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Eritrean Diaspora: Some Important Issues That Require Discussion.

Photo: Eritrean Festival in Toronto - Credit: Zantana Imaging 

Eritrean Diaspora: Some Important Issues That Require Discussion.

By Abel Kebedom

About 50 years ago Eritreans from all sort of life flocked to the country side to fight for a free and independent Eritrea. Similarly, during the 1998-2000 TPLF initiated war of aggression on Eritrea history repeated itself and the sons and daughters of Eritrea marched to the trenches to defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Eritrea. The wounds and negative consequences of the armed struggle that lasted for thirty years and TPLF war of aggression are still visible in our hearts, limbs and our overall fabric of social order. Eritrea has a significant number of families that lost their fathers, mothers, sons and daughters in the struggle for liberation and TPLF aggression with no means to support themselves. We have disabled veterans inside Eritrea and the Sudan who live way below acceptable standard of living and insufficient medical care. In the midst of those challenging social problems, it is important to go back and refer to the history of diaspora Eritreans and learn from our past experiences that helped us to remain steadfast, united and finally achieve our collective goal for independence. One of these experiences is the exemplary role the diaspora Eritreans played during the 1970’s and 1980’s in support of the Eritrean armed struggle for independence. In fact, it cannot be an exaggeration to say that if it was not for the support of diaspora Eritreans, the Eritrean struggle for independence wouldn’t have achieved its objective. In the same token if it was not for the support of diaspora Eritreans the TPLF aggression could have not been repulsed easily. It is also true that we came a long way and the current diaspora Eritrean community is more politically divided than the days of the liberation struggle and the 1998-2000 TPLF aggression. However, when it comes to supporting our disabled veterans, orphans, widows and families of those who gave their life during the liberation struggle and the border war, it is too big to be overshadowed by our differences. It is in light of this very important Eritrean value that I want to raise some troubling signs in the Eritrean diaspora that undermine our heritage, collective responsibility and national unity. These issues are economical, religious, political and social.

1. Economic issues.

It is public knowledge that diaspora Eritreans have better economic means than people in Eritrea. Moreover, it is important to note that many Eritrean families are dependent on diaspora Eritreans for their daily livelihood. It is also critical to mention that in addition to supporting their immediate families, so many diaspora Eritreans have taken responsibility in supporting the disabled veterans, orphans of the liberation struggle, the widows and other immediate families of those who gave their life for the defense of the country. Establishing a direct relationship between the supporter and the supported, with no interference from the government, has been the best and effective way to make sure that the money donated reaches the immediate beneficiaries.

Accordingly it is encouraging to see that many exemplary Eritreans in the diaspora are sacrificing the most important event in their life, their wedding ceremonies, and donating the money to support the negatively affected sections of the Eritrean society. However, it does not mean that there are no very troubling signs and trends in the Eritrean diaspora community that ignore our collective responsibility and divert our attention to the ego and prestige of some irresponsible Eritreans. To mention some of them:

1.1. Depending on the charity of other Eritreans to finance extravagant weddings.

It is true that we Eritreans are a collectivist society and costs of social events are often shared among families, friends and those who are invited to participate in the event. This is a good cultural value as long as the wedding is kept small. However, there have been recent incidents that indicate such Nobel cultural value may have been subjected to exploitation. Some Eritreans who forgotten their collective responsibility to support the orphans, the widows and other immediate families of those who gave their life on behalf of our country, are using the event to suck the economic means of others for their status, prestige and image. Although there are so many examples that support such claim, I would like to raise one very important example that happened recently in the United States. The overall money spent for the wedding was a whopping $120, 000 and about 2000 guests were invited to the wedding. Many of the guests travelled from distant places. I understand that some unsuspecting Eritreans in the diaspora may say everybody needs to mind his or her own business because people have the right to spend their money the way they want. I agree. Regardless of my firm belief in every Eritrean sharing his/her collective responsibility, I can agree that people have the right to spend their money the way they want. However, if you look at it carefully the problem is the family is not spending its own money. In fact, it is depending on the charity of other Eritreans to advance its status, image and ego. If you know that every invited guest pays at least $50 for the event, it does not take a mathematical genius to know that about $100, 000 of the total wedding cost was financed by others and probably the $20,000 was spent on Jewelry and dresses. This kind of madness that wastes other people’s resources and diverts the focus on fulfilling some people’s ego and indulgence at the expense of others needs to stop. Not only it is wasteful, it sets bad example to others and undermines our collective shared responsibility. Hence it is important to go back and think about who we are as a community and who enabled us to say I am from a country called Eritrea. This is not about politics it is about the sacrifice of life for a country. If there is money, there is a better way to spend it. Instead of spending other people’s money on five star corporate hotels and costly catering services, donating $5000 to the families who gave their life for the defense of the country not only goes a long way it gives a sense of proudness and self-fulfillment.

1.2. Miss use of high school and college graduation Parties

It is logical for graduates, parents and their families to celebrate the graduation of their children and grandchildren. It is an achievement in life that needs to be supported and encouraged. However, there are instances that indicate such Nobel event may have been abused by graduates and their families in the diaspora. In fact, some people in diaspora have already started complaining about the size of such events and the money and gifts generated from invitees. Unless there is a financial motive these events do not need to be big and should not be extended beyond immediate families. We are teaching our children how to get easy money and that will backfire later.

