Escape for Freedom , Eritrean refugee settles in Modesto California

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By Lisa Millegan Renner

When Michael Welde Michael crossed the border from his native Eritrea into Ethiopia, he not only had to worry about getting shot, he had to guard against hyenas.

He spent that first night in Ethiopia in a tree because he feared that the hungry wild animals might attack him.

Now safe in his new apartment in north Modesto, he is glad to have more mundane concerns — such as finding a job.

Michael, 33, is one of some 150 refugees assisted this year by World Relief’s Modesto office. He’s one of the only natives of the small North African country of Eritrea to pass through the organization’s doors; the rest mainly come from Iraq and Iran. World Relief connects the refugees with churches and helps them get started in their new community.


Michael Woldemichael

A member of the Tigrinya ethnic group, Michael fled his homeland because of religious persecution. He was a member of a Protestant Pentecostal church in a country where the only legal religions are Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism and

Islam. While his parents and his nine brothers and sisters are Orthodox Christians, he became a Protestant at age 16.

One day in 2002, his new church was raided by police. He and other members of the congregation and the pastor were put in prison for six months. Out of the 600 people the prison held, nearly 100 were there for religious reasons.

“Many believers are still in jail,” said Michael, whose first language is Tigrinyan. He learned English in Eritrean school.

In prison, inmates were given very little food and were punished if more than two Protestants were talking at a time.

Bound, stuck in the sun

Prisoners who were punished often were chained with their bodies either in a balled position or with their hands and legs bound together behind their backs. They had to sit in the hot sun for hours, Michael said.

Upon his release from prison, he knew he had to leave his homeland. “I thought, there are other countries where we can practice our beliefs,” he said.

Once an Italian colony, Eritrea was under British administration from 1941 to 1953 and was annexed by Ethiopia as a province in 1962. Eritrea has faced political turmoil and war since gaining its independence in 1993. First, the country battled over the Red Sea islands with Yemen, then faced a border war with Ethiopia in 1998.

Much of the 5 million people who live there are poor and hungry.

Aside from the religious persecution, Michael said he wanted to leave because he was tired of his forced participation in the “national service” program.

In Eritrea, most men between ages 18 to 40 and women between 18 to 27 must participate in national service, a military program, and go wherever the government directs them.

In 2004, he escaped to Ethiopia in the middle of the night, getting help from a friend who assisted him in walking across a river. He ended up in a refugee camp near the border, where he stayed for the next six years, sometimes serving as a community health worker.


Michael woldemichael demonstrates how he was bound during his imprisonment in Eritrean prison

Family fined for his escape

His family in Ethiopia was persecuted for his escape. The government demanded 50,000 nakfas ($3,300) as a fine, but his father didn’t have the money. It was an astronomical sum, considering Michael’s annual salary there never topped $240. Later, when one sister also escaped into the camp, his mother was put in jail.

Michael finally received permission to come to the United States. He knows no one here and came to Modesto because that’s where World Relief could accept him. But he had a big stroke of luck shortly after arriving three weeks ago; he found an Eritrean roommate.

Heather Mazza, church relations and volunteer coordinator for World Relief’s Modesto office, said her organization had been trying to contact the one Eritrean it knew, who had arrived a year earlier, but his phone was disconnected.

A day later, he walked into the office to check on the status of his cousin. He immediately was introduced to Michael, and the two hit it off.

Michael, who is single and has no children, said he would eventually like to bring other family members to America. He also would like to connect with bigger Eritrean communities in the Bay Area.

But for the time being, he’s going to concentrate on getting employment. “Thank God I am here now,” he said. “I hope things will be different.”


Bee staff writer Lisa Renner can be reached at

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