Yikealo Beyenne, 31 years old, from Anan, Eritrea
“I was a farmer, I would say, a country boy looking after animals and farming fields… I have these beautiful memories of running in the fields, playing with friends and climbing very high mountains,” said Yikealo Kesete Beyene.
Yikealo always had a passion for education. “I was a good student. I didn’t have this big picture of what I wanted to be, but I knew that I would get to this place through education.” When his town was attacked during the war, Yikealo and his family had to move to the local IDP camps. In spite of these turbulent events he managed to complete his studies.
The militarization of Eritrea began soon after. The new law required everyone who completed 11th grade to go to Sawa for compulsory military training. “I was abused many times, physically beaten and tied up, and sometimes for no reasons. One day, the commander told us to walk in one direction and I wanted to put my book away in my bag, so I was coming against [the crowd]. He started beating me and I got so angry that I didn’t feel the pain. I was crying because I felt reduced into no one.”
Yikealo tried to keep his head down in hopes that he would quickly complete his military service and then continue his studies.
“In these times, you find a way to express your dissatisfaction, your anger and everything as a youth. One day, I sent one of my articles to the only newspaper in the country… It was an opinion. The title was ‘Promise is debt’ and I was referring to the promises that the Minister of Education made in the previous years before Sawa. I wasn’t even aware that I was expressing my dissatisfaction, but I guess I was.” Yikealo was arrested for two weeks, during which time no one spoke to him. Afterwards, he was requested to sign a letter warning him against any other seemingly political activity.
“It’s as if the ‘Big Brother’ controls even your thoughts, not only your actions. It scared me more. I was being followed and I felt I was really unsafe.” Yikealo’s psychological state worsened rapidly and he began to carefully plan his escape. “I went onboard the bus and then inside the bus I sold the [bus] ticket. Then I sneaked out very carefully without anyone seeing and I traveled on foot to the border [Ethiopia]... I didn’t have any idea how it would look. I just wanted to be safe.”
After a 25 km trek, Yikealo reached Ethiopia safely. For the next two and a half years he stayed at the Shimelba Refugee Camp, where he worked as a teacher and then as an Education Coordinator with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “I was so active [in the camp] because I felt the freedom to be myself and influence, and I read books, I wrote things.” But the sense of safety was short lived. The camp was very close to the Eritrean border and the conflict was escalating. Fearing for his safety, Yikealo departed for Sudan, hoping he would find protection there.
Afterwards, Yikealo co-developed a community school and an afterschool program for fifty refugee children, for which he acted as an Educator and the General Coordinator of the program. “I have this naïve belief that only working with children can fix the world… We all know that childhood has the most significant influence on our aspirations, interests, our values, everything. So if children are taught to inherit the right values and treated well, to become better citizens of this world, I think that’s what will fix the current problems in the world.”
Yikealo spent a brief two months in a refugee camp in Sudan before proceeding on to Egypt. He eventually paid around $600 to Bedouin traffickers to be smuggled into Israel through the Sinai desert.
Yikealo arrived to Israel in February 2008 and two months later found employment as a night guard. This gave him ample opportunity to read and search for higher education opportunities in Israel. Eventually he found one.
“I did Psychology for my BA. It was a complete shift because in Eritrea in college I was doing Civil Engineering. I was a science student.” Yikealo not only completed his undergraduate at the IDC Herzilya, but continued on to complete an MA in Organizational Behavior and Development.
In January 2016, Yikealo joined his wife in the USA. While genuinely thrilled about his visa approval, his experience has forced him to moderate his expectations. When asked what he planned to do there, Yikealo explained: “I believe in creating institutions where children can be safe to become themselves, to socially interact with other children. This is my dream… I am a believer in civil society and people, and the power of people in creating institutions and working for the common good. This is the area where I will be involved wherever I go.”
Photos & Story: Untold Stories of Success