Six weeks ago, political and religious refugees from Africa walked up a white sand beach on the Costa Rican Caribbean coast after being abandoned by a team of “coyotes,” or smugglers of human beings.
The 41 men and women – who worked as pilots, educators, businessmen and scientists in their home countries – were now homeless and helpless.
They’d been stripped of any money they had accumulated and were entirely at the mercy of the people they met in this new country, but their hopes were high as Costa Rica promised new opportunities and freedom.
Yet, today, they sleep at a detention center on the southern fringes of San José, facing the very troubles they came here to escape.
“We left our countries expecting freedom,” said 34-year-old Dawit Kibreab, an archaeologist and citizen of the tiny north African country of Eritrea. “But – to us – this feels like prison. We never expected to be staying in a place like this.”
Kibreab, along with the 40 others who came with him, is awaiting trial set for two weeks from now, riding out the downtime on the assurances of pro bono lawyers who tell them they will be granted refugee status.
“Maybe people think we are criminals,” said Kibreab, speaking in fluent English from a conference room at the detention center. “We are not. We are professionals who lost much of what we had, and now we are trying to get it back.”
Holding cells are not new to African immigrants, who come from Somalia, South Africa, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Many, as Christians in Muslim-dominated countries, floated in and out of prison cells at the whim of the authorities, according to the detainees.
“You could be jailed or killed for reading the Bible,” said 28-year-old Semher Asgedom, who studied clinical laboratory science at a university in Eritrea. “They consider you anti-government.”
Kibreab, who also is Christian, said he was kept in military camps for years, even after he had finished nationally mandated service.
“They never gave me freedom,” he said. “I couldn’t lead my own life. I couldn’t have a vision for the future or reach my potential because they kept me in the military.”
Biniam Demere, who comes from neighboring Ethiopia, fled his home country to escape what he called political corruption and persecution for his beliefs.
A member of the Ethiopia Teachers Association and a leader within the Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party there, Demere said he witnessed dozens of deaths and became a victim himself when he was shot in the shin.
“People were arrested for their political opinions, some were killed,” Demere said. “We couldn’t continue living in a place like that. We had to leave.”
Kibreab said he and his brethren hope to find a new life in Costa Rica with freedom and jobs that pay them enough to get by.
“Most of us want to stay in Costa Rica,” he said. “It has a democratic government and a respect for human rights. We’d like to find professional work, but we’d do any job to support ourselves … obviously, we don’t have the language skills, so it will be slow.”
The Black Star Line, a civic association based in Limón, and Afrosco, a cultural group in the Carribean, have collected used clothing and money to help the refugees and – in a way – adopted the refugees’ challenges as their own.
“In the past 25 or 30 years, we haven’t had refugees here. The last time it was Jamaicans,” said Errol Anglin Freeman, an activist who has made trips to and from San José to check on the group. “The government wanted to send them back to Africa.
But we identified ourselves as their African brothers and started to fight.”
Yet, even in Costa Rica, the so-called Switzerland of the Americas, where the people have been identified as the happiest people on earth (TT, July 10), the refugees are finding it difficult to leave their past behind.
Throwing his hands behind his shoulders to illustrate his words, Freeman said, “Africa is behind you. Don’t worry. You are here now.”
But Kibreab shook his head. “It’s not behind,” he said. “If they know we are talking about them (the government), they can harm our families. We are afraid of that.”
A request to the Costa Rican Immigration Administration for an interview regarding the status of the refugees was unanswered by press time.
Monetary donations can be made to account number 105010044569 at Banco Mucap. For questions and ideas about how to help the refugees, contact Freeman at 8359-6122 or firstname.lastname@example.org.