In Oakland, some 8,500 miles away from the northeast African country of Eritrea, a group of immigrants are planning a protest on December 29 against what they say is an oppressive government in their home country.
“We want a democratic government with a constitution, “said Solomon Assefaw, North American Vice-Chairman of Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change (EYSC), the group organizing the protest. He says that EYSC also advocates abolishing forced conscription and the release of imprisoned journalists and political activists in the country.
The Bay Area is home to about 20-25,000 Ethiopians and Eritreans, according to Nunu Kidane, Director of Priority Africa Network, a Bay Area organization that serves those of African descent. Most Bay Area Eritreans settled in Oakland and San Jose in the late 1980s as they fled a violent civil war at home.
Solomon (Eritreans use their first names to formally identify themselves), 40, fled Eritrea in 1999 while working as a journalist amid a violent border war with neighboring Ethiopia. “I used to work for a newspaper,” Solomon said. “I was writing articles from the frontline.”
He and most of his family settled in Oakland, where they live today. “Me and my family are convinced that we have to fight the dictator in Eritrea,” he said, referring to President Isayas Afewerki.
“Eritrean youth all over the world are demanding President Isayas Afewerki to release ALL political prisoners,” read a statement on the EYSC website.
On September 22, 2011 the EYSC staged a protest outside the United Nations in New York to coincide with a visit from Isayas. Last May, a worldwide protest was coordinated to take place across the Eritrean diaspora. Eritreans in Oakland, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Houston, Chicago, as well as in the UK, Italy, Germany, Norway and Denmark held demonstrations on May 28.
The date of this year’s protest has changed twice but Solomon said the EYSC has now settled on December 29.
“Eritrea is effectively a giant prison, and international pressure should continue on Eritrea until President Isaias frees political prisoners and restores the rule of law,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based human rights advocacy group, in a 2011 press release.
There is a strong divide in Oakland’s Eritrean diaspora between those who support and oppose the government back home. Some people in the Eritrean community support the government and say that they are helping the country develop economically.
Last year, about 500 demonstrators protested outside San Francisco’s City Hall. Solomon wants to see more Eritreans come out to support his organization. “We welcome them,” Solomon said. “They are our brothers and sisters and we are from the same country. It is the government who benefits from dividing us.”