My mum, younger brother and I were getting ready to board a boat from North Africa to Italy when we became separated. I was only 13 years old at the time, but I was told I was old enough to go with the men. In the midst of the chaos and crowds of people, I was put on a boat while my mum and brother stayed behind with the other women and children. I was told that they would make the journey later and meet me in Italy. I desperately wanted to stay with them, but I had no choice. As I stepped onto the boat, I didn’t even have time to give them a hug or anything. I didn’t know it then, but that would be the last time I ever saw them.
In total, my journey to find safety in the UK after fleeing my home country would take four years. When I was nine years old, I had to leave my home in Asmara – the capital of Eritrea – with my mother and little brother because it was dangerous and we could not stay there. If we stayed, I would be drafted into the military and forced to fight in the war when I turned 18. Some people hide to avoid being conscripted but they risk prison for up to 40 years.
In Eritrea, there is a lack of education, food and basic human rights. Life was miserable because we were in extreme poverty and often had nothing to eat. My mother was a shopkeeper in our family’s shop but when we had to flee, she stopped working. We had to leave our country in search for a better life somewhere else. After leaving my home country in 2013, we first travelled by boat to Yemen and tried to settle there. But as soon as we arrived, we got caught in the war. This war felt different – almost calm. Bombs were going off everywhere but people were carrying on with their lives, which was shocking to me. We thought the war would end, but it didn’t – so after six months, we left. We moved onto Sudan by boat and spent a week or two there, before travelling through the desert to Egypt. We spent New Year’s Eve 2015 in the desert and didn’t even realise the significance of the day.
When we got to Egypt, it felt dangerous because there was crime on the streets. We stayed there for about four months because again, we knew we couldn’t have a future there. We did not have a clear plan for our journey – our only rule was to keep going to reach somewhere safe, and that whatever happened was part of life. The whole journey up until that point was exhausting. Nothing helped me calm down because there was always a sense of urgency.
There was no such thing as home for me then, and it was impossible to stop, relax and feel secure. I was always scared that something bad would happen – that we would be caught and sent back to Eritrea. We couldn’t waste time or settle down, we just had to keep going. To cross the Mediterranean Sea, we planned to take a boat from North Africa to Italy, which cost a lot of money. I don’t know how my mum could afford to pay for it. After being separated from my mum and brother, I was alone on a journey that lasted around a week. I was so afraid with the boat rocking back and forth. I wanted to go back to my mum, but I couldn’t.
The first thing I did when I arrived in Rome was to find a phone with credit. I called my mum and told her that I was alive and that I was safe. I told her not to do the journey and that it was too horrible. That was the last time I spoke to her. When I tried to call her again – and again – there was no answer. After three weeks of waiting in a refugee camp, I received the worst news. In the place I was staying, I overheard people talking about how lots of people had died at sea. I knew my mum and brother must have been on that boat. My mum and brother’s boat had an accident and it sank. They were just two people in over 700 who died.
My mum was more than a mother to me – she was like my dad and my mum and my best friend. As for my brother – who was 11 years old – he was annoying but funny. We had so much fun together, and I miss that now. I felt so scared and alone. It was a dark and depressing time – losing people you love. I cried a lot, and just tried to get through it. At the same time, it was a moment for me to mature and accept it as just part of life. In Italy, I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t speak the language and was moved around a lot by the government and social services.
First, I was housed in a shelter with other children for about two months, but it felt like longer. It was a stressful and busy place with no privacy. Other children and young people would come into my room and steal my things, but I began to learn how to stand up for myself. Then the social services put me with a foster family. They were nice enough, but I didn’t know them. I had an aunt in the UK and I wanted to be with her, with my real family. I started going to school but didn’t like it. I tried playing football but there was a lot of racism and I never got a chance to play. I was the new guy and while I wasn’t great at football, everyone else got to play. One time, the other team was winning 6-0, and one of the players was injured and there was no one else who could step in. I sat on the bench ready to go, but they wouldn’t let me. They managed to find another player – who was Italian. My aunt – who’s my dad’s sister – had been living in the UK for around 24 years and is a British citizen.
Growing up, I had spoken with her on the phone often. I first met her in person in 2016 when she travelled to Italy to tell me the news about my mum and brother. Unfortunately, she arrived too late – I already knew what had happened. She had to return to the UK and I had to stay in Italy but after that, we were very close and would call each other all the time. She was family. In Italy, I would have been kicked out when I turned 18, as you can’t stay in foster care when you legally become an adult. In the UK, I knew I could stay with my aunt and be looked after by her. She wanted me to be with her after I lost my mum and brother, and I was lonely and wanted to be with my relations.
After I had been in Italy for around seven months, she applied for family reunification via the EU’s Dublin III rules, with the help of the charity Safe Passage International. My aunt said, ‘Don’t try the way a lot of people go, don’t come through Calais – take the legal route.’ I decided to stay in Italy and wait. The process took eight months; it was depressing and I was nervous and worried. I also had to show lots of paperwork – including my birth certificate – to prove our family relationship. It was very hard to get it from Eritrea, and my aunt put in a lot of work to go through the process. It is hard to describe how I felt when I found out I would finally be joining my aunt in the UK.
I was 14 years old; it was exactly four years ago. I felt like I was underground not knowing where to go – and suddenly, I saw a glimpse of light in the darkness. That light has allowed me to live my life with a lot of opportunities and freedom that I never had in Eritrea or anywhere else I have been. I took a plane to the UK. I was nervous; it was my first time being in the air. I had always looked at planes and said to myself, ‘One day, I will travel on one of those’. It was a dream come true.
When I finally saw my aunt and got to hug her, I felt a sense of relief. The sense of urgency and fear hanging over me could begin to slowly fade. I was so relieved to be with her – to have a place to call home; to have a family; and to be able to relax. I had been travelling and searching for safety for such a long time, and now that search was over. It was three months before I started school. My aunt helped me apply and it took a while because many schools were already full. When I arrived on my first day, they welcomed me with open arms. I met another Eritrean boy and he introduced me to people who I have been friends with ever since. Life is good here. I am captain of a football team at school – that was never possible in Italy! I am studying Maths, Physics and Politics for my A-levels and was recently accepted into university to study civil engineering. I am so excited about the future. I have had so many opportunities – such as work experience with civil engineering companies – and I am grateful for everything. Grateful to be able to go to school and university, to access education and healthcare.
This was all possible due to family reunion under the EU’s rules. Although it was hard for me and I had to wait such a long time, it will be even harder for children seeking asylum to reunite with their families now due to Brexit. The UK has left the EU’s family reunion rules and not replaced them. Refugees should have a safe and legal route to safety, and to join their families without thousands of hurdles and barriers – it is their right. The law needs to change to make it easier for families to reunite. I feel so lucky to have been able to apply to join my aunt and start my life in the UK. Others should have that same chance, just like me.