Monday, September 17, 2012

Eritrean refugee builds full life in Saskatoon

Saba Keleta had to catch a connecting flight fast. Ground staff at Toronto's Pearson International Airport told her to forget the luggage check. Board the plane to Saskatoon, they said. We'll send the luggage on the next flight.
Two bags is all her mother and family had when leaving Africa 23 years ago. Saba saw the bags in Toronto on a Saturday night, but doesn't know where they landed, lost in transit. The airline paid for new luggage. Gone were family clothes and an album including pictures of Saba as a child with her two brothers and two sisters.
"Don't worry about tomorrow. Think of today," Saba said. "This is life. Let's use it."
She lives a new life in Canada. She sees different cultures and has a new circle of friends. Saba and her husband Ghere Tewelde are raising sons, Yonas, 22, also known as Johnathan, and Tesfa, 15, and daughter Fnan, 17.
The family owns Saba's African Cuisine on 22nd Street. On the restaurant menu are fresh roasted coffee and injera flatbread and spicy chickpeas and sauteed chicken. Beef cubes are tossed with rosemary, tomatoes and onions. The restaurant is open until 10: 30 p.m. on weekends. On busy nights, Saba cleans and does food prep until 4 in the morning.
"Sometimes I think, 'Here I am in North America, a place I learned about in geography,'" Saba said. "I think, 'Is this true? Am I here?' I have a dishwasher, a washing machine, a car - things I never had before. Now I have everything.
"Still, there is something missing in life. Rush, rush, rush. There are people in the world who have difficult experiences, who face many challenges. We should be thankful for what we have."
She has perspective.
She knows war.
Saba is from Agordat in Eritrea, a country by the Red Sea in eastern Africa.
Eritrea fought a war of independence from Ethiopia from 1961 to 1991. Homes were burned, civilians killed.
To protect themselves against shelling, Saba's family retreated in their yard to a bunker covered with blocks of coconut wood and sandbags. A tunnel connected the bunker to a bedroom in their house. This was her mother's idea.
"Any good time we had was on Saturday and Sunday," Saba said. "My uncle had an orchard about four kilometres away with lemons, grapefruit,
mango, papaya, some tomatoes and onions. We even picked cotton.
"We walked, sometimes took a donkey cart. We picked fruit. We played. We just hoped we didn't see soldiers."
The situation turned wicked on a weekend in March 1975. Saba calls it Black Sunday.
She and her younger sister Tigisti were at church. They were about to leave in late afternoon when a police officer from the station across the street told everyone to stay inside. Be safe, he said. Earlier in the day Eritrean guerrillas fighting for independence had shot and killed a boy who spied for the Ethiopian government. They left his body on the bank of the Barka River. The government struck back with bloody force.
"I wasn't sure I'd see my family again," Saba said.
Bombing stopped by 8 p.m. Saba and her sister ran home. With their two brothers and their mother, who was seven months pregnant, they walked out of town and lived in the wild for two days. Their father stayed to help bury the dead.
Fighting continued. Hope fractured. In the summer of 1979, everyone in Saba's family except her father left Eritrea for good.
"We walked at night for three days," Saba said. "We spent the day hiding under bush."
They ate bananas. Saba was bitten by a snake or stung by a scorpion - she isn't sure which. She turned puffy and purple. She hurt all over, but survived.
She settled with her family in the Tehadeso refugee camp near the western border of Eritrea. A year later she joined her older brother in Kassala, Sudan. Saba and other refugees went to school in the afternoon. She learned a new language. Because Saba didn't have a phone, she talked by letter with her mother and sisters still in the refugee camp. She sent sugar and clothes. She visited them for a month at the end of her school year.
Her family soon moved to Sudan. A one-bedroom apartment was home for two boys, three girls and their mother for eight years.
They came to Canada in 1989.
Today Saba's oldest brother Bokrezion lives in Toronto. Brother Siem is in Yellowknife. Sisters Tigisti and Fortuna and mother Meniya, 75, are in Vancouver. Her father's first name, Keleta, is Saba's surname. Although he has been to Canada for two of his children's weddings, he says he is staying in Eritrea.
Saba is in Saskatoon, as is her uncle Girmazion, who grew the fruit and vegetables she picked on weekends in Africa.
"We made it," Saba said. "When you go through something difficult you become strong."
Her husband Ghere spent eight years in jail as a political prisoner. Using the pen name Mekalh Harnet, which means echo of liberty, he wrote an informative piece called Reflections on the Eritrean Revolution. You can read it at www. by checking the Sept. 18, 2006 archives.
Ghere and Saba met and married in Sudan. They were apart for four years until he followed her to Canada. Their link with Africa endures.
Saba sends money to her refugee school for teacher salaries. She helps immigrants in Saskatoon from all over the world, such as a woman who is new to the city, doesn't speak English, has four children and whose husband died this month.
Saba relaxes.
She goes boating on Christopher Lake where Shirley and Bernie Karstad have a place. The Karstads were members of Zion Lutheran Church in Saskatoon, which sponsored the Keleta family to come to Canada.
Saba lives and learns. She leads.
"My family knows Eritrea," she said of her daughter and two sons, all born in Saskatoon. "I talk to them about it. One day we'll go back. I want to show them my house, to see how life was.
"I want them to keep the culture, the dance, the food."
She has a vision.
"I want them to respect people.

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