My journey to Mai Ayni had begun a year earlier, after Dr. Rodney Hammer and I had managed to visit the Eritrean refugee camp in Northern Ethiopia. We were burdened for the needs of the 1300 unaccompanied minors living in the camp. Because of repressive conditions and little hope for education, children aged 6-16 are leaving the Eritrea to seek hope elsewhere. In Ethiopia, most are sent to Mai Ayni. This time I was armed with the generous donations of the BR-KC Baptist Association and was teamed with some Eritreans from the United States. I joined my Eritrean friends at the airport. Tomas Solomon and Efrem Kahsai have formed a 501(c)3 in the U.S. called URER or Urgent Relief of Eritrean Refugees (urer.org). We had connected and had talked several times before meeting at the airport. Along with them was Senait Tecle, an Eritrean who wanted to see firsthand the conditions and needs of the refugees so she could report back to the organization she was an integral part of, SACS. SACS is a Christian charitable organization dedicated to advocating on behalf of all those who are in chains for their faith, as well as all other prisoners of conscience in Eritrea; advancing the cause of religious freedom in Eritrea; assisting those who are suffering hardships as a result of their persecution. SACS aspires to fulfill a command to help those in need according to James 2:15-16 – “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” It also serves as a voice of the persecuted church in Eritrea through its website www.inchainsforchirst.org and to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute; speak up and defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8-9).
Tomas had conversed several times with Eritreans in the camp to see what the substantive needs were. We formed a shopping list which we decided to buy in Addis. We had flights to Shire on Friday, so my arrival on Wednesday meant we had to hurry up. We also had to arrange transportation of the goods. All this proved too much to handle in 48 hours, especially since we decided to interview some young Eritrean women who had just arrived in Addis and were going to be sent to the refugee camps. These women had endured seven months of horrors in an Egyptian prison, living on one small loaf of bread a day. Their original group of 107 trying to cross the Sinai into Israel was now only 45 due to being shot by Egyptian soldiers, dying of thirst in the Sinai, or dying in prison. These girls were only 16-25 and had already experienced such sorrow. Yet they were fortunate, for my friends (staying in Addis to buy goods) interviewed another young Eritrean refugee (named Rehal) who had been with a group in the Sinai and had been captured by Bedouins. They were tortured to plead with family and friends to raise money for their release. If they could not, they were killed and body parts removed and sold on the black market. She told my friends the body parts are worth $30,000. Rehal was only 19, and her hand was black from having been burnt with liquid plastics. Muscle was exposed. She had extreme pain from nerve damage. The Bedouins had abused her so badly that they didn’t think her parts were usable They wrapped her in a blanket and through her out like trash in an area where wild dogs roamed. Soldiers just happened to be passing by as the dogs were attacking her unconscious body. Sent to Addis, she needs medical and psychological attention that we believe is not available in Addis Ababa.
Our concern for the children in Mai Ayni is that they receive good education and decide to stay in the camp, rather than try to make it to a European Country as these women did. The dangers are too great, and the odds of them making it are too small. This is why we returned to Mai Ayni. Through contacts in the camp, and an earlier visit in July by Yonas, a member of URER, we determined to buy the following items.
- 8 32″ LCD TV’s
- 8 DVD Players
- 2 Satellite Dishes and receivers (with this there is no monthly fee)
- Medical Supplies – Diabetes testing kits and strips, bandages and analgesics.
- Sanitary Napkins (these are in short supply and needed for teenage girls)
- Library reference and education books
- Art supplies
- 6 Electric sewing machines
- 2 Large Self-contained stereo systems
- 3 Desktop Computers (Dell)
I also gave the women who had been in prison (and were interviewed) $100 to share among themselves to aid in paying their way to the refugee camp. ARRA (Administration of Refugee and Returnee Affairs was only giving each of them about $25 when the bus fare alone $17). We also handed out $25 scholarships to the top 5 students in each of the grades 5th – 8th as a way to encourage the children to stay in school and excel in their studies.
