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Eritrean Refugees Land in Brooklyn With Help From Park Slope Family

By Caroline Spivack | September 25, 2017 9:11am
 Eritrean refugee Saba Gebremichael (right) and her 6-year-old daughter, Koki, were greeted by Mara Getz Sheftel (left) and the rest of her Park Slope family at John F. Kennedy airport last month.
Eritrean refugee Saba Gebremichael (right) and her 6-year-old daughter, Koki, were greeted by Mara Getz Sheftel (left) and the rest of her Park Slope family at John F. Kennedy airport last month.
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Josh Wineberg

PARK SLOPE — In a neighborhood boasting "Refugees Are Welcome Here" signs in shop and apartment windows, one Park Slope family decided to act on that sentiment.

After arriving in the United States less than a month ago, Eritrean refugee Saba Gabremichael, 39, is settling into Brooklyn life as her 6-year-old daughter, Koki, attends P.S. 118 with a daughter from their host family. 

"I got a call and they said, 'Your friend Saba has been approved and would you consider being her U.S. sponsor,'" said Mara Getz Sheftel, 36, whose family developed a friendship with Gabremichael in Israel starting in 2013. "I had no idea that would happen, but there's no choice — we're not putting her back in limbo."

Gabremichael escaped prison, military conscription and traversed four countries before she was able to set foot in the U.S. with her daughter. But now that they have been processed as refugees, they are faced with a familiar problem for New Yorkers: finding an affordable apartment. 

Typically, refugees are not placed in major cities because of their high cost of living. That only occurs when the refugees have family or friends living there who are willing to partner with the local agency resettling the newcomers, according to Eileen Reilly, who oversees the Refugee and Asylee Services Division at CAMBA, which is resettling Gabremichael. 

The government provides each refugee with a one-time grant of $2,075 — with $950 of that going toward supporting the resettlement program, and the other $1,025 going into the refugee's pocket to spend how they see fit.

CAMBA connects refugees with an array of services like housing programs, English classes and career development — including "bread and butter" jobs in the meantime — as well as goods such as food, clothing and furniture, Reilly explained.

But it can take a village to resettle a refugee — and those who sign up as sponsors also bear a number of moral, financial and legal responsibilities, including providing housing, basic necessities and working to arrange permanent housing.

Depending on with whom a refugee stays, that person could remain with their sponsor for years or even the rest of their lives, if they are reuniting with family, for instance. But in other cases, sponsors may seek "angel landlords" to find interim housing at a discounted rate or free of charge, according to a person familiar with the refugee settlement process.

Such is the case for Gebremichael, who is seeking lodging within an hour commute by mass transit of P.S. 118, where Koki attends first grade. And with experience as a housekeeper, Gebremichael could contribute with weekly house cleaning until she finds work, she said.

Down the road, she aims to go to school and work at a nursing home, but for now the plan is to use what funds she has through subsidies to find an affordable solution. Until then, she and her daughter are staying with Getz Sheftel, her husband and their three children in the family's Seventh Street home.

Gebremichael certainly has experience overcoming the odds.

She is one of the 1,803 documented Eritrean refugees the United States accepted between Oct. 1, 2016, and Aug. 31, 2017, and among the 43 from Eritrea to arrive in New York state during that same period, according to data from the Refugee Processing Center

The country, which borders Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti, has been marred by violent conflict for decades under a government with a human-rights record among the worst in the world, according to reports by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Born in 1978 during the 30-year Eritrean War of Independence, Gebremichael lived in Ethiopia, where her mother owned a cafe and she studied architecture until returning to Eritrea in 1999 when she was 21.

But it wasn't long before she was conscripted into the army, where by law each Eritrean is compelled to serve at least 18 months, though in practice stretches years longer. 

Gebremichael served roughly six years in the army.

Each day began at 5:30 a.m. followed by an inspection, then a meal of bread and black tea before carrying out the bidding of military officers, she explained.

"You're at the mercy of the dictator," she said in Hebrew — translated by Getz Sheftel — referring to her superiors in the military. "He could ask you to sleep in his house for two, three days. He could tie your hands behind your back. He could do anything."

Every few days, Gebremichael would stand night duty, an armed watch at the base's entrance. It was not to keep people out, but mostly to prevent people from escaping and to ward off loved ones trying to help their conscripted relatives.

Her service was interrupted when officials discovered she was among a group of practicing Protestants — not one of the country's four recognized religions — and was arrested.

After six months, she and a few others managed to escape during holy day celebrations when their guards were distracted. They trekked six hours to the Sudanese border through landscapes that hyenas and other animals are known to roam.

"Yeah, it was dangerous, but what are you going to do?" she said. "We couldn't stay."

With no money or means, Gebremichael and two other women crossed the border. They were picked up by a man who claimed he could take them to the nearby town of Kassala, but instead took them to his home, where he held them for several months until they were able to escape. Gebremichael fled wearing a hijab to mask her identity.

Gebremichael was able to connect with her brother, who had also been conscripted and fled the Eritrean army, in Sudan's capital of Khartoum. There, their mother was able to visit with enough money to help them pay a Bedouin who smuggled them through Egypt and into Israel in 2008.

The monthlong journey was plagued with uncertainty, as they were completely at the whims of their guides. After an arduous passage through the desert, they finally reached the border, where the "tat, tat, tat" of gunfire from Egyptian soldiers remains seared on Gebremichael's mind as she and others managed to scale the border into Israel.

Once there, she worked in an assisted-living facility and cleaned homes. It is also where she met Koki's father, a fellow Eritrean who left her two weeks before she gave birth in Tel Aviv in 2011.

Getz Sheftel, who teaches sociology at Brooklyn College where she is studying for her doctorate, and her husband Josh Wineberg, 39, who is a rabbi, lived in Jerusalem for a time and developed a friendship with Gebremichael starting in 2013 through work with a non-profit aiding asylum seekers. 

At that time, Gebremichael and her daughter's fate was still unknown, with no clear path to residency as Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel. So in January of this year, she applied for refugee status in the United States, with Getz Sheftel and Wineberg listed as her friends and only a slim chance of acceptance.

Eight months later, a phone number Getz Sheftel didn't recognize popped up on her phone.

It was a worker with CAMBA. 

"I do not have words," Gebremichael said in English of her acceptance in the U.S. "Before I thought, 'I'm going to die.' Now I feel like I have a lot to live for." 

Those interested in helping with housing for Gebremichael and her daughter can email Getz Sheftel at mgsheftel@gmail.com.