This piece is part of a reporting partnership between ONE and Refugees Deeply. Photos by Angela Wells.
In Eritrea, turning 18 is not particularly something to celebrate. That’s the age at which conscription into national service begins; the draft is widely regarded as indefinite and is often rife with violence and human rights abuses. Thousands of young Eritreans flee their country before their 18th birthdays, heading for refugee camps on the borders of neighboring Ethiopia or Sudan.
Many end up at Mai Aini, a refugee camp nestled among the mountains of northern Ethiopia. Every day, this camp receives about 150 young Eritrean refugees. As their 18th birthdays approach, they say goodbye to their parents, pack a few belongings and leave the country. More than half of Mai Aini’s population is under the age of 18.
The refugees receive basic services – healthcare, education, food and housing – but opportunities for resettlement are impossible for most. Eventually, many of them leave the camp, attempting dangerous journeys east or north, across the Mediterranean, in search of a better life abroad. Along the way, they may face threats such as kidnapping, extortion, indefinite detention or organ, sex or human trafficking – as documented recently in Libya.
Mai Aini’s young refugees do not watch these stories unfold on television; they hear about them in phone calls from traffickers demanding ransom, from people who have escaped from prisons in Sudan, bearing torture marks, or from graphic Facebook posts about their friends and relatives.
Inside the camp, Mebrahtu, a 45-year-old art teacher who runs fine art classes in Mai Aini in collaboration with the Jesuit Refugee Service, is using painting to bring these issues to light, and to commemorate the dead and the missing. He hopes the refugees’ works of art will deter others from embarking on dangerous journeys, offering solace to those left behind. He also hopes the visual messages will inspire policymakers to lift restrictions on the global freedom of movement for refugees.
"Crossing Borders:" "When crossing the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, many of our people died. Here, a mother has been left behind in Eritrea with three sons after one of them drowned in the river at the border. The rest of them made it across. They are very sick, but at least they are alive and will eventually reach a camp where they will be safe. Other people who I know did not make it this far – they were eaten by wild animals or killed by the military. This is still happening today." – Mebrahtu, 45, art teacher
"Internal Wound:" "These refugees made it through the desert to Libya and they are risking everything one last time to reach Italy via the Mediterranean. The smugglers stayed on the shore, sending them off without a captain. The person driving the boat is a refugee himself who doesn’t know how to drive a boat. They have no guarantee of survival. The smugglers just collect money and do not care if they arrive dead or alive. We never look at the lives of those who die, of those we lose. Instead, we only consider the people who have made it and succeeded in their new places. What about the people who have died at sea? Refugees have to take these dangerous boat rides because they can’t go anywhere legally. They live in this camp under so much stress without any opportunity. They hear from their friends who have made it and become successful and they decide to move on their own. They forget those who have faced problems or died." – Mefin, 24
"Love and Pain:" "This world we all live in has two elements that every person feels: love and pain. We don’t observe these things, we feel them. Sometimes we search for satisfaction in the wrong places, though. These birds are looking for love when it is right in front of them. Humans do this, too. They look too far for love when it is right in front of them. Anyone who misses their opportunity to love others misses out on the joy of life." – Mefin, 24
"Homesick:" "This is my dear friend who lives in this camp. She is so homesick for her family in Eritrea. She remembers her home and her brothers and sisters, who are represented with flowers. She is doubting her decision to leave and she suffers whenever she thinks of home." – Tesfalem, 24, who disappeared soon after painting this in 2015. His friends say he planned to cross the Mediterranean to Europe; they have not heard from him for months.
"Unaccompanied Parents:" "These parents fled without their children. They have been moving from place to place and finally reached the shores of Libya. They left their children in Eritrea and are under pressure to make a better life for them in Europe. They are waiting to board boats to Europe, but they know they might not make it. We must increase our tolerance for other people. We need to have patience for ourselves and compassion for others. We also need to raise awareness in our community, because people are travelling on dangerous routes without the right information." – Aaron, 13, an unaccompanied minor whose parents’ whereabouts are currently unknown.
"Will We Be Welcomed?:" "These are scared people who are doing a courageous thing in leaving their homes behind. They have become prey for the animals and even their own people; the soldiers will kill them if they find them. While they walk they are wondering about one thing: Will they reach an open door or a closed door? Will they be welcomed in or shut out? If they reach a closed door, they will be stressed and continue to face problems, but if they reach an open door, their situation will improve a little bit and maybe they will also improve the lives of those who let them in." – Abel, 19
"Expectations:" "This teenager is waiting for the life he expects. He sits in a jerry can that children use to collect water or play games in the camp, but he is no longer a boy, he’s too big for the jerry can. He has become too old while waiting for a new life, for a new solution. Refugees are always waiting – waiting for rations, waiting for help from agencies, waiting for documents, waiting for resettlement. He is a refugee with nothing behind him. All he has is what is in front of him." – Mebrahtu, 45, art teacher