ECM previously profiled the amazing efforts of Project Refuge and its efforts to help new refugees who arrive alone in our region. But now the organization has fallen on hard times and was recently forced to shut down its housing for local refugees, including many torture victims. The nonprofit seeks angel donors to help revive its efforts. Read the stories of survivors helped, as well as Project Refugee organizers, below.
By Ariele Johannson
The following story is the journey of “Mr. Horeb Michael,” an East African refugee. His name is withheld for protection from reprisal:
February 25, 2013 (San Diego)--You must cross through 20 countries before you arrive in San Diego, to be detained once again. You have no plan to go to America. Your only goal is to escape. To do this you must leave your life: your family, livelihood, friends, and future.
A freelance journalist, you live in the country of Eritrea north of Ethiopia. No foreign journalists are allowed. Now they are closing the newspapers for writing about conditions in the country. So, no free press at all, nor free speech. They have sent 15 ministers to prison, including the Minister of Defense. The Pentecostal Christian churches are shut down. It is a crime to be born-again. Only Catholic and Orthodox churches remain open. When you defy the rules, you are imprisoned by the government and tortured for your crimes: writing the truth in private newspapers.
Released from prison after one week at the age of 21, you are swiftly conscripted into the military. Everyone must go to fight. You didn’t go at age 18, because you passed the high school exit exams. Out of 8,000 students, only about 600 pass per year. So, you were allowed to study at the university. But you watched as three brothers and three sisters were taken into the military, where they can keep you indefinitely. Fifteen years later, two brothers and a sister are still in the military. After two years, you know you must get out. So you desert.
Some families will sacrifice all to get one child out of the country. Generations of a family’s savings of gold buried in the back yard will, perhaps, be dug up. The house might be sold to pay human smugglers. You are the fortunate one to leave in your family, but you earn all of the money. You apply to an American organization called The International Rescue Committee. They hire you to organize communities to construct dams and wells. You are now in hiding. They cannot protect you, but you prevail. After working for them for two and a half years, you save enough.
Your journey begins when you are helped to leave Eritrea. Most have to pay the equivalent of $4000 to get out, hoping to start a new life far away. You arrive at the capital city, Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia. The year is 2006. Though life is better here, you have no papers to work. You find out your mother was thrown in prison after you escaped. It happens to everybody-your family is threatened—or worse--when spies find out you left. She is held for the equivalent of $2500 bail. She cannot pay this kind of money. Should you return? They will capture and torture you again, perhaps even kill you.
Mercifully, you find out from your brother by e-mail that authorities released your mother without payment after three months. You cross on foot into Kenya, making your way to Nairobi. During that week, you befriend another refugee you meet; together you decide on South Africa. The economy is better there, and South African has free churches.
Smugglers take $800 from each of you to go through Tanzania to Malawi. They get you passports and visas, but make no guarantees. Sometimes, they even refuse to tell you where you are going. After that, you travel again, this time through Mozambique and Zimbabwe. You arrive in South Africa with $100 and use the money to sell clothes door to door. The economy is better here. After earning another $100 and buying a car, you rent a small boutique shop. You feel God has blessed you.
You make a lot of money, but they hate foreigners in South Africa. You are robbed and beaten, with no recourse. Life becomes hard. You look over your shoulder. Business is good, but your rights are violated. You learn the police question your mother periodically in Eritrea. She tells them she has heard nothing since you disappeared. You decide to move to Pretoria, South Africa.
You rent an apartment and open a clothing business. Great happiness awaits you when you find your faith. A friend ministers to you, and you become a born-again Christian. You used to read the Bible in Eritrea but not that seriously. You get baptized, and this changes your life. But thieves rob you again, this time with a knife. You decide to escape with the money you made the last four years. You give the smugglers $2000 this time to get papers to fly to Dubai, then to Brazil.
You are on your way to the United States. You say this part of the journey is the scariest. You may not make it. The Columbian guides leave you in the bush after two days, still in Columbia. They are wrong to do this. They tell your group to just follow the river to a city. You have no food. No map. No cell phone. You do not know that the river may flood. Eight days of walking go by without food; gnawing hunger drains your strength. It’s raining day and night. The river takes lives of three women in your group, who drown in the furious rapids. It is like a horror movie-only you are living it in action.
Twelve days later you reach Panama. Now, more danger; you are stopped by police. You have no papers. They interview you. You tell them you are going to the United States. After spending one week in jail, fortune smiles on you. Most are detained for three months. They take you by boat and bus to Panama City for $10 each. They free you. You stay two weeks there taking care of wounds all over your body.
It is the same story on into Mexico. You pay smugglers. If you get caught, police detain and question you. They give you a paper to leave their country. In Columbia, you paid $1500 to go to Panama. In Panama, it’s $2400 to get into Mexico. You lower your voice instinctively when you talk about human smugglers, even here in the U.S. when you tell your story.
In Mexico, your papers give you two weeks to leave. You fly to Tijuana and present yourself to the authorities in San Ysidro, at the U.S. border. In all, you have paid out the equivalent of $15,000, from which others have profited. Thinking you are about to be free in America, instead you are handcuffed and taken to a detention center in Otay Mesa. You are now a detainee.
