It's 2pm and a snow storm has started up here in Seattle. I'm grouchy and I haven't seen the sun in two months, and I wonder if I picked the right place to move to as I grumblingly call an Uber and the man from Eritrea arrives, my knight in shining green Prius, ready to whisk me home across Lake Washington before the roads get obliterated.
We get to talking, and I ask him where he’s from.
“Eritrea,” he tells me.
“What’s it like there?” I asked, not knowing that Eritrea is the most censored country in the world (worse than North Korea!) Not knowing that 9% of the population has escaped or died trying to escape in the last decade, and that each year, thousands are shot down crossing the border, drown trying to flee, or otherwise perish attempting to escape the country.
“There is nothing good about Eritrea. Our dictator throws anyone he pleases into jail for no reason. He kills so many people for absolutely no reason. There is no freedom in the entire country. No one is safe.” Later, I would learn that every 18 year old is conscripted into the army indefinitely, some staying decades without choice, some never leaving at all. I would learn that any political opponents are thrown in jail or killed without trial. That citizens are basically slaves to their ruler, with no voice, no choices, no freedom to speak of.
“Damn! How did you make it out? How did you get to Seattle?”
"I went to the border to die." he says, matter-of-factly, like he had just told me it was a Tuesday or that the sky is blue.
"Wait, wait. You went to the border to die?"
"Yes. I was ready to die. I did not think I would reach Sudan alive. Almost everyone dies when they try to cross over, as it is manned by many skilled men with machine guns. I ran across, and they shot at me,” he looks up to the sky and touches his forehead to God, “and I didn't get hit.”
“From there, I went into Sudan,” he recoils a bit in his seat. “Sudan is the worst country. I traveled by foot through Sudan and eventually I crossed the border into Egypt. Again, I was ready to die. Again, big men with big guns shot at me. And again, I lived.”
“From there, I did the same thing into Israel. Another border crossing. More gunfire. And I made it to Israel in one piece!”
“Five years in Israel. Five years of peace, of freedom, of being alive for the first time in my life. But then they told me they could not have me in their country anymore. They wanted to send me back to Eritrea! But if I went back, they would kill me.”
“And you were ready to die to leave, so there’s no way you’re ever going back,” I add. He nods.
"It was my last month in Israel. I was praying for a miracle at a church when an American woman walked in."
"She asked me 'where are you from?' and I told her Eritrea. I told her my entire story, and she was deeply moved.”
“‘I have connections. I will go back to United States and start the process for you to come over’, she said. So I went to the Israeli government, showed them that she was starting the process, and pressed them for another year or two. They gave it to me."
"This woman and I were writing a lot back and forth, and we became close. Along the way, we fell in love. She came to Israel and we get married! From there, we returned to Seattle." He smiles warmly. "One year later, our first child. Two years after that, a second child. And four years later, we have our third child who is now 6 months old."
"My wife saved my life. I owe her everything."
"I should not be alive right now. So many others, they died trying to escape. I can not believe my incredible luck and this amazing life I've been given."
"Now, being here in America, everything is easy! Life is so easy! You all, you don’t know what you have. You talk about the election coming up, and Trump this, Bernie that, and you are so concerned, and I know it's big deal for you all, and these are your lives, and you don't understand what you have, and that is okay. But… I never had a choice back home. I was not allowed to talk about these kinds of things. That kind of freedom was not even dreamed of."
We peer down the steep, snowy road to my home.
"I have never complained a day in my life since coming to America."
"I give my children this beautiful life. I have a good wife. I am free. I am always happy now."
I thank him for sharing his incredible story, and step out of the car. The snow is coming down in thick, big, lazy flakes and I twirl in a circle and try to catch some on my tongue.
I love Seattle snow days. I love how the grass stays green all year here, how flowers bloom in January, how it never really gets below freezing, how if I want a winter wonderland I just need to drive an hour East into the gorgeous mountains they have here. I love how...
I stop myself and smile.