Escaping Eritrea:
A Deadly Journey for Freedom

The story of Liya's journey to America from one of the most repressive countries in the world

Having lived in Israel, Liya speaks four languages and English is her fifth to learn. As the recipient of a full scholarship for the New American Speakers Program offered by WeaveTales, she is training to improve her public speaking skills to share her stories with a broader audience.

My last night in Eritrea was just like any other day.

I sat inside my house and shielded myself from the intense heat of the sun’s rays. As I began to stare out my window, I couldn’t stop myself from daydreaming. I dreamt of a better life, one where I didn’t have to hide away from the rest of the world. 

“Liya, would you like to go to Israel?” 

I was taken aback by my sister’s sudden presence in the room. I shook myself out of my daydream and met her inquiring eyes. Mine were wide with disbelief. 

Out of my seven siblings, my eldest brother had escaped Eritrea and had been living in Israel ever since. From the discreet conversations between him and my sister on occasional phone calls, I had already taken the hint that he was helping her out to escape Eritrea. 

“Brother has been saving up for a while, but he only has enough money to pay the broker to help one other sibling escape. I would go but I am married and it’s better that I stay here. But you are still young and free of any serious commitments,”

In that moment, I was flooded with two vastly different feelings: the sadness of leaving my family and the excitement that my wildest dreams were coming true.

“You cannot live like this forever hiding out from the government.” 

As I thought about this, I could see that this would be one of my only chances to escape the life I was facing in Eritrea. I wouldn’t have to live in fear anymore. I could likely return to school and continue my studies. 

I was only given two hours to make this life-altering decision.

The decision to leave my home, family, and friends was surely a difficult one, but I also knew that I had to fight for my life and my freedom. The way I was living was not sustainable and I wasn’t even sure that I could continue living in hiding. It was clear what I had to do.

“I want to go.” 

From that moment forward, my life would change forever.

She immediately called my brother in Israel in the middle of the night to make arrangements for me to leave the next morning. 

Photos of Liya's Hometown

Liya was raised in rural Eritrea surrounded by her loving family and friends. Growing up she loved going to school and studying. Photo Credit: Liya Negasi

Liya was raised in rural Eritrea surrounded by her loving family and friends. Growing up she loved going to school and studying. Photo Credit: Liya Negasi

Photos of Liya's Hometown

Liya was raised in rural Eritrea surrounded by her loving family and friends. Growing up she loved going to school and studying. Photo Credit: Liya Negasi

Liya was raised in rural Eritrea surrounded by her loving family and friends. Growing up she loved going to school and studying. Photo Credit: Liya Negasi

Telling my father about the decision was the hardest part.

Everything happened so orderly and quickly that I hadn't even prepared how to tell my father of my monumental decision. I drew a deep breath and stopped him as he was heading off to bed. 

“Father, I need to tell you something.” 

He turned around to listen.

In a determined voice, I told him that I would be leaving early in the morning.

My father had been a city leader, and he didn’t want any of his children to leave the country. And yet, with two of my brothers who had already left the country, he also knew on some level that this was an inevitable choice. 

“Do not trick me, you’re lying,” he responded angrily when I told him that I was leaving. 

I tried to talk to him, but he just shrugged me off and went to bed. His refusal devastated me.

I buried myself in the pillows and cried that whole night. 

Hours later, as I looked up to see the break of dawn, I wiped my tears and told myself that this trip to Israel would be like a harmless vacation. 

I didn’t even have the time to say a proper goodbye to my father or the rest of my family before leaving. I finished packing my favorite pair of pants that my sister had made for me and zipped up my small bag. I was ready to embark on my journey. 

“You need to go to another city to meet up with someone who would help you cross the border between Eritrea and Sudan.” 

I nodded as her mouth moved in a whisper to appear calm and ready.

But in truth, the angst of embarking on a solo trip without proper documentation and the possibility of getting caught by the military gave me a stomach ache. 

