Ethiopia: A cycle of poverty broken – Interview with former child refugee Neseret Bemient

by Neseret on June 28, 2011


This is an interview I did with UNHCR in 2009. If you’re currently looking for a charitable organization to support UNHCR would be an excellent choice. Read the interview below to find out why I believe UNHCR is a one of the best charitable organization you can support. Please feel free to leave me any questions or comments.

Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Date: 05 Nov 2009

HALIFAX, Canada, November 5, 2009 (UNHCR) -Neseret Bemient was only 11 years old when she, her mother and five brothers and sisters were forced to flee Ethiopia at a time which she describes as “total chaos.” It was 1991 and the Ethiopian government was in the midst of a civil war with Eritrean separatists. Neseret and her family ended up in Kenya in the Thika refugee camp outside of Nairobi. Extremely thankful for the assistance UNHCR provided, Neseret now shares her incredible story of courage and her gratitude for her change in circumstances.

How old were you at the time you fled Ethiopia and what was the political and social climate at the time?

It was 1991 and I was 11 years old. There was civil war between Ethiopia and Eritrea and the President [Mengistu Haile Mariam] fled the country. At that time the whole world was paying attention to the Gulf war which was happening at the same time.

Which moment stands out at that time in your life?

I remember the first day I heard bombs I was sitting in class and we were told we had to call our parents to come get us. The school was closed for the day and I felt afraid for my life for the first time. Hearing the bombs drop and seeing the bodies in the street…that will always be engraved in my mind.

How did you leave? Did you have time to pack up your things and say goodbye to your friends?

I don’t think we even had time to pack; my mother decided we had to go and we just grabbed what little things we could and left by bus for a two to three week journey from Harar, to Addis Ababa, to the Kenyan border and finally to Nairobi. I did not have time to say goodbye to my friends.

Did you notice many other people were doing the same thing?

Yes, thousands of people. The buses were full, we saw many people.

What happened when you arrived?

The first day we arrived in Nairobi my mother knew we needed to go to the UN office. So my mother and the 6 of us brothers and sisters ended up there on that first day. My oldest brother was only 14 and my youngest was still a baby.

I remember how strange it felt. It was very scary. I remember seeing my mother frustrated and scared and I remember feeling sad for her.

Thinking back on that first day, to me UNHCR always stands out as the organization that was there when we were at the lowest point in our lives…I can’t tell you what it was to have someone there to help us…someone to tell us that there was hope.

Where did you go from there?

We were given accommodations for our first few days and then we went to the Thika refugee camp 35 km outside of Nairobi. I remember the first thing you see is four or five brick buildings to house refugees and then behind it were hundreds of tents through which you could walk for miles. It was very crowded.

What was life like there?

Camp life was different…there was a church organized. I found it so interesting how people who had lost everything had such faith. Being so young, I also picked up Swahili in the camp. Once a day if not twice a day we had food. Breakfast was bread and tea and thousands of people lined up for food.

My mother would make Ethiopian baskets which she would take to the UN office and sell. I remember that outside of the camp there were these beautiful fields where I would see giraffes and we would go there to pick straw to make baskets.

My mom cannot sit still. She would make frequent trips to Nairobi for interviews and we would be waiting and hoping she would come back with good news. She would keep saying “we’ll be going,” “we’ll be going to a better place”. Of course at the time she had no idea. People used to say she was crazy saying that with six kids in the refugee camp. My mother was relentless. Sometimes she would go up to once a week in hopes that we would find a way to resettle to a new country.

What was your best or worst memory of life in the refugee camp?

I can tell you both. The line ups for food were the worst. Once a week we were given potatoes; this was a special treat. There used to be fights breaking out. I hated that because I was so small so I would get out of there so I wouldn’t get hurt.

Initially I felt humiliated lining up for food like that, but now I think at least we had food.

The best memory was when we found sponsors to come to Canada. It is every refugee’s dream to start over in safety and security. I remember my mom coming to me to tell me we were going to Canada. That was the best memory.

What do you think would have happened had UNHCR not been there? Had there not been a camp?

I honestly can’t imagine. How thousands of people would be able to survive, resources were tight even with UNHCR there, so I can’t even imagine.

I don’t know of any other organization at that time that actually focused on refugees and that were helping refugees.

What were your first impressions when you came to Canada?

It was 1993 and I was 13 years old. We arrived in Halifax on October 16th. I remember looking from the plane and seeing how strange the trees were and the colours and thinking how do people live here in this cold?

What are you doing now?

I live in Halifax with my beautiful 6 year old little girl and wonderful fiancé Tyler. I am a registered Nurse. I love what I do because I enjoy helping people. But my real passion is humanitarian work. I would like to find a way to eventually focus all my time on humanitarian work.

I’ve set up a Facebook fan page to raise awareness about what’s happening in the world and share my story. I feel this is my responsibility and my purpose.

Eventually my dream is to go back to Ethiopia and Kenya to help with refugees.

How do you feel Canadians supporting UNHCR make a difference in the lives of refugees?

It’s critical. That is what is going to provide the basic necessities and there are so many people in need. This is an organization that really does the work. I can truly say that because I was there and I received the help.

I am truly grateful for a great organization like UNHCR that fed, clothed and provided us shelter for two years in a refugee camp.

They have literally changed my life…when I look at my daughter going to school here in Canada…There is a cycle of poverty and UNHCR has broken that.

Additional facts:

Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians fled their country during the 1974–91 reign of military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Read more information on RefWorld.

Thika transit camp, which was a holding facility for medical, security and some resettlement cases, was closed on 30 April 1995 following a joint decision between UNHCR and the Government of Kenya. Refugees who were living in these camps before their closure were assisted to return to their places of origin. Those who did not wish to return or could not return to their home areas were relocated to the Dadaab axis camps or to Kakuma camp. (UNHCR activities financed by voluntary funds: Kenya Excom Reports, 17 July, 1995)

By Natalie Mezey in Ottawa, Canada

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