Now, you wait with others for your political asylum court case. It may take a year. Your wounds have healed, but the scars will always be there, outside and inside. Finally, you are allowed to leave “on parole,” because you prove you can stay with your friend in Minnesota. You agree to attend all court appearances. You are now a potential asylee.
You learn only five percent of detainees win asylum. If you have a lawyer who spends many hours on case preparation (interviews, psychological evaluations, and evidence from medical forensic exams) your chances are much higher. Without initial legal help a detainee can appeal. But the challenges of self-representation and detention during this process can be insurmountable. If asylum is denied, you lose your one shot at freedom; you will be returned to your country to face persecution, torture, and even death. If you do win, other critical issues await you. You know no one here, and it is terrible not to be able to get a job when you have no food or money.
A lawyer from Jewish Family Services, Tammy Lin, is assigned to you. You are back in San Diego for court. She takes no money. You are blessed. However, you cannot stay with your friend in Minnesota anymore. At the detention center run by Corrections Corporation of America in Otay Mesa, some parolees can be released pending their court dates. But with no money, food, or work permits, you will be released on the streets to be alone and helpless. You wonder ‘Which is worse?’
If you stay in detention, there is nothing to do but wait and worry about your situation and your family. You meet others who escaped their country during a tribal attack. They do not even know if their family members are still alive or have been killed. In detention, you cannot learn English or get job skills. But there is a roof over your head and meals. You decide to try life on the outside, only because you are told about Somali Family Service. You go to them. They are the ones who tell you about Project Refuge.
Blessings abound! You are accepted into this refugee housing program. It provides you with support. They do not give you everything, aiming for you to become self-sufficient. Your monthly rental fee is $50. There is a men’s and women’s apartment. Four people can live in each one for a total of eight people. They give you some clothing and help you apply for work permits, which cost $400. You borrow this amount from your friend. But work permits take time. After ten days of receiving yours, a job comes through in transportation and you pay back your friend. Life is moving in a positive direction.
A project refugee coordinator and volunteers take you to apply for benefits for refugees. Benefits are given only for the first eight months in the country. There are food stamps for you, but no cash, since you have a job while your case is pending. Without Project Refuge, you would not know to apply and might lose months of benefits: usually $300/month, food stamps, plus MediCal. You learn quickly to take care of yourself, even tutoring other residents in Math.
You can be in the apartment for three months, and many find jobs within a few months of leaving Project Refuge. You tell others about all you received. You already had been through so much. If not for the program, you would have so many more problems. You were learning the language and had no one here. With the help of Somali Family Service and Project Refuge, now you do.
Now your work hours have increased to 38 per week. You find an apartment by talking to a friendly stranger at Starbucks. You are living now, not just surviving.
Project Refuge opened its doors in September 2010 with two paid staff members and many volunteers. Dory Beatrice, LCSW led support groups at Survivors of Torture International for victims of politically-based persecution. A passion was born in her to do more. She founded Project Refuge and became Co-Director, along with Co-Director Ahmed Sahid, CEO of Somali Family Service. Ayan Mohamed is Program Manager, as well as Intake and Housing Coordinator; a refugee helping other refugees. She meets accepted applicants dropped off near midnight on the streets of San Diego and brings them to the apartments. Since its inception, Project Refuge has served 75 people, many of whom are victims of torture and need critical support.
These are the words of another asylee who calls herself “Yvonne”: ‘They have been like a family for me…for a refugee coming here for the first time, they surely helped me to be familiar with the area, but most important to avoid to be homeless. Now I am doing well and I can move more freely than ever. I can assure you that this project has a great impact on the well-being of refugees from worldwide. They can't close this project unless there is no war, no refugees in the world! There are those people who need just freedom, and they can find it through such a project.’
Unfortunately, they have to close their doors. They raised money through fundraising, but they need an angel. Enough money must be there for sustainability of the project; $20,000 to reopen and operate for six months. This gift would give the program time to raise the remaining needed funds. They are ready to begin again if resources are there. The start-up funds for this joint project originally came from Somali Family Service, La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club-of which Dory Beatrice is a past president-and other rotary clubs. The project also benefits from a jewelry-making business run by several members of the East African refugee community established by Marjorie Blanchard, PhD, a concerned individual. In fact, Marjorie was the recipient this past fall of an Ocean Leaf Innovation Award for her work.
Project Refuge could use lots of angels. Please give, so they can do more. In addition, according to Ms. Beatrice, ‘Entry-level jobs are always needed, if readers know of any. These job candidates are here legally and have work permits. They are highly motivated and grateful--it means the world to them to get a job.’
Project Refuge can be reached, through Dory Beatrice, by telephone at 619-543-1222 and through their website www.projectrefuge.org, which has more information about the program.
This past November, “Mr. Horeb Michael” won his case for political asylum. Big smile! His friend is still awaiting his decision. He tells me, ‘I am OK now. I am working, so I want for newcomers to get help from the house like I did.’ He is able to speak with his mother on the telephone. However, when I ask him if he can ever go back to visit his family and friends, he raises his arms crossed at the wrists as if in handcuffs. ‘They will kill me.’