In Eritrea, you need official documents that allow you to travel from city to city and I was no exception. I was required to present the papers to the military at the border for screening but I had none of the verified papers or documents I needed.

To make this trip successful, there had to be a better plan.

Luckily, my sister knew a bus driver who was willing to help us divert any suspicions from the military. My mother, who happened to be blind, agreed to accompany me on this ride. 

My mother and I boarded the bus and sat close to the driver. I tried to keep silent throughout the bumpy drive. I cracked open the car window to feel the refreshing morning breeze against my cheek.

It would be the last time I ride with my mother in my country. 

As the bus approached closer to the city border, I felt my heart race faster by the minute. My mother held my sweaty hand tighter. 

Finally, the driver stopped the engine at the stop sign. Soon after, a young soldier climbed up the bus and demanded papers from every passenger.

My mother and I were the last people to be asked for the papers. I trembled as the dispassionate soldier’s soft brown hands reached over my mom’s that I was holding on to. Noticing the palpable tension between the soldier and me, the bus driver chimed in to help.

“They don’t need the papers. She just wants to get her blind mother seen by the doctor.” 

The soldier shot a suspicious look at me. By that time, I was already shedding tears out of fear. 

“Please let us cross the border so my mother could see the doctor.” 

I begged until the soldier found it convincing enough to let us cross the city border.

Hours later, I finally arrived at the designated meeting place and met with my leader for the first time. The huge amount of money my brother had paid to the broker was covering his expenses.

Together, we waited for a few more people to join us until the evening.  

In the darkness, the border almost seemed unoccupied.

Only the sounds of occasional gunshots indicated the presence of humans. The Eritrean government had put a “shoot-on-sight” policy in place at the border to curb refugees fleeing the country, and we had to wait for three days before sneaking out of the Eritrea-Sudan border. 

I knew that there were others around me and that I wasn’t going through this alone.

However, the feeling of loneliness was hard to get rid of completely.


Initially, we were told that it would take around three weeks to reach our final destination.

However, we were constantly met with much violence, insecurity, and uncertainty between borders. 

We were illegal migrants and the risks were high. If we were caught, the police would either send us back to Eritrea or even worse, shoot us on the spot. Therefore, most of our walking took place all night long, on the rough, chalky desert terrain. 

I trekked almost 2,500 miles through multiple regions—Sudan, Egypt, and the Sinai Peninsula—before reaching Israel. Most of our walking took place all night long, through the unforgiving desert terrain.

Most nights, we would walk for 12 hours straight.

However, other nights, we could only walk 6 hours before our exhaustion prevented us from going any further. We would resort to sleeping on the cold, hard forest floor in an attempt to gain what little energy we had back. 

I remember one time my ankles gave out from beneath me and I collapsed onto the ground. 

“Liya are you okay, give me your hand,” a childhood friend of mine, who I hadn't known was on the trip with us, helped me get back up on my feet,  

“You can’t go backward from here. Get up, you need to be strong.” 

He gave me a shoulder to lean on when no else did. He carried me when I was too weak to go on. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I would be where I am today.

But these rare moments of kindness paled in comparison to the hardships I faced.

During the day, our leader would pack us into dark holes in the desert ground. It was sweltering hot and cramped. I can still remember the feeling of the sweat and dirt that pressed into my skin as I uncomfortably tried to rest in the dark desert hole. 

For nourishment, we were given three to four biscuit cookies every afternoon and a small cup of impure water. This was the one time during the day we were allowed to eat. The pain I felt as my stomach roared from hunger was almost unbearable. 

Nevertheless, my mind was stronger. I made myself push through the pain and continue on.

Many others were not as strong. A few members of my group collapsed in the desert and took the last breath. I refused to let myself become one of them.

When we arrived near the Egypt-Sudan border, we were met by a truck driver who helped us get to the city of Cairo unnoticed.

Again, we were packed shoulder to shoulder into a small, dark space, like sardines in a can.

But unlike the holes in the desert mountains, the back of this truck had tiny holes in the covering.

