Eritrea in America: The Stories of Manna and Ahmed
The life of Eritrean political refugees – from Atlanta to Portland.
October 10, 2015
I headed over to Clarkston – a town just outside Atlanta’s perimeter where many political refugees settle. Atlanta’s DeKalb county accepts more political refugees than just about any other county in America.
I’d just finished up a round of Saturday morning door-knocking in Decatur and did a run to distribute a hundred door hangers for my afternoon round. This is a technique to make the afternoon round more efficient – you don’t waste time knocking on doors where the door hanger is still up.
Clarkston is a short 15-minute drive due east from Decatur. I pulled up to Merhaba Shewarma – a small shack of a restaurant on the main road.
A small-boned, thin woman stood behind the counter. Behind her were skewers of chicken and lamb.
Torn by war
I asked her where she was from. “East Africa,” she said. “Eritrea. Next to Ethiopia.”
“That’s been a tough part of the world,” I said. “There’s been war.”
“That’s right,” she said. “I was a little girl and found myself right in the middle of it. They bombed my village.”
“You could feel your skin burn in the heat. Then we were in a refugee camp in the desert. But this was a long time ago. Thirty years ago.”
“When did you come to America?” I asked.
“Straight from there. They sent us to South Dakota.”
“South Dakota? Why there?”
“I have no idea,” she said. “There was no Eritrean community there. Nothing. And it was freezing! I went to school. I was fourteen years old. Toughest thing I’ve ever done. Then we moved to Oklahoma.”
“Toughest thing you’ve ever done?” I asked. “But you were coming from a war.”
“Yes, but at least in a war you have other people around. There in South Dakota, it was just my uncle and I. We were all alone.”
“Interesting,” I thought. We kept chatting as I ate my shawarma. She had opened the restaurant with her cousin. She liked the contact with people, she said.
It wasn’t until I finished up that we got around to introductions. “My name’s Manna,” she said. “It means ‘bread from heaven.’ It’s from the Bible. Jesus spoke of bread from heaven.”
A week later I was out door knocking in the evening, still in Decatur. I stepped up on the porch of a home that looked new. It must have been a “tear down.” There was a sign on the door that said, “Take off your shoes.”
Through the door’s window-pane I could see a little girl on the staircase. She had dark skin and black, bushy hair. Her mother came to the door.
“Hi, my name is Geoff. I run a company Retrofit America. We make homes energy-efficient. I’m following up on the door hanger we left this morning.”
“Oh, you should speak to my husband,” she said. A man came to the door and stepped out on to the porch.
Like his wife, his dark skin had a light hue, as if a cross between Indian and Arab.
I gave him my pitch. “Well, you know my home is nearly brand new,” he said. “Just two years old. I have the sense that it’s probably OK.”
A not-so-similar experience
This was an invitation to engage. He wasn’t brushing me off. “Yes,” I said, “It probably is. But with a lot of new homes, we find big lapses that are easy to correct. Low-hanging fruit.”
I explained the energy audit. “So you’ll get a baseline. For just $190 at the end of the day, you’ll find out exactly where you stand.”
He gave me a look like that might be a good idea. “Here’s a business card,” I said, “and even better, let me get your email and I’ll send you all the information about our process. Then we can follow up.”
This was the moment of truth. “OK,” he said. “T-C-america at gmail.com.”
And what’s your first name?” I asked.
“How do you spell that?”
“Nice,” I said. “Where are you from?”
“Portland,” he said. “Portland, Oregon. Well, that’s where I grew up.”
“Sure,” I said, “but is that where you’re originally from, or where your family’s from?”
“No,” he said. “Not there! I’m Eritrean.”
“Interesting,” I said. “Just the other week I was in a little Eritrean restaurant in Clarkston. It’s a small Shawarma place. The woman who owns it was a political refugee.”
“I was a political refugee!” he said. “I came to America thirty years ago. I was just ten years old. In those days, Eritrea was communist, and there was war.”
“Yes, with Ethiopia,” I said. “And so you landed in Portland? She landed in South Dakota.”
“Really?” he said.
“Yeah, she said it was the toughest thing she’s ever done. She and her uncle were all alone there.”
“What were they thinking to send her there? In Portland there were other Eritrean families, and it was an easy place to get along. It’s the kind of place where there’s no reason to leave, although I eventually moved on.”
“Well, you look like you’re pretty well integrated into American life now.”
“Yeah, at this point, I’m probably more American than all the other Americans!”
“You’ve got perspective looking in from the outside, and then you’ve been living an American life,” I said.
The American model
“That’s right. You know, America is not so much a place, it’s an idea. If America’s expansion had stopped at the Mississippi, then the western part wouldn’t be America, it would be something else.
America was built on ideas and values. And I’m not so sure I like where it’s going today. But the core idea, this idea of liberty, is really unique.
I’m not sure the founders really knew what they were setting up – where their ideas would go. I bet if they were to see America today, how their ideas have flourished, they wouldn’t believe it.”
“And what I don’t get,” he said, “Is why other countries don’t replicate this. It’s as if the founders stumbled on something and then two centuries later, low and behold, it works!”
“It’s like an inventor who on purpose or by accident comes across something. Like discovering that when you heat oil you get kerosene, and the next thing you know they’re producing kerosene and everyone’s using it.
“And then there’s electricity… The values we have here in America really work, but no one’s been able to replicate it the same way, and some places are just way off.”
“I guess it can be counterintuitive,” he said. “Marxism can sound appealing, but it’s a false utopia. A society where everyone’s self-motivated – that runs on greed – may not sound that appealing, but it brings prosperity. It works.”
“It gets people up at six in the morning. And they don’t just pack up their things and go home at five. People are motivated. It’s what makes people go out and knock on doors in the evening!”
I smiled, and nodded. “Ahmed, let me get your phone number to follow up with you on the energy audit.” He gave me his number. “Then I’ll look forward to being invited back,” I said. “I’ll take off my shoes, we’ll go inside, and we’ll continue the discussion.”
“Sounds good,” he said. We shook hands, and I stepped off his porch. It was already dark. Time to call it a night.
“At least in a war you have other people around. There in South Dakota, we were all alone.”
A political refugee: "America was built on values. And I’m not so sure I like where it’s going today."
“If the founders of America were to see how their ideas have flourished, they wouldn’t believe it.”