By Robert Renfro
In August 2016 the Meharenas arrived in the United States, having fled their home country under dire circumstances that they do not discuss. I suspect they want to protect loved ones who remain behind.
First, let me tell you a little bit about Eritrea, an East African country. About the size of Pennsylvania, it presides atop the Horn of Africa, where the Red Sea empties into the Gulf of Aden. Eritrea once dominated the commercial route between India and the Roman Empire, when it was called the Kingdom of Aksum, after its capital city. Colonized in the 19th century and absorbed into Italy’s African holdings, Eritrea fell under British administrative rule after World War II. Eritrea declared its independence in 1991. The Eritrean leader, Isaias Afworki, has since then assumed dictatorial powers and instituted a highly militarized society marked by mandatory conscription into national service, sometimes of indefinite length.
Tigrinya is the predominant native language. More than half of Eritreans are Christian, and the country is home to some of the most ancient Christian churches in the world. Unlike their Orthodox Ethiopian neighbors, Eritreans are largely Roman Catholic, a legacy of their colonization by Italy.
Lutheran Family Services
I got to know and work with my assigned family, the Meharenas, through Lutheran Family Services (LFS), where I volunteered after attending a Faith-in-Action event held in Dagwell Hall last summer. David Cornish, an LFS staff member, described an emergent and worsening refugee crisis worldwide, and I was inspired to get involved. LFS assigned me to a four-person group, and together we serve as cultural mentors. Our role is to help refugees acclimate culturally and learn to converse in English.
The Meharena family is gracious and hospitable. A warning to future mentors: If you are going to visit an Eritrean family, arrive very hungry and be prepared to consume copious amounts of delicious food no matter the time of day! This will be accompanied by the coffee ceremony, always.
The family is relieved beyond measure to be living safely in the United States. Yet they also struggle, quite understandably, with culture shock and homesickness. They describe being very sad at having been forced to leave their home. Life in an Ethiopian refugee camp brought bouts of depression for the matriarch, Mana. She admits to persistent and deep sadness since then, but she appreciates her new country and is enjoying conversation with her newfound mentors from LFS. The seven Meharenas children, aged 21 to 5, all love the adventure of learning about their new country and are acclimating and learning English with great finesse.
But the process has not been easy. The family has not only had to learn a new language, culture, currency, and climate, they have also have had to navigate many economic and logistic hurdles—hurdles that most of us never have to face.
The Department of Immigration provides newly arrived refugee families with a stipend of $1,000 per family member—regardless of a region’s cost of living. This is a onetime allowance. For a family of nine in Metro Denver, $9,000 does not go far. The family was assigned to LFS, which is charged with helping newly arrived families find housing and employment and with administering the stipend. LFS found a rundown, 1970s, split-level house in Montebello. With the washer/dryer in disrepair, Mana does the family laundry by hand. The plumbing leaks, too. But the furnace works! Rent for this house is $2,000 per month; the deposit was $4,000, leaving the family with $3,000 to live on until they could find employment.
Zeru and the older children went to work immediately in a pillow factory within walking distance from the house—half an hour one way. They still work at the factory on an as-needed basis. But it does not provide the stable income the family needs. Zeru, who was a farmer in Eritrea, is looking for a job in the food-service industry via a program at Denver University.
The family also depends on public transit, which from Montebello to anywhere in the city can be an ordeal. The LFS group of mentors raised enough money for them to buy a car. The eldest son, Habtemariam, has since passed his written driving test and has a learner’s permit. In short, the family is acclimating, learning English, and showing great initiative.
Mana has said many times the United States has saved her life. In addition to the conditions in Eritrea she had to flee from, she required emergency gall-bladder surgery shortly after arriving here. She was close to death and was astonished to learn about ambulances and accessible hospitals!
The perseverance and patience of this family inspires me. May God continue to bless them. I know the group of LFS mentors are blessed to know them and have the opportunity to serve them as they make their home among us.
For a history of Eritrea and the refugee crisis, this New Yorker article is an interesting read:
For more information about Lutheran Family Services, see their volunteer web page: refugeevolunteerdenver.org