Across The Border

By Elissa Asch

Sophomore Mesgna Neghasi didn’t know if he was about to be caught crossing the bridge and locked in jail for the rest of his life. He didn’t know whether he would be able to sneak over the expanse of exposed road without being seen by the guards. All he knew was that he had no choice. Swallowing his fears he took one step forward, then another.

At the age of nine, Neghasi left his mother to attempt to join his father, whom he had never met, in the U.S. He walked 24 hours to cross the border of Eritrea, his home country on the horn of Africa, and escaped into Sudan. Neghasi, like hundreds of thousands of refugees from Africa and the Middle East today, left his home to seek a better life.

Neghasi and his mother decided that it would be better for him to live in the U.S. with his father because he could receive a better education and greater opportunity. It wasn’t an easy decision for him and his mother to send him abroad. “I could have a better education in the United States and I can get here the things that I wanted and have a better life,” Neghasi explained.

Once the decision had been made, Neghasi and his mother wasted no time. “These people work for business and we paid them a ton of money and they can get you out of Eritrea like in a night, in 24 hours,” Neghasi said. “Nobody looks at you, looks at them. They work a business. They’re normal people just like you.” Upon being smuggled over the border and reaching Sudan, Neghasi was terrified. “When I go [to Sudan], I wanted to sleep but my heart did not want me to sleep cause I have no parents with me, I’m just nine year old, doesn’t know anything, just like so scared I couldn’t eat anything,” he said.

Neghasi has come far, after being immersed in the overwhelmingly advanced technology of the United States, not seeing his mother since he was a 9-year-old boy, and learning to speak English (a language that he hadn’t spoken a word of upon his arrival).

Neghasi grew up working on the farm all day, every day, with his mother. His father had escaped over the border to make his way to the United States before Neghasi was born.

“[My father] was military of Eritrea, and the military guards the border, so he just walk away like normal people do. He just run somehow,” Neghasi said.

Once Neghasi decided to escape, he traveled to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, to meet the men that would smuggle him over the border and the woman he would be travelling with after. “When I was going to the border well they told me that they had a car,” he said.  “The people meet me there at like eight o’clock, we walk for fifteen minutes and after we walk I ask them where’s the car. They say it’s gonna be like right here, short time, and I ask them many time and they say it’s gonna be here soon. And it’s been like two hour, four hour, and we just like keep walking, no car, keep walking, no car, and then it’s like morning, and I’ve walked twenty four hours.” Neghasi completed this trek across the Eritrean border into Sudan while carrying food, water, a pair of shorts, and the baby of a pregnant woman who was escaping with him.

However, even harder than the physical conditions of his escape were the fears that accompanied it. “First of all you have to be scared, because think about it, it’s a really scary situation, if you got caught, if something happen and they hear you or something you’re in jail, your whole entire life is jail,” Neghasi said. “It’s really scared, it has to be really strong person, when you’re walking it can’t be like one, two, three, you have to be walking like super fast, you have to be smart, and it’s a pretty hard situation.”

Upon reaching a village on the outskirts of Sudan, Neghasi found it difficult to eat and sleep due to his extreme fear and exhaustion. “I got malaria in Sudan because I was not eating well, and I was like super scared, missing my mom,” he said. Eventually, due to his sickness and the lack of medical supplies close to the village, Neghasi made his way to Port Sudan and stayed with one of his father’s friends. “When I got malaria, is probably hardest disease I’ve ever seen. It hurt my body, I almost died, I go to hospital but they doesn’t have any medical or anything,” Neghasi said.

Neghasi would slowly get better, but upon contracting malaria a third time he had to contact his father. “When I got from Sudan to the United States Embassy, I didn’t have any proof that I have a dad from the United States. I didn’t have like any paperwork that he’s my dad, or that he had that said I was his son. It’s a hard process, you can’t just go ‘Oh, blah blah blah blah, I’m going to the U.S.,’” Neghasi explained.

After the U.S. embassy contacted Neghasi’s father, a DNA test proved that they were related. “It take like super super long because I was getting DNA in the Sudan and my dad was getting DNA in the United States, and Sudan didn’t have good access or power to get to know in short time, so when my dad got DNA from U.S., they had to send it from America to Sudan,” Neghasi said.