These gleams of light let me peek into the city and appreciate the natural beauty of the country for the first time during this journey.

After just one night in Cairo, we were back on foot and headed to Sinai. 

"I was fortunate in that the middleman didn’t try to squeeze my brother of all his money to fund my trip. Sadly, I know that a lot of people were extorted for more money along the way if they wanted help and to continue their journeys."

It took us three entire months to reach the border of Israel.

My brother had paid the equivalent of almost $5,000 U.S. dollars to a middleman, who made the arrangements for me to get to Israel. 

Sadly, I know that a lot of people were extorted for more money along the way if they wanted help and to continue their journeys. Some had to pay upwards of twenty thousand dollars.

Many were simply left behind in the Sinai desert if they refused to pay more as demanded by the leader. 

I was fortunate in that the broker didn’t try to squeeze my brother of all his money to fund my trip. I was even more fortunate to have made it to Israel at all.

Abuses by brokers and smugglers at the borders are commonplace and continue to cause pain on many Eritrean refugees seeking freedom.

Crossing the road into Israel was probably one of the most dangerous moments in my life.

The military patrolling that border had no sympathy for migrants like me.

They wouldn’t think twice about sending you back to Eritrea, no matter what you had endured or how dangerous your journey was. 

I couldn’t fathom the thought of finally finishing my 3-month journey to Israel just to get caught and be sent back to Eritrea.

I had endured so much, and had so many people I loved risk their lives for me.

Those thoughts, as well as the basic desire for food and water, really propelled me to finish my journey.

After months of traveling and making it further than I ever thought possible, I made it to Israel.   

I was sure that with my brother's help I could build a better life there; yet, everything wasn’t as perfect as I dreamed it would be.

My happiness quickly faded away. 

I thought I had known what it felt like to be alone when I had trekked through the desert, but now I was feeling an entirely different kind of loneliness. 

Eventually, I found my way to a women’s shelter and stayed there for quite some time. I made friends from Iraq, Ethiopia, and Palestine and finally felt a sense of community in the new country.  


One day, my friends from the shelter reported my case to a local social worker who recommended that I reach out to the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency).

“Liya, through UNHCR, you might be able to get to Germany or Canada.” 

The social worker convinced me that I could qualify for what she called refugee resettlement. 

I had never thought about the possibility of starting anew in another country, let alone the fact that I might be a “refugee.”

With new hope, I worked closely with the local UNHCR office for the next several months. At first, I wanted to resettle in Germany or Canada because I thought it would be an easier process for the agency, but the papers and documents didn’t work out. 

The agency then suggested the possibility of resettlement in the United States. I had never thought it was possible that I would one day have the opportunity to live in America. I had been unhappy in Israel for over four years and now, I could find new happiness in a new country.

While I was hopeful that I could start a new life in America, I will never forget my friends and the life I had in Israel. 

My last day in Israel was July 11, 2017.

My new life awaited.

The Israeli borders are one of the most militarized and deadly borders in the world. Photo Credit: Unsplash

The Israeli borders are one of the most militarized and deadly borders in the world. Photo Credit: Unsplash

A stop sign at one of the Israeli borders in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. Photo Credit: Unsplash

A stop sign at one of the Israeli borders in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. Photo Credit: Unsplash

A usual urban landscape in Israel. Liya gained a lot from her life in Israel but she also had to endure as much. Photo Credit: Unsplash

A usual urban landscape in Israel. Liya gained a lot from her life in Israel but she also had to endure as much. Photo Credit: Unsplash

Liya has very few pictures from Eritrea and her childhood. Pictured here is Liya and her sisters. Initially, her brother had paid a “broker” to help one of her older sisters escape. Photo credit: Liya Negasi

Liya has very few pictures from Eritrea and her childhood. Pictured here is Liya and her sisters. Initially, her brother had paid a “broker” to help one of her older sisters escape. Photo credit: Liya Negasi

Liya in a traditional Eritrean dress. Photo Credit: Liya Negasi

Liya in a traditional Eritrean dress. Photo Credit: Liya Negasi

"I left Eritrea in 2011 with a small group of people, traveling on foot. If only I knew how arduous the journey would be, I’m not sure if I would have left Eritrea in the first place. I was 18 years old and had no family with me. I was alone for the first time in my life."

