In 1991, when the country won its independence, Bairu was a young man headed to the University of Asmara, a government-run school, to study accounting.
Within two years of independence, however, President Afwerki announced all Eritreans must provide 18 months of “national service,” which is now understood to be involuntary conscription into the Eritrean military, according to Human Rights Watch. Suspecting as much, Bairu’s uncle warned him to avoid it.
Bairu withdrew from the university and hid as he waited to see what would happen to the people drafted into national service. The first four groups went and came back from national service, but the fifth group in 1998 — as Afwerki resumed a border conflict with Ethiopia — never returned to Asmara, Bairu said.
This did not bode well for Bairu, who had started a business to bring Ethiopian newspapers across the border to be distributed in Eritrea, which had a state-run media. He had 30 workers, who distributed more than 45,000 copies a week along with Eritrea newspapers, books and magazines.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea 178th out of 180 countries for press freedom in 2019, ahead of only North Korea and Turkmenistan.
One day, as Bairu sat in a cafe overseeing the distribution of papers, two young men in plain clothes approached. They asked for 50 copies of a magazine, which Bairu said he would bring to them. They instead told him to get into the car parked on the street.
They drove him to an office and asked him if he was the man distributing Ethiopian newspapers. He confirmed that he was. They then accused Bairu of giving information to the Ethiopian government. Bairu tried to explain that he was not, but an officer cut him off.
“Take him there,” the officer said.
They kept me for almost two weeks in a container. Until your morale breaks, your heart, you’re fed up (and) you lose your temper. It was the worst experience of my life in my country.”
— Bereket Bairu, an asylum seeker from the country of Eritrea
Bairu was loaded into a different car with four military men. They drove for 45 minutes to the entrance of a former U.S. military installation, which the Eritrean government converted into an underground prison known as “Track B.” Prison conditions and treatment of prisoners are poor in Eritrea, and there is a nearly non-existent judicial appeals process, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of State report.
“There were reports that prisoners were held in underground cells or in shipping containers with little or no ventilation in extreme temperatures. The shipping containers were reportedly not large enough to allow all of those incarcerated to lie down at the same time. Other prisoners were held in cement-lined underground bunkers with no ventilation,” according to the report.
Among those imprisoned and kept in life-threatening conditions were people evading national service, according to the state department.
The soldiers locked Bairu inside one of the metal shipping containers outside Track B, he said. He was let out at gunpoint to relieve himself in a field and told he would be shot if he ran, but he was otherwise left in the dark container for days.
“They kept me for almost two weeks in a container. Until your morale breaks, your heart, you’re fed up (and) you lose your temper,” Bairu said. “It was the worst experience of my life in my country.”
Then officials moved him to Adi Abeto — one of the most notorious and overcrowded prisons in Eritrea — where they began to torture him. Bairu said he was locked in a building without cells with 50 other men of different ages and ethnic backgrounds. Soldiers interrogated Bairu about his connection to Ethiopia and whipped him before asking the same questions over again. The guards would slap and bite the prisoners or chain their legs. Once, a guard pushed Bairu so hard from behind that he fell and cracked several of his teeth.
Carol Carlyle, left, of Grace In God’s Hands Ministries poses with Bereket Bairu, right, a political prisoner, in South Sudan in 2015. Bairu is holding the Bible that Carlyle left for the prisoners. Photo courtesy of Carol Carlyle.
Bairu spent a month in the hospital and was returned to Adi Abeto prison. Three days later, a large van arrived and 20 prisoners were told to get in. Bairu had no idea where they were taking him next.
After a 15-hour drive, the soldiers forced the prisoners out of the van and told them they would now be providing agricultural labor for the government. They stayed there for three months before a car arrived and took them to a military camp, which already housed between 5,000 and 10,000 people, to begin their national service.
Bairu was forced to stay at the camp for a year, before he was able to return to his family for one week. He hurriedly filled out paperwork to finish his degree at the University of Asmara, so he could be close to his mother, wife and child again.
Bairu signed up for one class at a time and sometimes withdrew so that his final year at school stretched from 2002 to 2005. He was buying time in the hope he could stop himself from having to return to the military.
But the government and military were never too far behind. Soon he was assigned to a school for compulsory teaching under the guise of national service. Bairu pretended not to know of his assignment, and when people came searching for him, he bounced between the multiple businesses he had started.
Soon it became too dangerous to be in Asmara and in 2007 he fled and hid on a farm, which he transformed into a thriving red-chili business. In 2009, the government came and took all his workers and Bairu knew he was no longer safe even away from the city. He transferred all his money to his younger brother who had already escaped and took cash to pay smugglers.
Within 12 days, he crossed the border into Sudan to the sound of gunfire.
New beginnings, new challenges
Bairu’s eventual ticket to freedom was a U.S. visa, which is a luxury that sets him apart from the more than 300 migrants who fled political violence and arrived in Portland last month.
Africans received only 11.8 percent of immigration visas and five percent of non-immigration visas issued by the U.S. in fiscal year 2018, according to the U.S. Department of State. Without access to a visa, many of the 347 migrants who eventually arrived in Maine between June 9 and July 11 first had to fly to South and Central America and walk to the U.S.-Mexico border to request asylum before continuing another 2,100 miles to Portland where communities of African asylum seekers and refugees have formed.
