Semira* pulls off her gloves and holds them in her hands, gently twisting them as she talks about her home, her escape, life in a refugee camp, and the challenges she has had to overcome to start over. This is Semira’s first winter in the U.S. and she must not be used to Illinois weather quite yet, because she doesn’t take off her pale pink coat. The hood, edged with faux fur, rustles as she talks. It’s January and there’s snow weighing down the bushes outside the window.
In 2013, Semira left her home in Eritrea with her mother and older sister. She was 14 years old. Her sister had just completed high school and was facing forced military conscription. While country officials claim that conscription only lasts for 18 months, reports from organizations like Amnesty International report that in practice conscription in Eritrea is indefinite, often lasting for decades and amounting to forced labor.
“There’s no freedom to work or go higher in school, so we had to leave,” Semira says. So, with the help of others who knew the way, an Eritrean Underground Railroad of sorts, she set out with her sister and mother to escape. For two nights they walked through the forest from seven o’clock until three or four in the morning. During the day they slept, so that they wouldn’t be caught by border guards.
Finally, they arrived in Ethiopia and registered as refugees at a camp run by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. Though relieved to be safe, there was little to do in the refugee camp. School was only available for the young children, so Semira, a 10th grader, didn’t have the chance to finish high school. “There was a bus that would take us to the closest town so that we could visit the library,” she remembers. “It was an hour and a half each way.” The edges of her mouth turn upward, revealing her optimism, even as she talks about hardships.
Every two weeks, for nearly four years Semira took the long, bumpy bus ride to the closest library. She checked out books on biology and anatomy. She wanted to become a nurse. There was no way to know how much longer she would be stuck in one place, but Semira didn’t let that stop her from moving her life forward. Now that she has arrived in the U.S., her hard work and determination are boundless.
Semira arrived in the Chicago suburbs in June. Because she had learned some English in school, she was able to immediately pursue her first job with the help of World Relief’s employment team. After only six weeks, both she and her sister were offered jobs with a local food manufacturer. World Relief connected them with another refugee employee who could drive them to work, but grocery shopping and other errands were difficult to do without a car or driver’s license in the suburbs. So Semira enrolled in World Relief’s driving permit class as well. She quickly passed her permit exam, and after practicing for several months also passed her driving test.
Shortly after earning her driver’s license, Semira and her family received a car that was donated to World Relief. In fact, the car was donated by a former refugee! Now Semira is able to pass on the opportunities she was given by driving her sister and another refugee to work. She has achieved so much in her short six months in the U.S., and she’s not done yet. She’s taking advanced English classes at a local community college and is working toward her GED – the next step in realizing her dream to become a nurse.
As she finishes telling her story and puts her gloves back on to guard against the cold, she smiles with excitement for what her future holds. She’s been through so much, and she’s confident she can overcome any obstacle. At World Relief, we are proud to add the resources we have – community connections, volunteer support, and the generosity of the local church – to the hard work and resilience of young refugees like Semira. Together, we will see transformation in our communities.
*Semira's name has been changed to protect her privacy.
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