SALLUM, Egypt, June 21 (UNHCR) – Big, beautiful eyes barely hide the pain she’s been through. Rosie has lived in three countries – Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya. The teenager never had a chance to set down roots, driven out of each country to save herself, always in search of somewhere to call home.
But the 17-year-old Ethiopian refugee was also all on her own, encountered at the depressing border crossing town of Sallum in north-west Egypt after fleeing from war-torn Libya. She was not the only unaccompanied minor stranded there.
David, also 17, is a loner who keeps to himself in a tent pitched in one corner of Sallum’s port area. He has no friends, unlike 16-year-old Robert and Gerry, 15, who met in a Libyan Red Crescent camp in Benghazi earlier this year and have become firm buddies.
All four had been stuck for months at Sallum, unable to join the average of 2,000 people entering Egypt daily from Libya, mostly Egyptians and Libyans. Since conflict erupted in Libya last February, more than 300,000 people have entered Egypt through Sallum, with many carrying on to their home countries.
Rosie, David, Robert and Gerry have different characters and different concerns, but with UNHCR’s help their lives are about to improve, with all four accepted for resettlement in Sweden. Thousands of other children are not so fortunate and the plight of unaccompanied minors caught up in the Libya crisis is a major concern.
Life has not been kind to Rosie, who last saw her mother when she was two, and lost her father seven years later. After constant ill-treatment by her abusive stepmother, the then 12-year-old girl fled from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa in 2006 and went to Khartoum in neighbouring Sudan.
She worked illegally in a cafeteria but trouble was round the corner. “One day, the police came and took all of us. I was detained for six months and was beaten in prison,” Rosie told UNHCR. “We slept hungry as we were not given enough food.”
It was time to leave again. She and a group of friends made their way to Tripoli in Libya, where she contacted UNHCR and applied for asylum. Her friends made the risky boat crossing to Italy, but Rosie was sick and could not join them. She moved to Benghazi and worked as a maid. “I felt sick, but I was working to survive. Without work, I couldn’t live.” Then the war came.
David was born in exile in Sudan and never knew his Eritrean parents. Perhaps that explains his character – his only real family was a Christian nun, who died when he was 12. “I still miss her so much,” the young man said. His new guardian tried to convert David to Islam. “My life was harsh and I ran away,” he recalled.
He also went to Khartoum, where he worked as a cleaner. He met other Eritreans and made his way with them to Libya two years ago. “I thought there was a better life in Libya, I didn’t know any better.” David, who ended up working in Benghazi, claimed he was detained and tortured for his religious beliefs.
Gerry and Robert, meanwhile, embarked on their solo voyages as unaccompanied minors because they feared being conscripted into the Eritrean armed forces. Both spent time in eastern Sudan’s Shegerab refugee camp before crossing the Sahara Desert to Libya with the help of people smugglers.
Unlike Rosie and David, the two boys have blood relatives that they miss desperately. “I’m not sure if what I did was worth leaving my family for,” said Gerry. “I love my family, my parents and, more than anyone else, my grandmother.”
Robert’s mother thought he was dead. She only discovered where he was and how he was when he called home recently from Sallum. “My mother was so happy. I told her how I left and about my life,” including the problems he had sometimes faced as a Christian in Libya.
The conflict in Libya was a turning point for all of them. For Rosie, it was a nightmare because people from sub-Saharan Africa became targets. “Libyans were breaking into our homes, attacking Africans. It was not safe,” she recalled. The four of them found their way to the Red Crescent camp in Benghazi before moving to the border, where they faced new problems.
Aside from being stranded at the border until their ultimate destination could be decided on, they also had to endure tough living conditions alongside some 800 other refugees and asylum-seekers. Latterly they have been living in tents, braving the cold nights, the blinding dust storms and the swarms of flies.
For these four children, the wait is over – they are among a group of 145 refugees in Sallum to be resettled in Sweden, starting this month. And they’re looking forward to it.
Robbed of a happy childhood, Rosie and dour David are most excited by the thought of going to school. Robert, meanwhile, can’t stop smiling. “I am so happy. I want to study computer science and play football.”
His pal Gerry, who wants to become an engineer, said he would “always remember what I went through,” while adding wistfully: “I want to see my grandmother. I love her so much, but I can never go back to Eritrea.” But the four will face many new challenges.
* All names have been changed for protection reasons