Dreams of escape in Eritrea

AMMAN, Jordan – Long before he learned to
dunk on warped wooden backboards, Awet Eyob nursed a dream: to play basketball
in America.

He is 6 foot 8, built like an oak tree and seems
to have mastered a behind-the-back dribble and crisp passes from the corner of
his eye.

But one big problem stood in his way: his
homeland, Eritrea, an isolated, secretive nation in the Horn of Africa that is
refusing to let its young people leave.

Eritrea, which fought its way to
independence nearly 20 years ago, is ruled by hard-as-nails former guerrilla
fighters who have held firm to their revolutionary Marxist policies and who
demand that all young people work for the government, sometimes until their
40s. Anyone who tries to buck this national program, according to human rights
groups, is subject to cruelly inventive tortures.

So this January, in great secrecy, Awet
gathered four pairs of boxers, two pairs of socks, his high school transcript,
his Air Jordans and some cash to pay a gang of human traffickers (or coyotes,
as he calls them).

“I remember that first call,” he said. “The
coyote said: ‘Hello, this is Sunshine.’ I answered, ‘This is Thunder.”’

Awet, 20, who is now living in Amman,
Jordan, is the embodiment of Eritrea’s lost generation. This tiny country is
spawning more refugees per capita than just about anywhere else in the world,
according to U.N. statistics, and most of them are young men, and often the
country’s most promising ones at that.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees
says that hundreds of thousands of people have fled Eritrea in recent years –
the total population is less than 5 million – and nearly every day, 100 new
Eritreans risk their lives to cross into Sudan, which is hardly a Shangri-La.

Some of these defections have been hard to
miss. In December, the entire Eritrean national soccer team absconded to Kenya
during a tournament. In 2004, some Eritrean refugees being sent home from Libya
were so desperate not to return that they hijacked the plane.

Many never make it out. One of Awet’s
friends recently won a four-year, $200,000 scholarship to a prestigious
American university. “He should have been sent out with a garland of flowers,”
said the boy’s father, with tears in his eyes.

Instead, the boy was arrested trying to
defect in time to register for classes. He was drafted into the military and
deployed near Eritrea’s southern border, one of the hottest places on earth.

Awet was lucky. Dressed in an extra, extra
large gallebeyah (a long flowing gown common in the Muslim world), he sneaked
through Sudan and then on to Kenya and Dubai. He is now camped out in the
basement of an American family’s home in Amman, Jordan, doing push-ups, working
on his jump shot, playing on a Wii set with the family’s children and trying to
get into an American college or prep school.

A big reason why he has gotten this far is
Matthew Smith, a gregarious, athletic American diplomat who befriended Awet a
couple years ago on a basketball court in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, where
Smith was working. Smith was impressed by the young man’s game, but more than
that, he was moved by Awet’s burning ambition to break out of his hermetically
sealed world.

“He wanted more and I could relate to
that,” said Smith, whose father was a taxi driver in Brooklyn. “Who would’ve
ever thought the kid of a cabby and nanny could be a diplomat?”

Smith matched up Awet with an American
basketball coach in Amman who is now training him.

“His skills were better than I expected,”
said the coach, Robert Taylor, who was sitting next to Awet on a stack of
exercise mats in a high school gym. “No offense, Awet, but Eritrea isn’t
exactly known for its basketball.”

If Eritrea is especially well-known for
anything these days, it is for being a troublemaker in a very volatile
neighbourhood. The nation has been accused of invading Djibouti in 2008 and
fuelling chaos in Somalia by arming insurgent groups, prompting sanctions from
the U.N. Security Council.

But Eritrea has a proud history, fighting a
gruelling 30-year guerrilla war to break away from Ethiopia.

Awet’s name, in fact, means victory. He was
born at home, by candlelight, in February 1990, on the eve of independence,
right after a legendary battle.

He was always big. He was selected to play
for the national basketball team when he was 15, and earned the nickname King
A. By Eritrean standards, he had an enviable life, with a wealthy merchant
father, good grades, a touch of fame and several pairs of $100 Nikes.

But Dan Franch, his high school literature
teacher, could tell Awet was not happy.

“I knew he wanted to leave, and I didn’t
blame him,” Franch said. “This place is becoming inert. You encourage students
to apply to college overseas but their chances of going are one in a gazillion.”

On the surface, life for young Eritreans
does not look so bad. Asmara is littered with chrome-lined Art Deco cafes where
young people sip cappuccinos and munch on pizza. But many young people complain
(quietly) of being chained to dead-end government jobs. By law, mandatory national
service is supposed to last 18 months. In reality, it is often indefinite, and
few can get permits to exit the country until they are done serving. The government
justifies this because of a highly militarized, unresolved border dispute with
its neighbour, Ethiopia, nearly 20 times its size.

Awet says he probably will not see his
parents for years because now that he has escaped, it will be dangerous to go
back home.

At night, when he cannot sleep, he takes
out a tiny prayer book his mother gave him – the cover is literally the size of
a postage stamp – and thinks of her. Or he stretches out on a single bed with
his feet nearly dangling off, listening to rap songs on his MP3 player and
nurturing his dream.

“I used to dream about
the money and the cars and the girls,” he sings. “But now I see, because I’m
sitting on top of the world.”