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Eritrean Refugee starting over in Canada

UNHCR assists Eritrean refugee women to depart Libya for resettlement. © UNHCR/Jehad Nga

Woman flees her homeland only to fall into the hands of ISIS

By: Gisèle Nyembwe in Ottawa, Canada 

26-year old Bisrat is not saying much about her past. Her voice falters. It is difficult to say whether her hesitations are due to the difficulty of recounting the ordeal she suffered at the hands of Islamic extremist militants in Libya, or due to her fear of possible reprisals against family members still living in her homeland, Eritrea.

“Bisrat is a strong woman who has made incredible progress in her life just six months after she was relocated from Libya to Canada,” explains Suzy Haghighi, a social worker with the Association for New Canadians that provides mental health and social support. “Here, we form a collaborative partnership with women and encourage them to have a strong sense of security and control over their lives and future.”

Bisrat arrived to St. John’s in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada as part of a group of 23 vulnerable refugee women who were evacuated for their safety and protection, with the help of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, from Libya in July 2017.

“I am happy that my journey brought me here,” she shares with us. “I travelled from the darkness to an ending of brightness and hope.”

Consumed by a sense of hopelessness caused by the hardships of compulsory military service and persecution due to her faith, illegal in Eritrea, Bisrat attempted in March 2015 to leave her country in search of security and freedom. Like many other young Eritreans, she was determined to reach Europe travelling through Libya.

UNHCR estimates that hundreds of Eritrean youth flee their home country each year. While they may know that journeys are dangerous, many are unable to appreciate the full scope of the dangers they may encounter, and often have highly unrealistic expectations about life in Europe and the complexity of asylum procedures.

Bisrat stayed in Sudan for two months, waiting to cross the Libyan desert and reach Tripoli, famously known as a transit point for those trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. But while en route to Tripoli, the smugglers’ truck was intercepted by Islamic extremist militants, who separated the women from the men.

Bisrat recounts how she and many other women were abducted and kept in servitude for close to two years, and how she was repeatedly raped. She remembers being left naked for a whole week by one of the commanders who detained her after she tried to escape.

The women were rescued from ISIS following a raid of the area by the Libyan authorities who subsequently took them to a detention centre. They were able to regain their freedom thanks to an intervention by UNHCR which would later arrange their transfer to a safe house in Tripoli prior to their resettlement to Canada under Canada’s Urgent Protection Program (UPP).

The UPP is a special program that Canada developed to provide rapid resettlement for refugees in need of urgent protection because of immediate threats to life, liberty or physical well-being.

More than 1,700 people have died or gone missing while trying to reach Europe’s shores this year.

UNHCR believes that many who undertake such dangerous journeys across the desert and through Libya would not risk their life if they were better informed of the perils involved at different stages of their journeys.

UNHCR has been urging countries to provide meaningful and viable alternatives to dangerous journeys by creating more regular and safe ways for refugees to find safety and protection, including in countries of asylum. The Agency has also insisted on the need to address the root causes and drivers of displacement in countries of origin.

Now after having lived in Canada for several months, Bisrat reflects:

“I feel safe here. The people of St. John’s are helpful, welcoming, and supporting of me. People here live a peaceful life. There is no discrimination, you are treated as a human being.”

Bisrat is beginning the process of integration in Canada, putting on hold her dreams of further education, focusing instead on working so she can help her family. Nevertheless, she is determined to return to school one day, so she may become a nurse and help others.

With the news that Canada recently committed to resettle an extra 1,000 refugee women and girls from conflict zones around the world, beyond what it had previously committed, Bisrat was eager to express her gratitude and share her message of hope.

“Never give up. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I just found a job and I am also planning to go back to school. I now have a full and hopeful life. I am happy.”

*Bisrat’ name has been changed for protection reasons.

** Version also in: FRENCH