2. Religious Issues

Religious institutions are very important to the Eritrean diaspora community. In the absence of other institutions, it is only churches and mosques that serve the role of transferring cherished Eritrean values and history to the young Eritreans who are born and raised in the diaspora. The sad part of the story is these religious institutions have been victims of political interference, personal ego and economic interests of those who administer them. Here are some examples:

2.1. Political interference in religious institutions.

Although those negative activities have been going on for quite some time, there are some recent examples that merit a mention. Recently a church in a major city in the United States that has been serving diaspora Eritreans for many years was dismantled by a group of people who said they sympathize with justice seekers and happened to have a majority in the church administration. They blackmailed the priest who served the church for more than ten years and threw him out of the church with no legal procedures. They simply changed the lock and told the priest not to be seen around the church. Now they have all the resources of the church, appointed their own priests and control the administration. It is a sad story but it is true. I support that churches need to be out of politics but what happened in the case in discussion is the reverse. More or less you can say the church was out of politics and now it is in politics. As a result, it lost almost 75% of its worshippers and may be heading towards bankruptcy. The sad part of it is people who have the interest of controlling the resources of the churches tend to brand themselves as opposition. Dismantling religious institutions and creating chaos among Eritreans in the diaspora is a grave mistake that have far reaching consequences.

From what I have observed and learned in the church under discussion, what triggered the takeover was job opportunity (to hire relatives to serve as priests), financial greed and need to elevate your status in the society by controlling religions institutions. The major players are divided into three main groups: business people who cater their services to the Eritrean community, recently immigrated priests and Deacons, and other people, often referred as members of opposition groups.

2.1.1. Business people

This group has very strong interest in controlling the church and ultimately the daily life of the worshipers. For this group of people, the church is the major platform for visibility and prospecting business. This group of people could be a force for good but when it suspects things might be going against its business interests it could be very destructive. It tends to play a major insider role in appointing priests and church board members. In most cases its activities are not visible because it does not want to offend any of the groups in the church who could be potential business customers. Hence the destructive work is always shrouded in secrecy and done from behind.

2.1.2. Recent immigrant (priests and Deacons)

Currently it is common to see more priests and Deacons immigrating from Eritrea than before. Up on arrival, in the host country, this group is highly dependent on the Eritrean Diasporas community churches. However, since the churches in the Diaspora are limited in number, up on arrival in the host country, the group is known to create chaos and confusion in the churches as a means to get employment opportunity. This category of players also includes recent immigrants who experienced conflict and division with fellow Eritreans when they were in refugee camps in Ethiopia. The refugee camps in Ethiopia are a place where Eritreans are taught regionalism and other sub nationalist tendencies. Hence this group has learned enough how to hate its fellow Eritreans and its tolerance level is very low. Thus when the opportunity for conflict arises, it tends to be aggressive and very eager to take control of the situation at any cost. This group is often known to be member of an opposition group.

2.1.3. Others who support the two groups above.

The other category includes people who have been living in diaspora for so many years and did not get the chance to reconcile with the current government in Eritrea or who were members of the current government and left the county in the recent years. This group witnessed and participated in the splitting wave of Eritrean churches in the Diaspora a decade ago. Because this group cannot visit Eritrea, it tends to vent its anger on any one it suspects to have connection with or supports the current government in Eritrea. This group includes members of opposition groups and participates in the unholy activity to make sure that its economic or political benefits in the church are addressed. Often it plays as a messenger to the business people.

Here are some suggestions to protect the churches from takeover by unholy groups. First the roles and responsibilities of church Board members, Deacons and priests needs to be spelled out clearly. Second, the hiring and firing of priests and Deacons need to follow regular human resource procedures. Third, finances of the church needs to be managed by professional people. Since this is a bone of contention between the different groups it needs to be managed by independent party. Fourth, board members need to come from diverse groups and family members or people who hail from the same region should not be allowed to serve in the same board. Fifth, diaspora churches need to be under the Eritrean Orthodox Church based in Eritrea. However, they need to scale down their participation in politics. Since they are serving all Eritreans, regardless of their political orientation, their partial political activities could be destructive and could threaten their survival. However, churches could still be active in solving social problems in Eritrea: Supporting martyred families, the poor, the elderly and orphanages are some of them.

3. Political

Although division based on politics is not new to diaspora Eritreans, recent emergence of few lost souls who undermine our martyrs and our cherished history of the armed struggle for independence is troubling. There is no justification for the few agents of the TPLF regime to advance such negative feelings and hatred towards our martyrs and cherished history. Hence Eritreans need to be careful about the sinister hidden agenda of this minority group. Regardless of our political outlook and association, the history of our martyrs and struggle for independence is the corner stone of our history.

4. Social Order and Family Values

Family values are the corner stone of any community. Cherished Eritrean values of hard work, telling the truth, standing for what you believe in and persistence has helped the diaspora community to raise a family that is successful and loves its country. However, it is important not to forget that diaspora families that are broken often with grave impact in kids are not few in number. These dysfunctional families are susceptible to the ills of the diaspora culture. As a result, many Eritrean children in the diaspora are becoming victims of street violence, drug addiction and lack of basic education. Hence it is important for the religious institutions and community associations to develop a mechanism that are conducive to tackle these problems. If such actions are not taken, the current growing undesirable behavior of some section of our youth could have devastating effect on the overall community of diaspora Eritreans. Eritrean educators have a special responsibility in helping the community in setting those mechanisms that could play a significant role in minimizing the negative impact of these problems.

Time to work for healthy, competent, cohesive and successful Eritrean community in the Diaspora

Awet N’hafash and Kibri Ni Sewatna

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