Hi. My name is Sammy. I would like to share with you a story. We all have a story. This is God’s story. This is my story. This is how my story fits in God’s story. You could say: this is a Christmas story of a different kind. I want to challenge you with my story this year. I would like for you to think Eritrea whenever you hear the word Christmas this year. You will know why as you hear my story. So let’s begin…
Have you ever heard of Eritrea? If you have not, you are like many people I know, but I would like to change that. The name of my home country Eritrea comes from the ancient Greek word that means “red sea”. Geographically, my country is located in East Africa bordered clockwise by the Red Sea, and the countries of Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Historically, Eritrea has a rich Christian heritage. Modern day Eritrea was one of the first countries in the world to adopt Christianity. Due to our proximity and close association with Ethiopia, some trace our Christian roots all the way back to the Ethiopian eunuch in the Book of Acts. Christianity has been recognized officially by Eritreans as far back as the 4th Century. Even after followers of Mohammed arrived to the region in the 600’s, many Eritreans continued to follow Jesus Christ. Today, Eritrea is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims, and because the Christians live in the highlands and the Muslims live in the lowlands, peace has existed between these two religions.
Eritrea throughout history has been closely associated with Ethiopia. Sometimes we were recognized as one country with our neighbor to the south, and at other times we have been two independent nations. In 1962, however, Ethiopia annexed Eritrea, and the two nations were considered one at the cost of stripping Eritrea of its language, culture and ability to self-govern. A decades-long armed struggle for independence followed, and tens of thousands of men and women, including my uncle, lost their lives as resistance fighters to win back Eritrea’s sovereignty.
In 1982, I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and grew up with my parents and ten siblings in the smaller town of Dire Dawa, in a very strong Catholic tradition. My father was a manager of a successful textile factory and later managed a large business that exported coffee internationally. My family lived a good life. We were able to afford a housekeeper, a cook, a tutor, a chauffeur, and my parents sent us to a private Catholic school.
However, life soon changed dramatically. In 1991, the Eritrean rebels prevailed in their quest for independence. Eritrea and Ethiopia now were again recognized as two separate countries. In 1998, a border war erupted between Ethiopia, the country where we were living, and Eritrea, the neighboring country. Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, announced on national television in July that Eritreans were no longer welcome in Ethiopia. He declared “If the Ethiopian government says, ‘We don’t like the color of their eyes, and get out,’ then they should get out.”
Because my parents were originally from Eritrea, we now were among the 75,000 Eritreans deported back to our country of origin. My dad had just passed away from illness. While we were still mourning his loss, we were ordered to leave the only home my siblings and I had ever known. My mom was detained by authorities. We were uprooted and for several days moved from one deportation camp to another. All the while our homes, properties, and monies were confiscated by the Ethiopian government. We were taken to Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, emptyhanded. The world we knew was no more. What we did not know was that Eritrea too was changing.
Our world had changed dramatically in 1991. The cold war between Eritrea and Ethiopia would go on until 2018. The war gave the Eritrean government reason to limit its own people’s freedoms. The Eritrea government began to force men of all ages, and eventually women as well, into long-term military service to fight in the border war. Before the new Eritrea government declared independence in 1993, Eritreans fought for freedoms of speech, religion, and economic prosperity. Then, beginning in 2002, the Eritrean government declared that Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church and Sunni Islam to be the only religions permissible in the country. Gradually the government began to control these religious organizations. Any other freely thinking congregation like Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostal Christians, or Jehovah’s Witness were officially closed by the government. These “other and unapproved religions” were considered westernized agents of the CIA. Their members’ loyalty to Eritrean nationalism was questioned. Bible-believing Christians were insulted with the derogatory term “pentay”. The government’s propaganda manipulated Eritreans to be suspicious of Bible believers to the point that Christians were disowned by their families, reported by their friends, and imprisoned indefinitely by the government simply for being Christian. The President of Eritrea declared that Christian evangelism would destabilize and disunite the country, therefore it would be forbidden. A new cultural climate was emerging where it became more acceptable for young people to go a club and drink alcohol than participate in a Bible study or church fellowship. The world in which we lived was changing before our eyes and becoming worse.
