Telling the Human Story, 14 June 2012
CHOUCHA TRANSIT CAMP, Tunisia, June 14 (UNHCR) – His father died in prison, his mother passed away from the shock and his beloved sister just gave up in protest and wasted away in front of him as they fled their past.
Bayisa* is only 17, but says he feels like an adult. And though he looks young, there's an incredible maturity about this ethnic Oromo teenager from western Ethiopia. This and his Christian faith have helped him to overcome one tragedy after another and cope with loneliness since losing his family.
He's been living in the Choucha Transit Camp in southern Tunisia since March last year, one of almost 2,700 refugees and asylum-seekers awaiting news on resettlement. About 860 of them, including Bayisa, have been accepted by resettlement countries, after referral by UNHCR, but are still awaiting departure dates. He is going to Denmark, which has a special programme for unaccompanied minors.
This news has given Bayisa tremendous hope for the future after so much uncertainty and it means he will have reason to celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20, albeit still in a tent under the scorching summer sun of Choucha. He's been making the most of this time here ahead of his imminent departure, studying English five days a week, taking computer training and learning how to play the piano and guitar from a Tunisian teacher.
As an unaccompanied minor, he is regarded as a person of special concern by UNHCR, which provides foster care through the communities and partners on the ground. He's built close bonds with UNHCR staff, who are impressed by his strength. It was hard seeing some of the other unaccompanied minors whom he had befriended leave for Norway in February, before he got word in May that he would soon be going too.
Being on his own, Bayisa needs to be self-sufficient. "I feel like a man. Getting from Ethiopia to here, I have had many experiences that have made me grow [as a person]," he told UNHCR in the tent he shares with another boy. "My friends in Ethiopia have seen nothing compared to me."
He was raised in hardship, but surrounded by a loving family. That changed in January 2009, when, Bayisa claimed, security officials came to their humble home, broke down the door and dragged his father, who worked as a driver, off into the night. "I don't know if he was involved in politics," said the boy. "In May, we heard that he had died in prison," he said, adding that his distraught mother's blood pressure shot up and she died shortly afterwards.
But the ordeal was only beginning. Not long after his mother's death, the police came round and spoke to Bayisa, then 15, and his 22-year-old sister, Marie,* about their father's death. "My sister got angry . . . They arrested me and my sister and sent us to prison," he said. "We were held for one month. My uncle paid some money and we were released. Then we left the country." added the boy, who left behind four younger siblings with family. He has not heard from them since.
Marie paid smugglers to take them to Khartoum, capital of neighbouring Sudan. She found a job in a Sudanese restaurant, but after three months rushed home and told Bayisa that they must leave because she feared the government was arresting illegal immigrants.
It was late 2009 and they decided to head to Libya, but Marie was clearly struggling with deep trauma, and a growing rage. They travelled with a large group across the Sahara, suffering from the heat and shortage of water. "When she remembered what had happened to us, she got angry and did not eat. I don't know why," Bayisa recalled. "She became very tired and then she started asking me for water, but we had run out. She got thin and died."
It was a devastating moment, coming 11 days into their journey. She was buried in the desert by fellow passengers, the boy said. "I fainted when she died. I was very sad and for two or three days I could do nothing. I thought I wanted to die like her. I was close to her and loved her."
But the other passengers were looking out for him and did a whip round to help the teenager get to Tripoli. He ended up working on a flower farm when the Arab Spring came to Libya in late February last year. "I was afraid for my safety," Bayisa explained. "I heard people coming to Tunisia and I came with an Oromo family [to Choucha on March 4, 2011]."
He's had plenty of time in Choucha to reflect, but it has been tough living in this arid area of southern Tunisia, unable to work and uncertain about his future. "I don't have any relatives here in the camp and the weather conditions are very difficult," Bayisa said, referring to the cold and rainy winter and scorching summer. "I don't like it here. It's very difficult to live here."
But now he can start thinking of a life beyond Choucha; a life which he hopes will include his younger brothers and sisters, whom he has been trying to trace with Red Cross help; and a life where he can study to become a scientist. "I miss them," he says of his family. "I want to change my life and theirs."
Almost 1,200 people have been resettled with UNHCR help from Choucha since it opened more than a year ago to house people fleeing from Libya and the uprising there. They include about 50 unaccompanied minors, who have mostly gone to Norway, Sweden and the US. Another 81 are in the resettlement process. A further 41 unaccompanied minors arrived after a December 1 cut-off date for consideration for resettlement.
* Names changed for protection reasons.
By Leo Dobbs in Choucha Transit Camp, Tunisia