Wading and swimming across the sometimes-treacherous Rio Grande River may have been the easiest part of Sisay’s trek to America. It was the last step of a journey that took several years, and brought Sisay halfway around the world. He found safety at La Posada, as well as the skills he needs for his new life in the United States. Today he is working in a nursing home while working toward becoming a registered nurse.
Sisay Bisrat Gebremichael-Yifru was born in 1980 in Ethiopia. His mother, a native Ethiopian, met his Eritrean-born father in Addis Ababa, where the family settled. His father worked as a truck driver, but kept his Eritrean citizenship. Sisay has an older sister (who left Ethiopia and now has citizenship in England) and a younger brother.
When Sisay was 17 years old, war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea. He remembers seeing reports about the war on television; he also remembers Eritrean citizens being rounded up in the early morning hours, then being arrested or deported. Because he was both Ethiopian and Eritrean, he decided not to seek official Ethiopian identification when he turned 18, to avoid risking his own safety.
In May 1999, his father was arrested by Ethiopian police and put in prison, charged with sending money to the Eritrean people. The day his father was arrested would be the last time father and son would ever see each other. His mother visited his father at the prison for five months; then, his father was transferred to another prison, and the police would not tell the family where he was.
Both of Sisay’s parents urged him to leave the country, rather than risk the same fate that had befallen his father. In February 2000, Sisay fled to Nairobi, Kenya. His mother gave him money to complete this five-day journey. He lived near Nairobi for seven months, in a place where many Ethiopians and Eritreans had settled. With more money sent by his sister, he made his way to Johannesburg, South Africa.
Sisay lived in Johannesburg for just over three years. He had taken the proper steps to live there legally, but he was not allowed to work or go to school. He was able to contact his mother, who told him now that his brother had turned 18, she was afraid for his life. Sisay was able to guide his brother through the same steps he had taken himself, and his brother is now safe in Johannesburg.
But Sisay was not content to “just survive.” With money sent by his sister, he made plans to come to the United States. Leaving in December of 2003 with an unregistered passport, he was able to travel to Mexico, by way of Argentina and Brazil. In January of 2004, after crossing the Rio Grande, he was apprehended by the Border Patrol and taken to INS detention. He declared that he was seeking political asylum, and in April, he was released to La Posada as a client of South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation (ProBAR).
Sisay already spoke beautiful English, so language was never a problem. He eagerly pitched in with any chores that needed done around the shelter. In August, he received the sad news that his father had died. And in December, 2004, he was overjoyed to learn that his asylum had been granted.
Sisay has now earned his general equivalency diploma (GED) and is a licensed practical nurse. Despite the violence and hate he experienced, he is a gentle, loving soul. He stays in touch with former program director Sr. Margaret Mertens. The photo here is from a recent meeting between the two.