Escape from Eritrea

June 14, 2018 at 3:59 PM / by UC College of Nursing


Years after fleeing his native country of Eritrea, Africa, Gebrezgiabhier "GT" Abraha (left) graduated in April with his bachelor's in nursing.


By: Laura Toerner

May 12, 2010, is a date Gebrezgiabhier Abraha will not forget. It’s the day he landed in the United States after risking his life to flee his home country of Eritrea, Africa.

On April 28, Abraha, known to friends as “GT,” graduated with his Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of Cincinnati, capping an earnest and tireless journey to freedom, self-sufficiency and personal fulfillment.

“I feel very proud,” he says.

Soon, Abraha, 32, will begin working as a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at Mercy Health-West Hospital in Monfort Heights, Cincinnati. As much as he looks forward to the future, he welcomes the opportunity to share his past—perhaps as a gratifying reminder of how far he’s come.

Nearly a decade ago, Abraha graduated with a bachelor’s in health sciences from a university in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. As is common, the country’s authoritarian government assigned him to a position that paid the paltry equivalent of $10 a month—not nearly enough to sustain himself. His family in Eritrea and a brother in Israel gave what little they could to keep Abraha afloat.

“It is a bitter life to live there—where you aren’t able to support yourself, even after you have a bachelor’s,” says Abraha. “I had no vision of starting a family; I wouldn’t have been able to support them.”

The life Abraha couldn’t afford didn’t offer much. Eritrea’s government severely limits civil liberties and requires all citizens to serve at least 18 months in the military. Abraha’s service began in 12th grade, when he was forced to attend school and basic training at the same time.

“We were treated as soldiers,” he says. “The place is very stressful. ... You cannot focus and study.”

Abraha recalls one day when he wore a gold-colored necklace—a modest but forbidden keepsake—to military training. As punishment, Abraha’s commander made him lie on his back in the sweltering, mid-afternoon heat and point at the sun. After a torturous hour, Abraha says he couldn’t stand, talk or see clearly.

“My friends, who were waiting for me because they were worried, grabbed me, carried me into my room and gave me water. I finished a gallon and felt better, but I almost died in that situation. Another 10 minutes, and I probably would have died.”

Despite such harsh learning conditions, Abraha performed well enough in school that he could return to civilian life after he completed his required service. He went on to college, dreaming constantly of a life in the U.S.

'The Greatest Opportunity'

In early 2010, Abraha received “the greatest opportunity.” He applied and was selected in a lottery for the chance to receive a U.S. visa. To complete the process, he needed to interview in person at a U.S. Embassy, but the embassy in Asmara does not process immigrant visas. At that point, Abraha had two options: stay in Eritrea, or risk torture and death to flee in secret to Ethiopia.

“I would rather take a chance for that,” he said of the latter. “At least I would have hope to go through that interview process and come to the United States,” a place Abraha and others in Eritrea call “paradise on earth.”

Abraha couldn’t tell his immediate family or anyone else of his plans. He consulted only an older cousin—who Abraha knew had applied many times for an immigrant visa—for advice.

With a plan privately in place, he visited his parents’ house a final time (unbeknownst to them) and set out on foot to walk nearly 10 miles to the border, wearing dirty clothes and carrying only an expired university I.D., proof of employment, and a few small photos. Any more than that, and Abraha feared authorities would sniff him out.

gt-identification-eritreaOn Feb. 10, 2010, in the dead of night and with nerves of steel, Abraha approached the border to Ethiopia, handed over his I.D., and told the soldiers he was only passing through for a short time.

“If they would have taken my I.D., I would not have been able to come to the U.S. They would have had all of my information and put my parents in the worst prison,” Abraha says. “There are many parents who die because of their kids.”

The soldiers checked Abraha’s I.D., handed it back, and permitted him into Ethiopia. There, he spent six weeks in Mai-Aini refugee camp and another two months in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, where he completed his visa application and received the green light to enter the U.S.

“I was very emotional after that,” Abraha says. For the first time in his life, he boarded an airplane “to come to the best place—where I had been dreaming to come.”

From Dream to Reality

As planned and without a penny to his name, Abraha landed in Cincinnati to stay with an older cousin. Within seven months, he started working full time and attending classes part time at Cincinnati State. He worked first as a parking attendant and later at an assisted-living and rehabilitation facility to gain experience, but also observe health care in the U.S., while he earned his Associate of Science.

“I didn’t know how the health care system worked and how it would look when I became a nurse. I wanted to be close to doctors and nurses,” Abraha says.

In his precious free time, he watched movies, read books, and signed on to serve as an interpreter in health clinics and home-health settings to strengthen his English.

GT and wife, NegishaAbraha completed his associate degree in May 2015 and began working toward his BSN in August 2015—the final step toward realizing his lifelong dream of becoming a nurse, which started with a positive childhood experience while in a hospital and renewed when he worked for the government and witnessed nurses in the field making a difference.

While in school in June 2016, Abraha returned to Africa for the first time since he left to marry his wife, Negisha in Sudan. Afterward, he supported her from afar as he fervently petitioned for her U.S. visa.

“It was very challenging, but I had to make it happen,” Abraha says. “She had to be here for my graduation. I wanted her to be here so she could see that I’m happy and I’m happy for her to be here.”

Abraha prevailed, and Negisha arrived with six months to spare. At the commencement ceremony, she was speechless, Abraha says. “She was emotional. She was hugging me and looking at me, but she couldn’t talk.”

In a few years, Abraha aspires to return to school to become a nurse practitioner, but for now, he plans to do the very thing he couldn’t envision in Eritrea.

“Right now, it’s time to spend some time with my wife and start a family.”

This article appears in the summer 2018 edition of UC Nursing magazine.

Topics: magazine