From Forced Child Labor to Freedom and Success

Seyfu Lakew is an incredible example of human resiliency and courage.  To see him now–with his wife and two children, to hear about his 16-hour days working in Geographic Information Systems mapping at a ride-sharing company and how he looks forward to seeing his children grow in peace–you would never guess what he has been through.  His smile lights up a room.  He is a grateful man.  And he is a testament to the human spirit.

At the age of 6, he and his brother were captured in their home country of Ethiopia by Somali soldiers in a border war.  He spent the next eleven years as a forced laborer, beaten when he didn’t work hard enough in the rice fields, watching others perish around him.

He did not make it home to his family until he was 17, and by then his father had passed away.  Through sheer force of will, Seyfu threw himself into his education, eventually earning two Masters Degrees and becoming an expert on the effects of land use on public health and rates of poverty.  His work on climate change and his proposal to return land management to communities from the government put him in the crosshairs of authorities.  He was repeatedly arrested, jailed, and tortured.  Eventually he received a summons to a notorious prison site from which few people emerged.

At the time he had an invitation to the U.S. to consult with the Forest Service, and during that trip, Seyfu made the fateful decision to request asylum in America.  Asylum is a legal right, encoded in U.S. federal law and in international agreements to which the U.S. is party.  It can mean the difference between life and death, as it did for Seyfu.  He told his story for the first time in public at Refugees Northwest’s Taste of the World event.  He is so inspiring that we thought we’d share his speech with you below.  Thank you for standing with Seyfu and so many others who rebuild their lives in our communities, making us stronger and better for it!

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Good evening.

Here I am standing on this stage to share with you my life experience. I was born into a middle-income family in the Eastern part of Ethiopia. I lived in the warm hands of my family for only six years.

My first life-changing event happened in the summer of 1977 when I was only 6 years old. At midnight on this unlucky day, I heard the loud sounds of blasts and saw huge balls of fire. There were showers of bullets flying through the sky like shooting stars.

Here started the second paragraph of my life. That night I ran in fear with my 4-year old brother and so many other people. We were separated from our parents.  And as the sun rose, we were captured by the Somali Army. I saw the Somali Army kill many people, mostly men. They forced the women and children to walk 15 days with very little food and water. At the end of 15 days we were loaded onto a truck. The truck travelled for two more days until we crossed the border into Somalia.

 At the beginning of September, we reached a town in the north part of Somalia. The soldiers put us in a small room for about three months. The room was too small for the many women and children.  Everybody was sleeping on the floor without mattress or blanket.

We were moved to three different prisons before we finally reached a big concentration camp in southern Somalia. The concentration camp was in a very hot and swampy area. We were all exposed to many diseases including malaria.  At the concentration camp, I was forced to work in the rice fields for 15 hours a day.

Imagine a young child who was separated from parents and family, taken to another country, forced to work all day and being beaten for not working hard enough. Sleeping on the floor without a mattress or even a bed sheet. Very little food. I watched other people die of disease, die of starvation, or even beaten to death.

We had one day off of labor, Fridays. There was a prisoner among us, who was also a doctor. He started a school for the children on Fridays. That is how I learned to read and write and do math, and even learned advanced subjects including Algebra, Geometry, Physics and chemistry as the years went by. Every adult captive with a profession made sure that the children learned.

After 11 years, the governments of Somalia and Ethiopia finally came to an agreement and I was finally allowed to return home. By this time, I had been kept in prison from age 6 until I was almost 17.

After returning to Ethiopia, I was happy to find my mother and two sisters alive, but the sad story was that I lost my dad in the war. I was able to walk freely, to eat regularly, to sleep in bed and imagine the feeling to find myself in my family again.

As a grown boy, I was determined to work hard to make up for lost time. With ten years of hard work, I graduated from one of the best Universities in Ethiopia. I focused my energy on my education. I received my first Master’s degree in Geographic Information System mapping and my second Master’s in public health. My dream was to start my own Research and Consulting firm that focused on how land use affected the health of the people.  For example, I was researching how global warming impacted the rates of diseases like malaria.

At this time, I was a happy and hard-working person. I got married and had two children, one daughter and one son. I was doing my best for myself and for my country. I joined a political party and started to do research on how to eliminate poverty in Ethiopia. Our research team came to the conclusion that land in Ethiopia would be better owned and managed by the community rather than the government. The government of Ethiopia found this opinion to threaten their power. Soon, While I was working in the field doing research, representatives of the government started to harass me and warned me to quit talking about these matters. But I refused to quit talking because I wanted to do the right thing for my country. I was arrested and thrown in jail and there I was badly tortured. I still refused to quit talking. In total I was arrested four times. The last time they released me, they warned me that if I continued to talk about this land policy I would be killed.

Not long after this, I was out doing field work when my wife received a warrant for my arrest. I was being ordered to report to a complex that was notorious as a torture center. My wife called me and told me about the warrant, and I knew I had to leave.  My life was in danger.  Luckily, I had an invitation from the US Forest Service to visit the U.S. to do consulting work.  Because of this invitation, I was able to travel to the United States, and once I was here, I asked for asylum. This was in April of 2015.

I came to the US to save my life, but I lost many other things—my career, my family, and even my hope. It was a very dark time. I was alone.  I had no money, no place to live, and I was forbidden by law from working.

During this dark time, I came to Refugees Northwest. I was able to get the help I so badly needed.  Refugees Northwest helped me get a free lawyer to work on my asylum case. They gave me food and clothing. They made sure I had bus tickets so I could get around. They connected me with a counselor, which was a big thing. At the time, I had no one to speak with and I felt so alone. When I talked with Anisa about what I felt, this very much helped me to cope.  It made me more comfortable.   I want to thank many people including Elizabeth Roseman, my lawyer; Anisa who was my counselor, Nichole who was my caseworker, and Beth who helped with my case. They all helped put me on my path to rebuild my life in the United States.

In December 2016, I learned that the US government had granted me asylum which allowed me legal status to stay in the U.S.  But I still needed to build a life.  Refugees NW then helped me get medical insurance and benefits, and most importantly, they helped me file the immigration documents for my family to join me. Around Christmas time last year, I learned my family would be able to join me in the United States.  Even as I went to the airport to receive them, I almost could not believe it was real.

After three long and lonely years, I could touch them, I could kiss them. It was like a miracle. Every day when I wake up, I have to check that they are really here with me and it is not a dream.

I am happy to report that I recently got a full-time job at Lyft doing Geographic Information System mapping. I enjoy this work and am so glad to be able to support my family and continue in my profession.

I am now hopeful. I am looking forward to raising my children and watching them go to college. It is important to me that they can speak and live freely. They are safe. They will not have to go through what I went through. We have a home and we have hope, together as a family.

I hope that telling you about my life experience helps you to understand how important the work of Refugees NW really is. What they do can save and change the lives of people who have been through so much.  For my family and myself, I ask you to please support this organization so that other people like us can begin a new life in the United States. Thank you very much!