Works and Days



Escaping Eritrea: Stories of the Mass Exodus (Part 3)

In her first and second blog entries, Winta set out on the President's Summer Fellowship journey, travelling to Uganda to interview Eritrean refugees for a documentary, and reuniting with members of her family along the way. In this installment, she travels to Rome to interview more refugees.

            After leaving Uganda, my plan was to stay with my aunt in Italy and rely on her to help me connect with Eritrean refugees in the area. Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding about my arrival date and I actually landed the day she was leaving the country. Since I knew absolutely nobody else in Rome, I decided to get a hotel room in the city center. I noticed there were several Eritrean restaurants nearby and decided go in and ask the servers about where I might find Eritrean refugees in Rome. This required a lot of courage because I had no idea how they might receive me, but it turned out to be a successful endeavor. 

            The owner of the restaurant walked me to this place referred to as “The Palazzo” (which was two blocks away from my hotel room), and told me to talk to the Eritreans at the front desk. Though I couldn’t possibly describe everything that happened afterwards in this short blog, I will talk about two of the major highlights. 

Slim to None: the Eritrean Exodus: Part 2

A young boy leaves his home that he helped build at the Nakivale Refugee Camp.

In her first blog entry, Winta set out on the President's Summer Fellowship journey, travelling to Uganda to interview Eritrean refugees for a documentary, and reuniting with members of her family along the way. In this installment, she travels to a nearby refugee camp for her project.

When my brother agreed to drive me to Nakivale Refugee Camp, which is five hours away from Kampala, I assumed he knew how to get there. A few hours before we were set to depart, however, I noticed his apprehension. That’s when I found out he had never actually driven there himself. As I begin to rethink my plans he assured me that there was only one road in that direction, which meant there was no possible way to get lost. 

We decided to travel through the night, so we could arrive there early in the morning. Though I expected unpaved roads and minimal traffic lights, I was completely unprepared for the overwhelming darkness that threatened to swallow us into the wilderness. For most of the ride, it was so dark that my brother and I could not see each other in the car. I couldn’t help but think about how we were completely on our own, with no way to call for help if necessary. 

Slim to None: the Eritrean Exodus: Part 1

Smiling baby with grandmother.

Grandma meets grandbaby for the first time!

Quoting from Winta's President's Summer Fellowship proposal: This summer, I will make a film about this tragedy and the plight of the Eritrean refugees in general. I will interview Eritrean refugees in Uganda, Italy, and the United States. Being an Eritrean immigrant myself, I will explore the diaspora within my own family and demonstrate how film can be a medium for promoting social justice.

Last October, a boat holding 350+ Eritrean refugees capsized off the coast of Italy and rocked the Eritrean community, forcing me to confront questions about who I am and where I come from. While the basic story is that conditions inside of Eritrea are so terrible (indefinite mandatory military service, extrajudicial killings, president turned dictator, etc.) that people will risk everything to flee, I wanted to hear first-hand accounts of what was actually happening. I also aimed to gather first-hand accounts of what happened in Lampedusa when that boat carrying over 350 Eritrean asylum seekers capsized. Among other specifics of the event, I wanted to know if there were Italian witness who didn’t help the drowning Eritreans (as some news outlets have reported) and what effect that has had in the Italian political scene. Most importantly, I wanted to be able to share the stories I encountered with a much broader audience to finally illuminate tales of the Eritrean exodus.

As I was preparing to go to Uganda, it occurred to me that indefinite mandatory military service, the main complaint about Eritrea, is also the reason my family has been torn apart. Because my three older siblings were older than sixteen when my mom decided to move us to the U.S., the Eritrean government refused to grant them exit visas because they hadn’t satisfied their national duty requirements. After ten years of forced service, my brother decided to flee and is now a refugee. While I originally intended for him to be only my contact for gathering others’ stories, I realized ours was just as interesting and seemed key for exploring my own relationship with these issues. As such, Uganda also became the location of a family reunion. After fifteen years, I would be reintroduced to my older siblings; my mom would see her kids again and be introduced to two of her grandchildren; and, I would capture all of this on video to humanize the effects of the current Eritrean crisis.