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Mebrahtom Tesfay, refugee art teacher, paints his version of the long, dangerous journey Eritrean refugees take to reach Europe. (Angela Wells — Jesuit Refugee Service)
(Mai Aini, Ethiopia) August 17, 2015 More than 130,000 Eritrean refugees have crossed the border to Ethiopia escape human rights abuses. Eritrean youth flee forced indefinite military conscription as well as torture at the hands of an oppressive government. Those who cross the border risk their lives:  Eritrea’s strict "shoot to kill" policy spares no one.

Eighty percent of the refugees in this area are under the age of 24; most of them flee on their own without parents or guardians before they reach the age of recruitment. Youth in Mai Aini refugee camp, where Jesuit Refugee Service works, have access to education. But many of them still feel trapped. Leaving the camp to study or work is an unlikely possibility for most and resettlement is rare.

Preying off the energy and dreams of these young people, smugglers convince some Eritrean refugees that making the harsh journey to Europe will allow them to start their lives over. Along the way, however, many young people are tortured and smugglers extort high sums from their families abroad or in Eritrea.

With approximately 35,000 Eritreans reaching the shores of Italy in 2014, they are the largest African population to make the perilous Mediterranean journey. An unknown number have perished in the desert or sea, never to be heard from again.

In Mai Aini refugee camp, JRS hosts art classes where young people can express their visions, fears and memories about these dangerous journeys. The paintings are exhibited at events in the camp and used to raise awareness about the perils of onward migration.

Here, the young artists talk about their paintings:

Young Eritreans paint grim realities

"She is from Eritrea and now as a refugee in Ethiopia she is homesick. She remembers her home, which is the background, and her brothers and sisters, which are represented by the flowers. Now she doubts why she came and suffers when she thinks about home," Teklom Zeuleldi, 23, describes his painting. (Angela Wells — Jesuit Refugee Service)


Young Eritreans paint grim realities

"This represents all refugees in the world who are trapped in prisons. These refugees have been detained by fundamentalists in Libya who have tied them up in chains. Until they pay, they will suffer. I want to show this suffering they experience before death. I want to show how secondary migration can lead to suffering. This is for all my friends who have left here and are in these prisons," says Michael Araya, 24, describing his painting. (Angela Wells — Jesuit Refugee Service)


Young Eritreans paint grim realities

"I painted this after hearing from my friends who made it to Europe. These are refugees who made it to Libya and are risking everything to get to Italy by the Mediterranean Sea. They finally made it on a boat but there is now no one to save them. The smugglers stayed on the shore, sending them off without a captain. The person driving the boat is a refugee himself who doesn’t know how to drive a boat. They have no guarantee of survival. The smugglers just collect money and do not care if they arrive dead or alive," Michael Araya, 24, describes his painting. (Angela Wells — Jesuit Refugee Service)


Young Eritreans paint grim realities

"This shows the entire journey of a refugee trying to reach Europe. They go out of the UN office in Ethiopia frustrated that they have no-long term solution and decide to cross the desert to reach Europe on their own. When they cross the desert they find many enemies: smugglers, who are represented with the mobile phone because they constantly force them to call their relatives to send them more money as well as fundamentalists, who are represented by the snake because they murder refugees.

"If they make it to sea, they must try for their vision to reach Europe where they believe they can make money to help their family in Eritrea, but even in the sea they can die. Those who die are eaten by sea creatures.

"The bird represents their vision but you can see that even the leaf is fruitless, just like their dream. It is fruitless because even when they reach Europe there is no fruit, they cannot work and they aren’t accepted,” said Mebrahtom Tesfay, a fine arts teacher at Mai Aini refugee camp, describing this painting. (Angela Wells — Jesuit Refugee Service)


Young Eritreans paint grim realities

"All mothers can love their kids during peaceful times. This is a mother remembering a time of peace. She is feeding her child to keep her safe. All of these kids who came here alone don’t have mothers and fathers anymore, they miss them. If there was peace at home we could be happy with our parents, but we can’t go home until there is freedom in Eritrea. We all await that day," Mebrahtom Tesfay, refugee art teacher, describes this painting. (Angela Wells — Jesuit Refugee Service)


Young Eritreans paint grim realities

"Eritrean refugees often try to escape their situation, but when traveling through the Sinai desert but they become imprisoned and tortured along the way.

"Here, a fundamentalist man beats these chained refugees. The man on the ground has been kidnapped. They are branded with fire and beaten with whips until their relatives pay a big ransom for their release. I haven’t experienced this but I've heard this has happened to my friends who tried to reach Arab countries. There are parents here who’ve been receiving calls since 2014 from their tortured sons begging them to pay the ransom, but they have nothing here.

"I want others here to see this reality. This is for my community; I want to save their lives by raising awareness," Filmon Ybrah, 16, describes his painting. (Angela Wells — Jesuit Refugee Service)


Young Eritreans paint grim realities

"This Eritrean boy misses his girlfriend who died while trying to reach safety. He is at her funeral and thinking about the future he hoped they would have together," Aman Suba, 17, describes his painting. (Angela Wells — Jesuit Refugee Service)


Young Eritreans paint grim realities

"This family has travelled many miles from Eritrea to reach Ethiopia. They are missing their home and neighbours but they know they have to leave so their kids can have a safer life," Aman Suba, 17, describes this painting. (Angela Wells — Jesuit Refugee Service)


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