In the last few months, thousands of refugees have fled by boat across the Mediterranean. Ten years ago, one of our local ECDC staff was one of them.

He shares his story that so many others now face, and why the perilous journey is worth everything.

If I could try to put ordinary people in the shoes of refugees who have fled and continue to flee for their lives today, I would tell them that there is one main force, above all others, that drives a person to take any risk necessary in search of a better  life: freedom.

The recent drownings of refugees in the Mediterranean have become far too commonplace, and often make me think about my own journey to the United States. I fled my homeland, took a truck across the Sahara desert to Libya, and snuck away in a boat from Tripoli to Malta, but I consider myself lucky. Though I was in hiding for the entirety of my journey, with no end in sight and no plans at all, I made it safely to Europe and eventually was able to move to the United States. Many refugees face fates much more grim, but we all begin our journeys the same: filled with fear and uncertainty.

I had lived in Eritrea all my life, and when the time came, I was conscripted into the army, much like many other young Eritreans. I knew that if I continued to stay, I would never get out, so I fled to Sudan in the fall of 2005 and stayed for a few months. I had no papers or passport, and the country had no reason to protect me, so I took a truck across the desert to Libya, where I also lived for a short time.

A boat full of African refugees crosses the Mediterranean with the help of smugglers. Credit: JRS Malta

In the absence of legal migration channels, my only plan was to pay a smuggler a large sum of money—around $1,200—to sneak me onto a small fiberglass boat and sail to Malta. My group had around 25 people, and we stayed just outside Tripoli in a holding area for three weeks while the smugglers collected food and water for us. We were not allowed to make any noise or leave the area for fear that the police would discover us and our plans.

Finally, we packed our boat at night—food, water, gas, and only a satellite phone and compass to guide us during the 222-mile journey. Our trip took only 36 hours, a miracle to have such calm weather. We sat below deck, encircling the gas and food we kept in the middle, and waited in the dark until we hit land.

Boat Landing

Young African refugees hit land in Malta. Credit: JRS Malta

What most people do not know is that my trip was far from normal: many others travel without any kind of navigation, at sea for days, with no food or water. Smugglers know to travel in the summer to avoid bad weather, but some are still not so lucky. I was able to move to the United States and can now share my story, but many do not fare as well.

One question that I often get about my journey is why refugees would take the great chance of fleeing from home and starting a new life with no end to their journey in sight, and what would drive them to become so desperate for a new start.

The greatest motivating factor is freedom. It is the raison d’etre behind every decision, and why people take matters into their own hands, regardless of legality, to seek a better life. Many take independence and freedom for granted, or just assume that it’s given to everyone. Please let my story be a lesson. For refugees, freedom is the only thing that matters. I learned that on a hot truck driving across the Sahara, and below deck in a cramped boat in the Mediterranean—in those moments, I felt alive and completely free.

Yosief is a self-sufficiency coordinator at the African Community Center in Arlington/Silver Spring, a branch office of ECDC. He has lived in the United States for the last 1.5 years.

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