Portland housed the sudden influx of migrant families in the Exposition Building downtown, but this was a temporary solution as the city is contractually obligated to return the venue to operation by Aug. 15. By mid July, the city had relocated seven of the approximately 70 families living in the center to long-term housing, said city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin.
Just a few weeks before, these families lived in tents or under tarps on the Mexican side of the border as guards allegedly blocked ports of entry into the U.S. where they could ask for asylum. One family, with a newborn baby, recalled fearing their child would drown as it poured rain and puddles formed where they slept as they waited, said Bailey of ILAP.
“When you’re fleeing for your life, you’re willing to risk your life,” Bailey said.
Many of the migrants who arrived in Portland in June crossed the Rio Grande River instead of entering at a Port of Entry. They were were met by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. ILAP found several migrants with paperwork from U.S. Customs and Border Protection that assigned them to immigration courts in San Francisco, Dallas and Chicago. Bailey said she had never before seen agents pick a random address and send people there.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection denied randomly assigning immigration court hearings by email on July 9.
“When processing individuals with a Notice to Appear who are released on their own recognizance … agents list the location of the nearest immigration court to where the individual claims he/she will be residing” and provide a change of address form, said Michael McCarthy, the Maine spokesman for border protection.
When Bailey asked one of the migrant women assigned to San Francisco immigration court if she knew where California was, the woman replied that she had no idea. This indicates she did not say she was going there.
The erroneous court assignments are a “big problem” for the migrants currently residing in Maine, because switching immigrations courts is not a straightforward process, Bailey said.
Asylum seekers assigned to a court other than Boston must wait for their case to be scheduled in the court on their paperwork before they can request to transfer. It can take several months to more than a year for a case to be assigned its initial hearing, Bailey said. At the same time, migrants face a one-year deadline to apply for asylum.
This is a problem because if migrants apply for asylum while their case is in another court, then their application can be placed on hold while the transfer is processed, Bailey said. The courts consider these “change to venue” requests to be a delay caused by the applicant, and the courts will stop counting the days that must pass before an asylum seeker can apply for permission to work.
The result is that asylum seekers with pending claims are not able to work for years, which affects their ability to support themselves and hire and pay for lawyers to represent them, Bailey said.
Most of the Maine-based migrants cases were still pending in late June, which means they were not yet among the 892,517 undecided cases on the U.S. immigration courts’ active docket up to April 2019, according to TRAC.
I need (a lawyer), but we don’t have money. We don’t work. We’re waiting for paperwork. How can you pay the lawyer?”
— Adolfo Luvumbua, a 42-year-old migrant living in Portland
Adolfo Luvumbua, 42, is among the migrants living in Portland waiting for his work permit. Luvumbua fled Angola with his four children and has lived in Portland for less than a year. He applied for asylum, but it is just the first step to securing the paperwork he needs to work and provide for his children. In June, he was waiting for a social security card so he could apply for a job.
Without a job he relies on financial aid from the state to pay rent and cannot afford to hire a lawyer to manage his family’s asylum applications.
“I need (a lawyer), but we don’t have money. We don’t work. We’re waiting for paperwork. How can you pay the lawyer?” Luvumbua said.
Cost is something state and city officials have struggled to balance since the migrants began arriving on June 9.
Gov. Janet Mills’ administration undertook a review of the state’s existing General Assistance Program rules and announced on July 18 it would expand services to asylum seekers to align with the state’s legislature’s intent in 2015 to expand housing, medical and food vouchers to those “pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigraton relief.”
Mills, a first-term Democrat, also requested federal aid for Maine municipalities from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to recoup the cost of providing services to the influx of new arrivals.
More than $815,000 has been donated to the city of Portland since early June to help house and provide services to the influx of asylum seekers arriving from the border. The City Council is expected to discuss how to spend the money at its August meeting, and city staff have already begun to spend the $200,000 budgeted for the Portland Community Support Fund. City spokeswoman Grondin said she expected staff to request a portion of the donated money be sent to the city to recoup the costs of operating the 24-hour shelter at the Expo.
Nonprofits have also stepped up to lessen the burden on the city. The United Way of Greater Portland vetted more than 300 volunteers in June to help at the Expo.
The YMCA’s New American Welcome Center also offers English conversation classes for new arrivals to learn customs and the language skills needed to restart the careers as engineers, bankers and teachers that they left in their home countries, said Sarah Leighton, chief development officer for the YMCA of Southern Maine.
“I have never heard someone say they came to the U.S. because they wanted to. They’re forced to leave,” Leighton said. “They’re our neighbors now, and we owe it (to) them now to start their lives here.”
‘Our hope is that he stays’
To be granted asylum is to be awarded the assurity that one can stay.
The current bottleneck in U.S. immigration court is delaying that assurance for many migrants in Maine, who want to start careers, provide for their families and establish permanent residence. The delays also hurt businesses in Maine who see migrants as a source of skilled labor for the state’s aging workforce.
“We who were born and raised in Maine sometimes make fun of ‘people from away,’ while we complain that our state is getting older and that it is increasingly difficult to do business here. Let’s put an end to the complaints, put aside the politics, and do the logical thing – welcome a workforce that is right on our doorstep and put them on the path to employment to build and strengthen our economy,” Mills wrote in an op-ed published by the Portland Press Herald.