Liya (right) and her friend (left) met and quickly became friends when she was staying at a woman's shelter in Israel. Photo Credit: Liya Negasi

Liya (right) and her friend (left) met and quickly became friends when she was staying at a woman's shelter in Israel. Photo Credit: Liya Negasi

Liya is pictured here with her son, and Jessica (second from lower left) and her family in Jacksonville, Florida.

Liya is pictured here with her son, and Jessica (second from lower left) and her family in Jacksonville, Florida.

In July 2017, I arrived in Jacksonville, Florida, from Israel with my four-year-old son. 

Similar to my country of Eritrea, Israel was a small country with a strong sense of community. However, when I came to the U.S. I didn’t know where to go or to whom to turn to.

I had no friends or family to help me, I had to make it on my own.

I was given some assistance for three months through World Relief Jacksonville (WRJ), which I greatly appreciated, but it wasn’t enough.

After three months I was told to go out into the world on my own and support myself. It was scary but I knew that I needed to provide for myself and my son. 

Initially, it wasn’t easy to find a career that was a fit for me. 

Thankfully, my caseworker was able to find a job that I truly loved. I learned all about operating hard drives and computers and felt more knowledgeable in this field than most of the general population. It was the first job that I held in which I felt truly welcomed and accepted. This was due to the environment created by my manager, as he always treated me with respect.  

Through WRJ, I also met a wonderful young woman named Jessica. I didn’t speak English well, but I did speak Hebrew, so we communicated in that language on paper with the help of a local volunteer.

Jessica introduced me to her family and welcomed me with open arms.

It was at that moment, for the first time in months, that I felt like I could make the U.S. my new home.

Jessica gradually became more than a mentor to me -- a family. I would call her at 9 PM and she would come to pick me up wherever I was. Jessica has saved my life in many situations where I would have simply given up.

Words cannot express how grateful I am to have her and her family in my life and for everything they have done for me.

Being in America has given me so much; opportunity, happiness, and a new family that holds a special place in my heart. While the journey may have been long and treacherous, the destination has made it so worthwhile. 

Liya posing with the bread she had prepared for the Hearty Tables recording (see below link). Photo Credit: Gina Nguyen

Liya posing with the bread she had prepared for the Hearty Tables recording (see below link). Photo Credit: Gina Nguyen

Liya posing with the bread she had prepared for the Hearty Tables recording (see below link). Photo Credit: Gina Nguyen

My love of cooking came from my mother.

To this day, I continue to make beloved Eritrean dishes for my son and our friends in America. 

Alicha is a common vegetable dish that is very valuable during times of the year when we have to fast, such as the 55 days before Fasika (Easter).

Alicha is generally paired with Eritrean flatbread known as Injera. Photo Credit: Gina Nguyen

Alicha is generally paired with Eritrean flatbread known as Injera. Photo Credit: Gina Nguyen

It consists of cabbage and other vegetables like potatoes, green beans, and carrots. The main spice used in this dish is turmeric, which gives it a bright orange-yellow color, and jalapeños are added to give it a spicy kick. It is usually eaten with injera bread. 

Injera is made out of Teff, a tiny but very nutritious grain and the staple food crop in Eritrean cuisine. Photo Credit: Gina Nguyen

Injera is made out of Teff, a tiny but very nutritious grain and the staple food crop in Eritrean cuisine. Photo Credit: Gina Nguyen

I also like to cook our traditional coffee, which is time-consuming because the coffee beans are freshly roasted before they are brewed. 

I still cook for my son, who is now seven, dishes that remind me of my home country of Eritrea.

Watch Liya cook a traditional dish, Alicha, and talk about her journey to America

Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of WeaveTales and its employees.