After Neghasi waited weeks for the DNA to arrive and to regain his health, his father finally decided to come to Sudan himself to accelerate the process and begin building his relationship with his son.

“It took so long, so finally my dad, he decides he has to come to Sudan. So he get DNA in Sudan and I get DNA in Sudan, so it become true that I am his son, and he is my dad,” Neghasi said. “And after I got better of malaria, and I come to the United States, and my process was done, I was in the U.S.”

Neghasi’s difficulties in gaining entry to a foreign country are being experienced all over the world at this very moment. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are being driven from over thirty countries (mainly Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Syria) due to persecution, war, and government instability.

Some countries in the European Union are requiring all refugees to apply for asylum, and though European governments put some effort into improving this global crisis, they ultimately refuse access to thousands of people in need. Other countries are more adamant about improving the horrific situation. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, has announced that Germany will take in 800,000 refugees this year alone in an effort to make up for Germany’s Natzi history, according to The Guardian. In order for the U.S. to take in a geographically proportional number of refugees to Germany we would have to allow 22 million Syrian refugees into our country, a number drastically higher than the 70,000 refugees that we have taken per year at this point, according to the New York Times. Secretary of State John Kerry has announced that the U.S. is raising that number to 100,000 Syrian, Somalian, Afghani refugees per year in 2017.

Neghasi believes it’s important for the U.S. to accept its share of the refugees. “I know a lot of people who try to get out of [Eritrea]. We need to help take them to United States,” he said. English teacher Cathryn Bruno, one of Neghasi’s instructors, strongly agrees. “I think that our moral responsibility is to accept and welcome people when they’re in need,” she said. “I’m so impressed with Germany welcoming refugees into their country and accepting them, I think that’s a beautiful thing and we need to do the same thing here in the United States.”

Of course, after entry, the refugees would still need assistance with simple things such as learning the English language and attending school, just as Neghasi did. After arriving in Marin County speaking absolutely no English, Neghasi attended the second half of his fifth grade year at Strawberry Point School. Slowly, Neghasi began to learn English and adjust to his new life.

“I did go [to school] until fourth in elementary, [while in Eritrea]. I failed like two times though I was not smart kid, my house was like super far [hour and a half walk] so sometime I don’t go to school. I would skip, and like my parents never went to school, so they don’t know what it’s like to go to school, so they don’t push us to go to school,” Neghasi said.

One of the more surprising things Neghasi experienced upon coming to the U.S. was the extreme emphasis on attendance in the school system. “In here [the United States] if you don’t go to school…it’s like being homeless in your life,” Neghasi said.

He also noticed the different expectations in relation to school in Eritrea and the United States. “You have a lot of responsibility, school, everything, you have a ton of responsibility, and in Eritrea you don’t have responsibilities, you just be who you are,” Neghasi said. “It’s true that working [on a farm] all day is hard, but here you have to work, too. Eritrea is more body work, and here it’s more mental work, because this life here is more harder than Eritrea.” Among the other major differences were the more advanced technology that Neghasi had to become accustomed to, the sheer amount of waste in Marin, and the food in the U.S.. “Ever since I was a little kid, I grew up as farmer, and here I can’t really [find] the food I used to eat,” Neghasi said.

Neghasi’s Eritrean heritage remains a large part of his identity. “I really love Eritrean culture, my country. I’m so lucky being Eritrean guy, we have such great things, so many nice things and so many support from just anyone in Eritrea,” Neghasi said. “You go anywhere and we look like similar people, and we know what kind of life we have in our country, so we really give help to someone when he need it.”

Neghasi plans on going back to Eritrea one day. “I want to go there to see it, and I want to see where I was and get help these people who live there,” he said. “I remember everything when I was little kid, so I will help them, ton of things that they want, and I know what they want, so I will really help these people there.”

