian identity so badly. Later, during Barack Obama’s presidency, I made the tough decision to become an American citizen. Perhaps I didn’t know it then, but letting go of Ethiopia was the best decision I ever made. I now have three sons who are witnessing their people become refugees. I wonder if they recognize that this is nothing new for their bloodline.

When my grandfather passed, a few years after my visit, my family and I were left in the U.S. to grieve in isolation. Mourning without the support of loved ones in Ethiopia caused fractures that left our family shattered. Even the opportunity for communal grief is not afforded to refugees. My dad seemed to have lost a piece of himself. My parents divorced, furthering the lack of stability that had followed us since our days in Sudan. Sometimes I wonder if everything would be different now if my father could have been there with his father when he passed. Would we be living different lives?

The author’s father in Sudan, between 1984 and 1990. Photo: Courtesy of Maebel Gebremedhin

In 2013, my father decided to move back to a stabilized and thriving Tigray. After the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front was formed in 1991, the country began experiencing a kind of economic prosperity it hadn’t seen in decades. He had dreams of building businesses, retiring, and living a life of peace at home. He could speak his native tongue freely, eat his favorite foods, and drink coffee with his mother. That changed on November 4. When the Ethiopian government began bombing my father’s hometown, he was once again forced to flee. When the communication lines in Tigray were momentarily open, my father told me the men and boys in our family were being targeted by Ethiopian soldiers, and the women hid indoors for fear of being raped. Like my grandfather, he took multiple trips and traversed many miles through active combat zones to get himself and other family members to the relative safety of Tigray’s capital, Mekelle.

During these rare phone calls, I was comforted by the knowledge that my father was alive. Four months ago the Ethiopian government escalated its siege of Tigray, and we now have no way to check on our families. Millions are facing starvation because the military has blocked humanitarian aid. Is my father starving like those in Sudan? I don’t know. Is he alive? I don’t know. What I do know is that not once in the past 30 years did he ever imagine he would be trapped again after working so hard to escape.

I find myself thinking about how history keeps repeating itself. I was separated from my grandfather by language, hundreds of miles, and brutal warfare. Will my sons get to know their grandfather? When your family is in the midst of a genocide, how do ties survive?

Although Tigrayan refugees have been stripped of their peace, I still have hope that the international community will step in and take action. Thousands have died within the region, millions are at risk of dying of starvation, and tens of thousands of refugees are at risk of dying due to malnutrition and disease.

Our legislators must be pushed to take action; the U.S. government has the ability to provide basic resources to Tigrayans on the ground. The most impactful action it could take would be to enforce a humanitarian aid drop. The Biden administration must also declare what is happening to Tigrayans a genocide. A genocide declaration could give the Tigrayan ethnicity and culture a chance of survival.

Tigrayans need allies. Together we can give back the opportunity for a dignified life that has been denied to millions of Tigrayans living in and outside of the region.

Maebel Gebremedhin is the founder of the Tigray Action Committee, a nonprofit committed to helping end the suffering of the millions of Tigrayans at home and in the camps.

Will My Tigrayan Family Ever Really Be Free?