My Eritrean friends stayed in Addis until Monday, buying the goods and arranging for the two day transport to Mai Ayni. We had to hold the title to the truck in order to make sure all the goods got to Mai Ayni. So I set out on my own to the Camp. I had lost my interpreters, but was amazed how God provided them every step of the way. Arriving in Shire, I discovered that ARRA had no transportation to the camp that Friday, so I decided to travel by public transportation. The three hour bus ride was a thrill, especially with the odors (hygiene is not a priority) and constant strange looks as if I was the only white man who had ever ridden the bus to Mai Ayni.
For the next four days I enjoyed no running water, rats foraging in my $3/night hotel room, and so many flies I almost got used to them. Nights were sleepless because of constant noise and calls to prayer and who knows what that was crawling across my feet. But I loved every second of being in the camp! God connected me in a miraculous way with the Elders of the Evangelistic Church. He gave me multiple opportunities to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the children in Mai Ayni and even in the town I stayed (May Sembry). I believe I witnessed to a total of 450-500 children. Many times I would hear them say He is MY God! Many others had this expression as if they had never heard of Jesus Christ. What saddens me is that the Evangelical Church has been told by the more powerful Orthodox Church NOT to evangelize the unaccompanied children of Mai Ayni. If they come to their church of their own accord, that is OK. Jo Ann Ruble and her friends had assembled 1300 “goodie” bags that I had handed out to the children at a couple times. They were quite the “draw”. So I left about 650 with the Elders of the Evangelistic Church and told the children to go to the Evangelical Church if they wanted more.
My friends arrived in the camp Monday at 5pm, and we all stayed at the guest house of the Evangelistic Church. They even cooked dinner and breakfast for us. Ermias and Efrem were two of the Elders, and want me to return and help them put on a VBS for the children. That means returning in the summer (when it is 100 degrees and humid). They would also appreciate an overhead projector and laptop so they could show Evangelistic films like the Jesus Story. They told me that many are coming to Jesus Christ in the camp. I even met one young man (Mohammed Ali) who had converted from Islam to Jesus Christ. His new name is Stephen. His wife and son are still Muslim, so he needs our prayers.
We had a big meeting with ARRA and the camp parliament (council of all the associations). They were so excited over what we had brought. They made the comment that many people visit the camp and promise to return, but never do. They really appreciated what we had done. We had so much that they decided to send some of it to Adi Harush and Shimelba.
Since the goods were displayed in public, I know they will be used in the appropriate places. In Mai Ayni, most went to the Elementary and Intermediate Schools, as well as a Youth Center in the Camp. The women’s association was going to manage the sewing machines. I was able to go to Adi Harush and meet with their Parliament. I heard a young boy shouting and running to me. It was Eben, son of Jordan, one of the women imprisoned in Egypt. They had just arrived in Adi Harush along with 60 other refugees. This camp is only 2 years old and already 22,000 Eritreans are living there.
My friends went on to Shimelba while I returned to the hot running water of the United States. With a long layover before my flight at 10PM, I decided to go into Addis and walk around. I had two dolls left which the ladies of Hickory Grove Baptist had made. I gave 5 away to young teenage girls in Mai Ayni. They lived together in one house (they were unaccompanied minors). But there were so many girls it was hard to pick a couple without causing pain to the others. In Addis, God led me to a hospital, and then to the Head Nurse. I told her what I wanted to do. The last girl she led me to was Asma, nine years old. She looked so sad until I explained the doll was hers. Then her face lit up with a beautiful smile. Then the Head Nurse explained she was dying of AIDS. My heart nearly jumped out of my chest. I could hardly hold back the tears.
Great are the needs but great is our God. Sparrows are 2 for a dollar or 5 for two dollars according to Jesus. Yet His Father knows when one of them falls to the earth. How much more valuable are these little ones to Him! Will you join me in praying for God’s Justice to reign in Eritrea, so these children and families can be united again? Will you pray with me that our State Department will put pressure on the Egyptian Government to stop the abuses of the Bedouins and their own prison system?