Arriving at freedom
From Eritrea to Harrisonburg, Virginia
Imagine growing up in a country at war – and your ethnicity and religion mark you as a minority. Imagine years of living as refugees, moving from one country to another. Imagine the fortitude and resilience needed to follow a dream of freedom.
Mussie Atoshm and his wife, Worku, refugees from Eritrea, a country in East Africa, endured those realities and more before coming to the United States.
“I have had a terrible life,” Mussie said through a translator after arriving in the U.S. “And I have always wanted a good life.”
Through the U.S. Resettlement Program in July 2012, the couple and their two young sons, Sem and Cerak, began their dream of freedom in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Their circuitous journey started when Mussie fled to Sudan from his government’s mandatory military conscription – which requires service with no pay. Migrating to Libya included imprisonment and threats because of their Roman Catholic faith; followed by a treacherous desert crossing to a Tunisian refugee camp.
The Atoshms persevered and applied for asylum in the U.S. This entailed extensive interviews with U.S. Department of State and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials, as well as medical and FBI security clearances. Eventually, the family received approval for resettlement.
Harrisonburg’s Community Mennonite Church sponsored the family through Church World Service, a global, ecumenical organization working with the Virginia Council of Churches Refugee Resettlement Program. The program’s 90-day sponsorships are moral commitments to help people fleeing persecution become self-sufficient.
When Mussie learned they would be living in the United States, he recalls being “very happy... it was very good.” With the move, the family was faced with new challenges: living thousands of miles from their homeland, family and friends – in a country where they didn’t know the language, the culture or another human being. The couple relied on complete faith in strangers to help them get on their feet.
Community Mennonite Church’s sponsorship team “sprang into action,” says member Roberta McCorkle, assisting with medical and employment appointments, school registrations and enrollment in English classes. They also welcomed the Atoshms with activities for the children and invitations to meals.
Soon, a furnished apartment near Eastern Mennonite University was provided, conveniently located within walking distance of the Everence Federal Credit Union branch in Harrisonburg.
“Worku and I laugh when we remember their first months here,” McCorkle says. “Walking the aisles of Red Front, a local supermarket, we couldn’t communicate but the food did the talking for us.”
Within months of arriving, Mussie and Worku gained employment with local poultry processors working different shifts to cover childcare needs. Mussie walked to and from work throughout the winter months until he passed his driving test, while Worku carpooled.
“Everence was willing to allow Mussie to open checking and saving accounts in August 2012 even though he had been in the United States only a month and was still looking for employment,” says McCorkle.
Mussie often visits Everence to check his bank balance. Everence Branch Manager Evelin Gonzalez Espinoza and Member Services Representative Gabriel Brunk help explain the U.S. banking system.
“He’s working at understanding the system,” Gonzalez Espinoza says, adding that Mussie is now teaching Worku. “He’s asking for tips on how he can improve his credit score so he can buy a house.”
The Atoshm family is thriving as they settle into Harrisonburg. The family attends Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church and socializes with other Eritreans in the area. They communicate daily with family, using international phone cards and Facebook.
Mussie and Worku enjoy their work and continue to learn English. Sem, age 9, is a gifted third-grader and talented soccer player. He excels in school – and helped interpret for this article. He dreams of becoming a teacher or doctor. Four-year-old Cerak is a car-obsessed pre-schooler.
The couple welcomed a baby boy named Sergel to their family in April. As a result of their hard work and determination, the Atoshms will be eligible for citizenship in 2017 and have begun studying for the test.
“I like the country here. The people are very good. Freedom is very good,” Mussie says. “I’m thankful to everyone who helped us get started.”
Florence Barrett is a freelance writer from Harrisonburg, Virginia.