Posted on July 29, 2010


In search of better jobs and living standard, youngsters from the North Ethiopian border region try their luck in the Arab world. While few get lucky, most of them sacrifice.

At Autobus Terra in Addis Abeba, three men and a woman are waiting for a bus to Mekele. The sun hasn’t risen yet. They seem lost. Slightly nervous the travellers glance over their shoulder and hold tightly on to their bus tickets and only luggage: a brand new blanket.

One of these obvious strangers to the chaotic bus station of Ethiopia’s capital city is Welde Selassie Halefum. Only twenty-six years of age, he looks at least ten years older. His bony face and raw skin reveal a harsh live. “It is my first time in Addis Ababa,” he says. “Where I’m from we focus more on Sudan and Eritrea.”

Border closed
Welde Selassie was born in Messanu, a small village in the Tigray Regional State, close to the Eritrean border. Most of his fellow villagers are uneducated farmers, Welde Selassie explains. In the last decade, after the border dispute, life has become harder in Messanu, he says.

The closure of the nearby border has cut the villagers off from their former main market Eritrea. Their fathers all went there regularly to trade with Asmara and the Eritrean seaports.

These days, youngsters from Welde Selassie’s native village have to find another way out. Inspired by some successful pioneers from their village some of them chase a new dream: making “easy money” in Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Dubai.

Arab paradise
In Messanu, every family has at least one family member that is chasing this dream, Welde Selassie says. But to reach the supposed “Arab paradise” a lot of sacrifices have to be made.

Welde Selassie seems to know this very well. And his story is just one of many. In October last year he started his journey. He leaves for Dessie. There, he pays 3,000 birr, almost all his savings, to some unidentified middleman, who promises to bring him and his fellow travellers to the Djibouti Port by car. Indeed, they depart with a vehicle, but eventually they cover most of the route to the east on foot.

In the Djibouti port a small boat is waiting. About thirty fortune seekers go aboard. Driven by a small engine, they actually reach the Yemeni coast.

“You can’t imagine how happy I was,” says Welde Selassie, who realizes that many of the small boats don’t survive the high waves of the Red Sea. “In that case, nobody would have survived,” he says. “After all, I never learned how to swim.”

Stifling heat
In Yemen the next human trafficker is ready to “guide” the group of travellers. “I refused to pay him,” Welde Selassie says. “Too many times I heard that these guys are not trustworthy. I decided to walk.”

After nine full days of walking through the stifling heat of the Yemeni desert, the Tigraian farmer reaches the Saudi Arabian border. Surprisingly, he managed to find a job soon at a commercial farm. For five months he helps irrigating dusty fields for a mere pittance.

Then, when an Arab man offers him a better-paid job as a shepherd, he knew that it’s time to move on. But after two months, he leaves his second job behind to look for better payment once again, this time with disastrous consequences.

“I was constantly seeking for ways to improve my live,” Welde Selassie says. “So I started walking, for nine days, without any sense of direction, until I got trapped by the Saudi police.”

In disguise
Welde Selassie was lucky. According to many, the Saudi police usually beat up illegal immigrant workers. This time they only cheated them: they promised Welde Selassie a good job, but instead threw him in an overcrowded jail.

“It was awful,” he says. “The small prison was packed. There was hardly any food and if they served us something it was mostly rotten food. Many detainees were seriously ill with malaria and other diseases.”

After a month, a once in a lifetime opportunity is presented. Welde Selassie heard about a flight to Khartoum, to deport illegal Sudanese workers. Together with some other Ethiopians, he managed to change his clothes with traditional Sudanese ones. In disguise, he succeeds to trick the Saudi police into believing they are actually Sudanese and they are allowed aboard.

In Khartoum, they get caught again and are deported to Addis Ababa. “I managed to survive without money for four days,” Welde Selassie says. “Finally, I reached some of my distant relatives who provided me with just about enough to afford a bus ticket and this blanket.”

With just one pair of clothes and the blanket, Welde Selassie heads northwards. “I lost almost all my money,” he says.

“At home, people will probably think I’m a loser because I didn’t make it, but I don’t care. I’m sure my family will be happy that I return home alive. That’s something not all Arab-bound travellers can say…”

Happy end

When Welde Selassie arrives in Messanu, he expects to find new groups of unemployed young villagers already prepared for a similar fortune-seeking adventure. His little brother is one of them. Recently he learned that, he went to Saudi Arabia as well. Nobody knows how he’s doing.

The horrifying stories about days of walking through the desert, lousy payment, prison or worse, won’t keep them from trying their luck, he says.

“We all know that there are losers and winners but, like me, these people focus on the stories with a happy end. After all, even if they are only small in number, some villagers manage to return home with money in their pockets.”

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