Solomon’s Story – The story of a refugee’s journey to Canada

In 2022 the United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR) reported that 100 million people, representing about one per cent of the world’s population, are permanently displaced from their homes. 53 million people are “internally displaced”, and 47 million people are refugees and asylum seekers in other countries. War, violence, rape, repression, persecution, expropriation, expulsion and other such outrages against human rights and dignity, as well as drought, famine and disease, are the main causes. The 14 million displaced Ukrainians, 6 million of whom fled the country, reminds once-complacent Westerners that this is a whole world problem, not just a “third world” problem, now inevitably and forever reshaping Western countries, including Canada,

The numbers are more than double the 40 million people who were permanently displaced from their home countries at the end of World War 2, the last historic era of mass uprooting and displacement affecting the West. Canada- and Sudbury in particular- was greatly enriched by that influx of mainly European survivors of war and dispossession. My best childhood friend was Chinese. My parents-in-law from my first marriage were Romanian refugees. My second wife Liz is from a family of Dutch immigrants.  All Sudburians have similar experiences of such rich and beneficial connections and consequences arising from immigration.

The present influx of immigrants into Canada is somewhat different from the last. Their numbers are greater, and their countries of origin are generally different. Instability giving rise to forced emigration, being no longer limited to hot war zones, but now, arising from multiple causes, is a common feature in more destabilized and tragedy-struck countries the world over than ever before. The victims of these terrible circumstances are learning that, losing their roots, they have to focus on their feet in order to move and survive.

By 2035 first generation new Canadians will make up about a third of the population of the country.

Jewish writer George Steiner, whose father fled France with his family in 1940 in advance of the German invasion,  told the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel,[i] referencing today’s forced mass movements: “God has decided to make Jews of everybody…He’s going to teach everybody else what it’s like to wander, what it’s like not to have safety and protection…The movements of despair-it does look to me as if a lot of human beings are going to learn what it is like to be Jewish, to be refugees, hunted people, people who have to learn languages to survive, people who have to relearn jobs, ways of life.”

Canada, and Sudbury, is rightly welcoming these refugees, and must continue to do so. New Canadians, and the ancestors of all Canadians already here, including the ancestors of our Indigenous peoples, all came from somewhere else. They were all once in the same position as the new arrivals to Canada are in now. No longer having roots, they had to focus on their feet instead in order to move and survive.

The descendants of our immigrant ancestors- us– are like the Jews in the Promised Land being reminded in the Bible by God: “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[ii]

Because of the existence in our human nature of the ancient, tribal “us against the other” defensive instinct, and because of reasonable concerns about our own homeless people, and about social welfare, health care and housing costs, immigration invariably gives rise to political and social tensions and discord. This can be greatly reduced, and our better angels better able to inform and guide us compassionately and in most measured fashion, when we see immigrants, not as dehumanized, stereotyped and faceless abstractions, but rather as vulnerable, individual human beings, just like us.

Solomon Gebremarian is just like us.

He was born in 1989 in the small village of Tselimkalay, Eritrea. His father, Gebreyhanes, was a farmer who died when Solomon was two. He has an older brother, Yrgalem, now working in a butcher shop in Eilat, Israel. His sister and mother still live in Eritrea. Yrgalem regularly sends them what money he can.

In 1991, after a long and bloody civil war, Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia. Tselimkalay is near the Ethiopian border. Since before independence until the present it has suffered from continuous violence at the hands of either Ethiopians or Eritrean soldiers. It’s a war zone in disputed borderlands. There is no rule of law there, and thus no personal security and no functioning economy.

Solomon never had state-issued identification papers. It wasn’t possible to get them.

At age nineteen, to avoid the Eritrean military draft, which results in indefinite, forced labor military service, Solomon crossed the border into Ethiopia and spent two months in a United Nations refugee camp. Then Yrgalem paid U.S. dollars to smugglers, who smuggled him into Sudan, where he was harbored for two days by Sudanese Eritreans.

Yrgalem found the necessary money again, and paid smugglers to smuggle him into Libya. The car trip though the Sahara Desert took two weeks.

Solomon is black, and an Orthodox Tewahdo Christian. Libyans are lighter-skinned, Muslim Arabs. It is dangerous for black Christians of any kind in Libya. Solomon laid low there for six months. During that period, with Yrgalem’s financial help, he tried on more than one occasion to get on a refugee boat to Italy. He was successful getting on one once, but the police discovered it and prevented the boat from leaving.

It was decided that he would go to Egypt and then to Israel. The revolution against Gaddafi was starting, and it was more dangerous for him in Libya than ever.