Neghasi misses his mother most of all, and he plans on helping her come and live in the U.S. by any means necessary. “That[s] my top top dream of my life, every single time I wake up, every time I go to bed, it’s all about my mom. [Bringing] my mom to the United States, that’s my goal,” Neghasi said.

Neghasi has completed four of the five years living in the U.S. needed to get his citizenship. “Soon I’ll be American citizen, so if I’m American citizen no person can stop me getting my mom from Eritrea to to the United States, so that’s a ton of power,” Neghasi said. “My mom…doesn’t have to do it the way I did like walking, and I can just get her. I’m free to get her and she’s free to come here.”

In the four years since Neghasi and his mother have been separated, they have managed to stay in touch. “I do contact my mom every week. Some guy in the village, a really rich, nice guy, has a lot of good things, [and] he has phone access. I called him first and told him to meet my mom this time there, so I called again there, and I contact my mom this way,” Neghasi said.

Neghasi and his father have managed to build a substantial relationship as well. “Now we have so great relationship and he did miss me, and he did really help me to come to the U.S.,” Neghasi said. “If my dad doesn’t help me I would still be in Eritrea and be some military guy. I know I’m just fifteen but in Eritrea I could be military at fifteen.” Neghasi’s father has also built a life for himself since traveling to the U.S. “My dad work at the Marin General Hospital, and he is like a medical doctor, but without [credential of M.D.],” Neghasi explained.

After working tirelessly, Neghasi can now communicate effectively in English, though it was a very hard process. “I didn’t make friends fast, cause I didn’t speak English, people would ask me my name, and I couldn’t speak nothing,” he said. Upon his arrival, Neghasi was already bilingual in the first and third most common languages spoken in Eritrea. “My first language is Tigrinya, which is the Eritrean language, and I speak Arabic which is the third language of Eritrea,” He said.

Neghasi also takes the English Language Development class for students whose first language isn’t English. Bruno has been teaching Neghasi’s English Development class for the past two years. “He has tremendous empathy for the newer students who [can’t] speak any English.  He encouraged one particular student to not give up and to just keep going…Mesgna shared that it took at least a year and a half to learn English,” Bruno said. “I admire his optimistic, positive attitude. I have never seen someone so consistently with a smile on his face. He never gives up, and he just continues to try and be open-minded to experiences.”  

Neghasi also has a great love for soccer. “We played in Africa, no shoes, made our ball out of shirts, it was such fun time, and we heard about the famous players on the radio like Cristiano Ronaldo,” Neghasi said. “We heard it on the radio and it feels like it make us cry, we were such crazy fan of soccer.” Neghasi still plays soccer as a striker and left wing for the U.S. Development Academy team, and hopes to play professionally for the United States one day.

“I could go for national team but I don’t have American citizen[ship], I email[ed] U.C. Berkeley and tell them who I am what club I play for, a ton of stuff. They email back and they ask me what level I play in, and they come and they see me playing, they’re not gonna tell you when they gonna come, they’re just gonna come,” Neghasi said.

U.C. Berkeley offered Neghasi a scholarship for his soccer talents as long as he maintains an acceptable grade point average. “I have great college which is U.C. Berkeley. That the college I really want to go to. It’s my dream, and they also division one soccer,” Neghasi said. “I practice with them one time a week, they give me my jersey and stuff, and all I want to do is make my grade get higher point.”

Andoni Etcheverry has been a teammate of Neghasi on his academy team for two years. “He gives one-hundred percent at everything he does,” Etcheverry said. After one game where their team lost badly, Neghasi gave a motivational speech to the whole team to bring up morale. “He gave it with intensity and a pride in his voice and showed he really cared about the sport and about all of us,” Etcheverry said.

Besides his close relationships on his soccer team, Neghasi has experienced a lack of personal connection with many of the people in the Marin community. “They don’t know me, they only know me as the kid, good runner, good soccer player from Tamalpais High School, but they don’t know who I am inside myself, until if I told them all they know is that I’m guy named Mesgna,” Neghasi said. After having experienced life in Marin as well as drastically different circumstances, Neghasi has a single message for the Marin community. “I will tell to most people here, in life you only have one chance, that’s all I want to say to them, that you only have one chance.”