Some years ago, I tutored students at a local community college, usually non-native speakers of English who needed help with language. There I became acquainted with Sed and Ganet, two young people who’d come to America illegally. In the course of our classwork, I learned a bit about how they came to be here. I’d like to share that with you.
One was from Ethiopia; the other from Eritrea. (I can’t remember which was which.) Like many Americans, I knew very little about that area. They explained to me that Eritrea used to be part of Ethiopia and at some point, it was agreed that Eritrea would become an independent nation. People passed freely from one nation to the other; the border was porous.
Then war broke out, and people on the wrong side of the border were trapped. It was like the Berlin Wall: you were stuck where you were.
This happened to many people; Sed was one. Worse than that, he was also involved in work that had been legal before the war but now put him in very real danger. I don’t remember what it was, but it would cost him his life if he was caught.
Somehow he made his way to Kenya, where many dispossessed east Africans sought refuge. Eventually he got on a plane to the US with a one-way ticket and no papers. It was a desperate act. He believed that whatever befell him in America had to be better than being killed back home. He had no one here, no family, no friends. When he arrived, he admitted that he had no papers and was seeking asylum. He was put in the detention center in Tacoma.
He expected some kind of due process where he would be able to make a case for himself, explain his background and why he was seeking refuge here. There was none. For nine months, he sat alone in his cell. The only person he saw was the man who brought him his food. This man taunted him, called him names, and belittled him. He would occasionally come in and make a big show of telling Sed that the court had finally made a decision on his case: tomorrow he would be deported back to Ethiopia. He pretended to have the airline ticket in his back pocket, patting it and laughing. Sed would spend the night in fear and dread, praying for courage. The next day, the man would laugh at him and say it was all a joke. The irony is the man was Mexican-American.
One day a woman came to visit. She explained she was from the ACLU and was taking his case. I asked him, “Had you asked for their help?” and he said no, he’d had no idea how to ask for help or from whom. Working with her made all the difference; he was able to file the right papers and take steps to get out of detention. He said without her, he would be dead or still in detention. He said she saved his life.
In time, Sed got straight with immigration, became a citizen, and was going to school to become an engineer. The last time I talked to him, he was working with some of his east African friends to build awareness of the problems their people face. He had read about Gandhi and wanted to learn more. I remember telling him about Martin Luther King, nonviolent resistance, and civil disobedience. His face lit up talking about this. He wanted to have hope for his home country, but he knew more war, guns, and killing would change nothing.
While he’d been in Kenya, he met another young refugee who’d found her way there. This was Ganet, who was also my student. She told me her story as well.
When war broke out, her family was in danger; some relative worked for the wrong political figure and they knew it was only a matter of time before they came under suspicion. Somehow they managed to get permission to go to London, where they had family. (You had to pretend to go for a visit and then never come back, so you forfeited all your property when you left.)
But then they found out that Ganet could not leave: she had to do her compulsory military service when she turned 18 in a few weeks. There was no way around it. So her whole family left, and she stayed behind by herself.
Luckily, Ganet became ill during basic training and was discharged early. She too made her way to Kenya. Once there, she connected with a local groups of displaced Ethiopians and Eritreans, all waiting for news or money or help. That was where she met Sed. They fell in love and promised to marry.
In time, her parents sent her the money to fly to London, and she did. But when she told them about Sed, they forbid her to marry him. So she ran away. Sed secretly sent her the money for airfare to Mexico and arranged contacts there to get her into the US. She crossed the desert with a “coyote.” Ganet is all of maybe 100 lbs., a soft-spoken tiny woman. I asked her, “Weren’t you scared?” and she said yes, but the coyote had some other east African people, so she pretended to be part of their group and felt a little safer. Once they crossed the border, she turned herself in to the authorities and prayed they would allow her to stay. By then, Sed had flown into Seattle and was in the detention center in Tacoma, so she came here to wait for his release.
By the time I met them, they had been married several years, were both working and going to school. They were always cheerful and worked tirelessly. I can’t remember what Sed was doing, but Ganet worked as an aide in a nursing home, washing dirty laundry and scrubbing floors – filthy work with rotten pay, no doubt, but she was happy to do it.
She and Sed lived in a studio apartment in one of those giant complexes behind a strip mall. It was characterless and industrial-looking, but they were thrilled they could walk to the Safeway and to the college. In time, Ganet’s parents had relented and decided Sed was an OK guy, so they had patched things up with her family in London. Last I knew, they had a beautiful little baby girl.
They remain vivid in my mind for a number of reasons. For one thing, they were so beautiful. Both were slender with the rich dark skin of east Africa, and had bone structure Tyra Banks would swoon over. They both always looked so put together, though I know they shopped at thrift stores. They wore a lot of white, which contrasted so beautifully with their dark skin and hair, often sporty-looking things, crisp and colorful. I remember she ironed her jeans. And her hair was always so meticulously coiffed. Even their voices were beautiful; they had the melodious accent of east Africans.
I also remember their gracious good manners. They were kind-hearted and always had a smile ready. I remember them as upbeat, positive people.
They both also seemed to me to have a kind of serenity, an “attitude of gratitude.” Maybe it came from their faith. (They were Christian, some variety of Orthodox. Ethiopia has lots of Christians, they told me, not just Muslims.) As I got to know them better, it seemed to me to come from the fact that they had risked everything to be here and saw themselves as the luckiest people they knew. They believed that nothing that could happen to them here would be as bad as the life they left behind. Here they at least had a chance at a better life. Rather than be downhearted about all the obstacles they faced, they seemed to relish the freedom they had to face this life’s challenges. There was a path forward for them. There was a way for them to get a better life. It was possible. All they wanted was to get a better education, so they could get better jobs — so they could be a regular American couple, pay taxes, have kids in the local schools, and pursue happiness like the rest of us.
Immigrants and refugees are portrayed now as having their hand out, a burden on America’s taxpayers, job-stealers. The opposite is true. They want to contribute, not take. With their ambition and hard work, Sed and Ganet are as American as apple pie. They are the kind of people that enrich America. They are part of our great melting pot. This is what makes America great.