In 2001, while I was in high school in Eritrea, I started attending a reformed Catholic Christian prayer group after my two brothers accepted Christ and were baptized in the church. I heard the Scripture in a way that I never understood before and received Jesus Christ as my personal Savior. As a new believer, I found so much joy studying the Bible at an underground home cell group. I invited schoolmates to attend with me. Then in 2002 the Eritrean government banned all unapproved religious gatherings. With the increasing pressures of limited freedoms, religious persecution, imprisonment, and indefinite forced military conscription, I knew I needed to leave Eritrea. In 2004, I remember telling my mother about my plans to escape with a group of young men. We had planned to meet a smuggler the next day to leave on foot and travel through the desert to freedom in Sudan. However, my mother took me on a long walk and begged me to reconsider. She did not want me to go. That same night before my anticipated departure, God spoke to me in a strange dream. The dream depicted a mother cow chasing a moving meat truck with its doors swinging open as it sped down the road. In my dream I looked into the back of the truck and saw slabs of raw meat and a lone calf dangling from meat hooks. Then, the mother cow reached into the meat truck and rescued the lone calf from slaughter. After I woke up, I decided that I would not leave that day with the others. The morning I had been planning my escape, the three young men I had scheduled to leave the country with were captured by police and taken to prison. God had spared me for the time being from being incarcerated by speaking through my God-fearing mother and a dream. I will never forget how He watched over me.
This might sound a little strange to you but military service under the Eritrean government is commonly described as modern-day slavery.
It was not an easy decision, but I decided it best to repeat high school in Eritrea starting again in the tenth grade. I knew my former classmates in Ethiopia were already graduating, attending universities in Ethiopia and Europe, and pursuing their dreams. However, I knew it would be better to repeat high school classes, as some of my Eritrean classmates intentionally failed math or science courses, to avoid the mandatory military assignments that began at age 18, at the end of high school. The military not only fought in a seemingly endless border war with neighboring Ethiopia, but the military was also used by the government to enforce and inflict inhumane treatment of our own citizens. Soldiers who refused orders to abuse or unjustly punish neighbors who stood for righteousness or for their faith, understood that they too would be cruelly punished, abused, or imprisoned. In the mandatory military, one never knows when his or her term of service would be over, and dreams of marriage, starting families, and pursuing academic and employment opportunities were eliminated.
One weekend in 2001, while walking with friends down the street, I was picked up by a military truck and taken to a police station. They interrogated, imprisoned, and tortured me because I was seemingly of age but not yet in the military. They abruptly sent me to a military camp in the desert. During my year at the camp that bordered Sudan, I witnessed firsthand hundreds of young people suffer in prison and in the military camp. I was beaten, trekked on rugged mountain trails until my feet bled, and endured intense days of hard labor. My clothing was inadequate for the desert temperatures. My food was barely enough for survival. Many Eritrean’s suffer immensely at the hands of our own communist government. And similar to the biographies written by my Eritrean brethren incarcerated in “Sacred Suffering” and “Song of the Nightingale,” I soon discovered that Christians would suffer more for our unrelenting faith in Jesus Christ.
In 2002, I escaped from military service by hiding in the back of a military truck making a delivery to the capital city of Asmara. There I was able to secretly enroll in the Institute of Religious Studies. Despite being a Pentecostal Christian, I was protected at this Catholic seminary boarding school. God provided the means for me to escape imprisonment and brutal military service. He enabled me to take classes. He kept me safe. I was aware that God was with me, sustaining me, making a way and watching over me.
In May 2005, I completed my undergraduate degree with a concentration in psychology and theology at the Institute of Religious Studies. However, the realization that there was little hope for a Christian living in Eritrea became unbearable. What could I do here? Due to my faith, it would only be a matter of time before I would be captured again, and returned to the military, or prison, or worse. Despite the great perils that come with trying to escape, I came to the conclusion that I would rather die trying to gain my freedom than be destined to indefinite military service, incarceration for my faith, or the forfeiture of educational and employment opportunities. For free thinkers in my country’s communist government, any resistance or expression of ideas that challenge governmental control is dealt with swiftly and harshly. I knew I needed to try to leave. The Bible verse Romans 10:13 “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” convinced me to proceed at this time with a new escape plan.
God was providing a way. A few of my older siblings wired money to me that would be used to provide my escape to Khartoum, Sudan. Several of my older siblings were already residing in the United States because they had left Eritrea during a peaceful time before the cold war crisis. I knew the journey through the desert would be risky. It was common knowledge that some smugglers would steal the money and abandon the people in the desert in the middle of the night. Others seeking to escape would be shot in the back in route or captured by the Eritrean military and imprisoned. Often refugees could not withstand the desert elements, the rugged trails, the extreme heat by day, and cold by night, and would never survive the journey. Others did not realize until it was too late, that instead of escaping, they were being led into a life of human trafficking. By God’s grace, my smuggler led me by foot through the dessert with only the stars at night to guide us. We safely arrived in Sudan where I would eventually be reunited with other Eritrean Christians. Yes, I was elated to have safely arrived, but since there are spies of the Eritrean government in Sudan, there was always the lingering threat of being captured and forced back to Eritrea.
