MISSOULA — Their home is sparsely arranged, the walls decorated with religious symbols and a framed photo of the family gathered outside the U.S Customs office in Helena.
Everyone is smiling.
Over the kitchen table hangs a birthday balloon and a picture of Selam, a boy who just turned 1. He was born in a Missoula hospital on August 6, making him a U.S. citizen, though he doesn’t know his standing yet.
His parents, Desbele and Adhanet, along with their five other children, hope to follow in a naturalization ceremony that lies years away. They’ll become eligible for citizenship in January 2023.
“They’re very happy to have a baby in the United States. They consider him as a great blessing,” said Biniam Aahanom, an interpreter with the International Rescue Committee in Missoula. “He’s bringing the family together. When something good happens to you, you remember the special event. They think he’s a blessing to their life.”
The family fled their home in Eritrea, where Desbele was forced into military conscription at a young age under a dangerous political regime. Human rights watchers believe half the country’s population has fled across the border, willing to face great risk for a better life.
In the documentary, “Refugee: The Eritrean Exodus,” Anne Richard, the former assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, described Eritrea as “one of the most repressive governments in the world.”
Those who oppose the government are jailed, some going years without a taste of sunlight. Many flee from “abuse, mistreatment and suffering.”
“People are leaving to pursue civil liberties, escape human rights abuses and avoid mandatory military conscription,” Richard said in the program. “The U.S. would like a stronger relationship, but the government of Eritrea publishes paranoid misinformation to suggest the U.S. is trying to undermine Eritrean progress.”
Desbele was forced into military conscription by the Eritrean government, described by the U.S. State Department as “one of the most repressive governments” in the world. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)Like so many others, Desbele and Adhanet gathered able members of their family and headed for a refugee camp in Ethiopia, looking to start a new life. It wasn’t fast or easy, but after a prolonged vetting process, they were assigned entry to the United States and a distant place called Montana.
“It was during the winter they arrived here,” Aahanom said, translating Desbele’s words. “They were so scared because they hadn’t seen any of that snow in life at all. They grew up in hot temperatures. They were wondering if there would be people here from their own cultural group.”
Over the past three years, 350 refugees have settled in Missoula from a number of countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Syria and Iraq. Some have started a business, others a church.
It’s early evening when Desbele arrives home from his job at Missoula Textile. Three of the family’s children are home from school. Two are old enough to drive. The younger boys are in the room. Selam, with his bright brown eyes, fusses in his mother’s lap.
After nearly two years in Missoula, they’re starting to feel at home.
“It was a very welcoming community, and now they have friends here,” said Aahanom. “It’s the land of opportunity, where people can grow and find freedom. It’s a very safe community. This is what (Desbele) knows from the very beginning.”
The family began hearing stories of life in the U.S. while still in Eritrea. Those stories grew stronger as they waited in the refugee camp in Ethiopia, not sure of where they’d end up. They knew America was as big as the dreams it carries, even if those dreams want little more than food, shelter and security.
While time has made their integration easier, memories of their old life in Eritrea linger. Desbele keeps a photo of his mother on the table. He calls her when he can. Not everyone was able to flee.
“They have a wishful thought for others who haven’t had this opportunity,” Aahanom said for Desbele. “They have many children and they’re hoping to see them go to college. They’re hoping for some doctors and some engineers. They’re very much confident the children will accomplish that because they’re already here in a place where there’s a lot of opportunities to grow and make life better.”
Selam’s addition to the family was a welcome one, and Desbele grins when asked how he and Adhanet met. It was back in 1993 through an arranged marriage, a tradition in their old culture.
Nearly 27 years later, the match has persisted.
“That’s why we’re still here having all this many children,” Desbele said.
Since the IRC opened its resettlement office in Missoula in 2016, nine families have given birth to new U.S. citizens, according to Jen Barile, the agency’s resettlement director in Missoula. Five of those babies were born to Congolese families, two to Syrian families, and one to a family from Iraq.
Selam is the first citizen born to an Eritrean family in Missoula. Adhanet said the birth was easy in a hospital. She had her other children at home in Eritrea without the benefit of modern medical care.
“She was happy with all the service here,” Aahanom said for Adhanet. “With the other children, she didn’t go to the health facilities. It’s also a cultural thing that when our mothers give birth, (the men) try to go away. We don’t get involved. (Desbele) was at work when she was giving birth. He had a call when she gave birth.”
The community has rallied around the IRC and the people it supports. The local resettlement effort now extends into the Missoula school district, local churches, service organizations and individuals who offer time and friendship.
The cultural addition has been good to Missoula, too, with new restaurants, new businesses and a new congregation. The city’s combined efforts on the refugee front have garnered international attention, including the LA Times, the BBC and Starbucks.
That support and the opportunities haven’t gone unnoticed by Desbele and Adhanet. Their children are happy in school. The family is happy at home. A traditional coffee ceremony takes place nightly.
“He tries to put it all together,” Aahanom said for Desbele. “It’s a very safe and very peaceful community. Since they first got here, they’ve been very happy and excited to be in the community. They’re improving their language and it’s really helping them get connected. They also have mentors assigned by the IRC. It really facilitates the connection and integration with the community.”
-Martin Kidston reporting for the Missoula Current