Refugee Mom Hangs On, As Son Soars

Thomas MacMillan PhotoIf he can raise the money, Newhallville 13-year-old Berket will join a national youth leadership conference in Washington D.C. this summer. It will be the latest step on a journey he began as an infant with his mother in Ethiopia, part of a path that winds through Kenya, Uganda, and a New Haven homeless shelter.

Berket has been invited to participate in the Junior National Young Leaders Conference, a summer leadership training gathering for “high-achieving” middle-schoolers from all over the country. Berket, a self-described “bookworm,” is thriving in the seventh grade at Celentano School, where he plays soccer and the clarinet.

Meanwhile his mom, Sara, who has been struggling to find work, just learned that her unemployment payments have run out. It’s just the latest difficulty she’s faced since she fled from political persecution in Ethiopia in 2000 with an infant Berket in her arms.

Sara and Berket traveled from Ethiopia to Kenya and Uganda, where they lived for four years in a refugee camp. Their arrival as refugees in the United States in 2004 did not mark an end to their troubles. Sara and Berket have struggled with homelessness, and now live in a transitional housing apartment building on Winchester Avenue in Newhallville called Stepping Stone.

The walls of Berket’s room in the spare linoleum-lined apartment are plastered with certificates recognizing his academic achievements. A poster with the Amharic alphabet hangs on the wall of the living room, alongside photos of mother and son.

Sitting at the kitchen table in the first-floor apartment one recent morning, Sara recounted her tale of more than a decade of flight and struggle in pursuit of a better life for her and her son.

In 1998, she was living in Addis Ababa with her husband and 4-year-old son Ezana when her husband, a car mechanic, was arrested for political agitation. Four men in military uniforms came to the house and took him away in a Jeep. For six weeks, Sara delivered food for her husband to the prison, where “they look at you like a criminal,” but then she was told to stop bringing food. A couple weeks later she was given her husband’s clothes. He was dead.

Four months later, two men in uniform came to the house. They told her they were looking for a gun and incriminating documents. Then they brutally attacked her.

Sara fled to her mother’s house, where on Jan. 5, 1999, she gave birth to a second son, Berket. When Berket was 15 months old and Sara no longer felt safe in Ethiopia, she bundled him up and fled for the border, leaving her older son in the care of her family.

A Load Of Goats

She crossed the border into Kenya with nothing more than the clothes on her back, her son, a small amount of money and some gold. She paid a truck driver with a load of goats to take her to Nairobi. She found a hotel; the staff refused to let her have a room, even when she begged. They sent her instead to an elderly Ethiopian woman living nearby, who took her into her tiny home. “She’s sad for me, she lets me in.”

The woman told Sara there were no jobs in Nairobi for her. “It’s better to go to Uganda.” In three days, Sara sold some of her rings and connected with a businessman who, for a fee, helped her cross the border.

She made her way to Kampala, where “everything is weird” again. No one knew what to do with her. She ended up at the police station. Cops gave her a small room with a thin mattress and told her she could stay there. They also told her she should register with a refugee office.

She met a man working for the U.N. He was moved enough by her story that he helped her bypass the normal procedure for asylum seekers, which would have sent her back to Kenya. He helped place her and Berket in a refugee camp near the border between Uganda and Rwanda.

It became their home for four years. She slept in a hut and cooked over a charcoal fire. She paid for clean drinking water that she had to haul herself. Amid it all, she found a source for fresh milk for little Berket. “I try my best everything to do for him.”

“People stay eight years, 10 years” in the camp, Sara said. “That’s not a big deal.” She was expecting to stay that long, too.


Then a Danish man arrived, an administrator whom all the refugees saw as the guy who decides who gets resettled. “It’s a big deal even to touch him, to talk to him.”

Sara managed to buttonhole him when he was getting some water. Like the woman in Naitobi and the cops in Kampala, the Dane was touched by Sara tale. He put her name on the list for resettlement.

Sara and Berket moved to a small apartment in Kampala to begin the process, not knowing where she would be sent, to Canada or Australia or the U.S. Again she expected to wait for as long as two year. She stayed only three months.

The U.S. embassy called her for an interview that was so short she felt sure she had been rejected. A week later, she stopped at the embassy to pick up an envelope with a resettlement decision inside.

“I’m scared to open it. I pray. I pray. I put my hand on it,” Sara said. Finally she opened it. “Congratulations,” it read.

“I can’t believe it. Immediately I run to church,” she said. “I kneel. I sing. I’m so happy.”

On Feb. 18, 2004, Sara and her son left for the airport. She asked the International Organization for Migration resettlement staffers where she was going. “They say, ‘New Haven.’” Sara had never heard of the place and worried there was some mistake.

After a brief stop in London, she and Berket landed at JFK and was taken to a hotel, where she slept in a proper bed for the first time since she fled Ethiopia five years earlier. “We sleep there. We see TV. We can’t believe it.”

The next day, she and Berket were driven to New Haven, then taken to St. John the Baptist, the Guilford church that sponsored her journey. Members of the church gave her clothes and set her up in an apartment in West Haven. After a couple of short-term jobs, she and Berket moved to Hartford, where she had a job cooking in an Ethiopian restaurant. Sara lost that job when the boss told her she had to work until 11 p.m. and that Berket couldn’t stay in the kitchen with her while she worked.

Sara then found a good job as a home aide, cooking, cleaning, and helping to care for elderly and disabled people. She did that job for four years, until 2009, when a client’s wheelchair tripped her. She fell badly, tangling her arm in the chair and wrenching her left shoulder.

She went to the emergency room and got treatment. Then she got a bill for $4,000, which she said her boss refused to pay. After a drawn-out battle, her employer was eventually forced to pay her medical bills, but he wouldn’t hire her back.

Sara and Berket ended up back in New Haven, where they rented a room from a Somali couple she knew through church. After violent fighting by the couple, Sara took her son and, with nowhere to turn, ended up in a homeless shelter on Sylvan Avenue.

She and Berket stayed there for five months before landing in Stepping Stone in February 2011.

Since then Sara has been volunteering at Yale-New Haven Hospital and applying for jobs everywhere she can. She has not been able to find work. She’s limited by the fact that she’s can’t leave Berket alone in the evenings or the mornings.

“Everywhere I apply, I apply,” she said. “I’m trying my best.”

Sara has also completed the state’s Parent Leadership Training Institute and is now involved with Mothers For Justice, a women’s advocacy group organized by Christian Community Action. On Tuesday afternoon, she traveled to the state Capitol to help lobby for raising the minimum wage.

She said she’d like to become a citizen, to bring her older son Azeza, now 17, to the United States. She said she is satisfied for the time being that he is being well cared for by her family in Ethiopia.

Books, Not Toys

Her main focus, as it has been through three countries and 13 years, is Berket. If he is not in school he is with her. “He is my friend. Everywhere we are together. I take all my time on him.”

Sara organizes Berket’s afternoons: 30 minutes of reading, 30 minutes of homework. She tries to buy him books when he asks her for more. He never asks for toys, she said. “I can’t say no.”

At the kitchen table, Sara proudly pulled out the embossed ecru envelope containing her son’s invitation to the D.C. conference. She showed off the essay he wrote to get in, in which he extols the virtues of magnanimity and praises Michelle Obama.

“When I see his results, I get strong,” she said.

Berket said he likes science and math and wants to be a chemist. He wants to cure cancer, he said.

“I’m going to save up money to buy a big house for people who don’t have a home,” he said. “I want to help more.”

Berket has applied for a scholarship to cover the $1,700 fee for participation in the Junior National Young Leaders Conference. He and his mom will find out in March if he’s received it.


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