Again, Yrgamlem found the money and the right people to pay it to. It was a two-day car trip to Egypt. He hid out for four days there, until arrangements were made to take him to the Israeli border. He and nine other refugees were driven to an Israeli border point in the Sinai Desert and dropped off in the middle of the night. They were between two border posts. They cut through the fence and crawled through it into Israel. They must have been heard by border guards because shots were fired. Solomon and the others just ran for it.

There was no place to hide, and when the sun came up, they were arrested. The soldiers were “nice” compared to all the soldiers, guards and police Solomon had fearfully encountered on his perilous, circuitous one year journey from Eritrea to Israel.

He was sent to an immigration office in the Negev Desert and confined there to a detention center for three months.

After three months he was given a document entitled “Conditional Release” that said in substance that he was in Israel illegally and temporarily, that he could be imprisoned at any time, that he had no civil rights, no right to work and no right to any kind of economic support from Israel. Despite the Geneva Convention, which forbids deportation of asylum seekers, it implied that Solomon could be deported at any time.

An Israeli High Court judgement said that refugees in Solomon’s position could work, and this confusion in the law permitted Solomon to work “off the books” for employers who would hire him.

Solomon worked in black market construction jobs for the next year.

Itamar was the manager of a McDonald’s restaurant in Eilat. He befriended and hired Solomon. Solomon worked there for two years, improving his English and Arabic, and learning Hebrew. In his spare time, he learned photography by watching YouTube videos.

He quit McDonald’s and started his own photography business, which turned out to be a success. He carried on this small business until 2017, when Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government made it more difficult for people in Solomon’s position to work.

He started to work in the area of refugees’ rights. With his native Tingrina and the Arabic he had picked up on his travels, and now with proficiency in English and Hebrew, he was able to work as an interpreter and advocacy worker for Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, (ASSAF). There he met people from all over the world. He grew personally and professionally. He became an activist and spokesperson for refugees, giving them hope. His outlook turned from despair to his own increased hopefulness.

But there could be no secure and predictable future for Solomon in Israel, only a continuous, temporary, shadow life. Not being Jewish, there was no path to permanent residency or citizenship status for him. The Netanyahu government was doing everything it could to force people like Solomon to leave Israel.

Everyone who has experienced troubles in his travels has had the experience of being rescued from his misfortune by the kindness of a stranger- a righteous man or woman.

Solomon’s brother Yrgalem is a righteous man, as is Itamar, who hired him to work at McDonald’s.

A righteous Jewish woman named Tamar Wolofsky worked with Solomon at ASSAF, and they became friends. She saw the increasing uncertainty of his situation. She was the granddaughter of another righteous man, Jack Wolofsky of Montreal, who was friends with former Sudbury Mayor Jim Gordon. Jim, a righteous man, is a leader of Sudbury Project Hope, an organization of equally righteous Sudburians who are devoted to the goal of helping refugees like Solomon legally settle in Canada.

Through the efforts of all these good people, Solomon now lives in Sudbury. (The Israeli government paid for his plane ticket). He has permanent residency status. He is living in an apartment provided by Mr. Wolofsky. He is enrolled in the social work program at Cambrian College. No doubt he will be working soon, paying for goods and services in Sudbury, and sending what he can to his mother and sister in Eritrea.

Solomon’s courage, resiliency, skills, enterprise and work ethic, all demonstrated by the amazing events of his long journey from Eritrea to Sudbury- and Solomon’s unique history and culture- will surely redound to the material benefit and cultural richness of Sudbury, and Canada as a whole.

Modern modes of transport and the IPhone are amongst the many 21st century phenomena that enable and facilitate the forced mass movements of people that are happening in the world today.

For most of the five thousand years of the history of civilization the empire was the main form of government: a large agglomeration of peoples of different races, cultures and ethnicities living together under the nominal rule of one man- compelled by his law to get along. The current nation state system, based on the idea of one race or ethnicity or religion per country, while its going to be around for quite a while longer, cannot maintain this idea in the face of these mass movements, which cannot be stopped, only controlled.

Nation states have no choice but to go back to history’s norm- the empire’s model of multi-cultural, multi-racial, equality-under-the-law co-existence within the nation state’s borders.

The more civilized and realistic nation states, which includes Canada, are going back to this timeless norm, and it’s the right and beneficial thing to do.

The clear advantages of having people like Solomon Gebremarian living in Canada and contributing to our common welfare are too good to pass up.

Peter Best


January 25, 2023

[i] From Original Minds- Conversations with CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Toronto, 2004

[ii] Leviticus 19:34

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