My journey out of Eritrea was unique from three of my other siblings’ safe passage out. My twin brother, escaped by truck through the Sahara Desert to Libya, where he took a boat across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. In Libya, unfortunately, some of our Christian brethren have been killed in execution style for their faith by ISIS, and others have drowned when their over-crowded boats capsized at sea. My younger brother, escaped through Sudan and traveled by plane to Hong Kong, China, where he received asylum in order to seek refuge status in the United States. My younger sister escaped as I did through Sudan; however, she was captured by Muslims who sought to ransom her for money. Fortunately, she was able to escape from them without physical assault to seek refugee status in Nairobi, Kenya. Sadly, I am separated still from two of my siblings who are still living in Eritrea. They struggle to make a living for themselves and their families. My oldest brother is permanently disabled and suffers from PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) from his mandatory military service. He now requires a personal caregiver to function daily.
I thank God that even though we are all scattered, all my family trusts in Jesus Christ. I thank God for delivery from this cruel political system. However, my journey and struggles were not over.
I was glad to cross the border into Sudan safely, but I discovered that I was not free from difficulty. Upon my arrival as a refugee in the town of Kassala in eastern Sudan, I was tortured by the Sudanese police who accused me of being a spy. My interrogation included a strip search, being patted down for money and valuables, beatings with sticks, scare tactics with scorpions, and threatening deportation back to Eritrea. This torture happened between their daily Muslim prayer times. They would torture me, then at the call to prayer, they would kneel on their prayer mats in the cell where I was detained and pray. I pleaded with them to release me by saying “How can you torture me and pray to your god at the same time?” After a week of interrogation, I was released and I registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I was able to seek asylum as a persecuted Christian and assigned to a refugee camp. Though I was no longer being tortured, the refugee camp conditions were deplorable. Refugee camps in eastern Sudan are violent. Sudanese police can be physically abusive and refugees are subject to kidnappings by human traffickers. Daily survival in refugee camps is difficult because of the lack of basic necessities like adequate food, shelter, sanitation, and safety concerns. Therefore, after three weeks in a refugee camp, I was able to arrange for a smuggler to take me to Khartoum by a SUV where I united with a Christian fellowship. I stayed in safety with them for six months before travelling to Nairobi, Kenya for better opportunities. I was learning to take one step at a time. As I would take one step, God would help and show me the next.
In 2006, I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, where the De La Salle Brothers, a Catholic organization welcomed me. They provided me with housing, food, and a scholarship to complete further university studies. I also joined Ebenezer Christian Church comprised of Eritrean refugees like myself so that we could encourage one another through our challenging circumstances. We all still had loved ones in Eritrea and we were greatly concerned for them. We also encouraged one another to glorify God where we were at this time, in new ministries where he placed us. My work while in Nairobi was as a De La Salle brother teaching youth math, the sciences, and religious education. I was to prepare these students for future higher education opportunities so that they could gain employment, support their families, and help their siblings who were following behind them. We had a deep sense of purpose here - we had been helped to help others.
Marriage and a family
In January of 2009, a woman traveled from the United States to participate on a medical rotation at the Nairobi Women’s Hospital. It was here that we met. We would work together coordinating a mentoring event for fifty high school students in the Kibera slums, the largest urban slum in Africa. She returned to the United States and we continued to communicate and then court long distance. It was our love for the Lord and our commitment to serve Him that drew us closer and closer together. When this lovely woman returned to Kenya, I asked her to marry me. She said “Yes!” We married in Kenya in March 2010. I was soon able to join her in the United States with a marriage visa in June 2010. All this was a faith journey and nothing short of a miracle as Christ overcame our cultural and religious traditions and broke generational curses by our profession of covenant love to Christ and to one another. We know God brought us together. We know God intends to carry out His purpose in and through our marriage which we both know includes ministry to build up new generations of faith in Him.
Fast-forward to 2020, God moved us to Texas. God has given us a family. We are safe. My family and I are grateful to be a part of a Bible-believing church where Christ culture is encouraged to be lived 24/7. We realize that God now has led us to a place where most people have never heard of Eritrea - much less of the atrocities that readily occur in the darkness. I pray and long for the day when I can see Eritrea again, and the church that I came to know Christ and grow up in Christ there. Eritrea remains the second worst country in the world for Christian persecution, after North Korea. I yearn for, as with so many Eritreans brothers and sisters, the day that they can gather to worship freely and live for Christ without opposition.
I realize that God has been preparing and nurturing in my family all these years a vision. God’s vision is for us to start Enduring Hope Network (EHN) ministry to support the persecuted church by focusing on our brothers and sisters in Eritrea and the refugee camps in neighboring countries. Hebrews 13:3 says so much to me as it states “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
Thank you so much for listening to my story. Thank you so much for helping. Life’s challenges have always been bigger than me. What God is asking us to do now is bigger than all of us. Once again we step out in faith, trusting the Lord, for His help and deliverance.
I believe God is leading me to start a ministry named Enduring Hope Network. “Enduring Hope Network (EHN) exists to rescue the afflicted, restore the broken, sustain the faithful, empower the church, and end the persecution in Eritrea for the glory of the Lord.”