MERON ESTEFANOS TRIES TO answer every phone call she receives, regardless of whether she recognizes the number, which she often doesn’t.
“In some instances I’ve had refugees calling, asking whether they can speak to Estefanos. And I’d ask how they got my number and they would say, ‘Oh, I’m in Libya, it was written here on the prison wall and said if you have a problem to call this number.’”
The cell phones they use are smuggled in with the help of prison guards, Estefanos says. There are two kinds of detention in Libya: one is carried out by official government militias, where prisoners are registered; the other is carried out by more informal militias, and no one is put on the books. In the latter case, prisoners may be asked for a ransom to get to the legal prison. According to Estefanos, the minimum ransom is $3,500. Even in the official prisons, though, conditions are dire, and sometimes as many as 150 people are crowded into larger holding cells. Estefanos often hears from prisons in Sabratha, Libya, right on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where some prisoners are held for months on end, unsure of their charges or status.
Human Rights Watch researcher Hanan Salah is one of few outsiders ever permitted access to Libyan prisons. In a 2015 interview, Salah recounted how prisoners described being tortured and at times held for long stretches with no charges. They were also worried that if they spoke to Salah, they’d face retribution at the hands of prison guards. “I’ve been doing visits like this for many years,” said Salah. “But the thing that struck me in all of these prisons was the smell of fear.”
Prisoners often tell Estefanos not to call during certain hours, or they agree that if she misses one of their calls, she will call them back. So they call, and Estefanos listens, even if she can’t help. It’s a well-worn practice for her.
Estefanos, 42, was born and mostly raised in Eritrea, which won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year war. Since then, the country has descended into a brutal dictatorship. A 2016 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea found evidence of crimes against humanity, noting that “imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape, murder, and other inhumane acts have been committed as part of a campaign to instill fear in, deter opposition from, and ultimately to control the Eritrean civilian population since Eritrean authorities took control of Eritrean territory in 1991.” About 5,000 people f lee the country every month, despite the fact that border guards have a shoot-to-kill policy against those caught escaping, according to the UN. By some estimates, 9 percent of Eritrea’s population had left the country as of 2015.
Estefanos, whose father fought with the Eritrean resistance against Ethiopia, fled to Sweden, where she joined him in 1988, when she was 13. She has spent the last 13 years chronicling, advising, counseling, and fighting for Eritrean refugees fleeing the country, and this has pulled her into the orbit of the recent refugee crisis, political defections, torture camps, and human traffickers. All of these she works to address from her kitchen table in Oslo.
Estefanos wakes up each morning at 6:30 a.m. to rouse her kids and get them off to school. Her older son is now 17, and the younger one is nine. The older one has diabetes, while the younger one was recently diagnosed with autism. This means that on top of school appointments, there are also doctor visits and other meetings to deal with regularly. A self-described coffeeholic, Estefanos starts her coffeepot at 7:30 a.m. “I try to go through whatever I have for the day at that point,” she said, “but usually the phone has started ringing even before seven, before I even get my kids off to school.” Often, she’s talking to people from Sweden to Sudan, sitting at her kitchen table, coffeepot gurgling nearby, managing an improvised logistics network via international phone lines. If she’s doing a call on her radio show, Estefanos will use Skype and a headset with her laptop to make sure the voice quality of the audio is as good as it can be; for other calls she’ll use her mobile phone, for instance while doing research and recording interviews.
Since 2009, Estefanos has been a journalist at Radio Erena, which she says is now the only independent radio station broadcasting into Eritrea. Her program, “Voices of Eritrean Refugees,” documents the stories of refugees by having them call in as Estefanos works to tackle their problems, whether they be logistical, emotional, or something else. She says that sometimes people leave the country with just her number as an emergency contact for their journey.
Her first call was helping arrange rescue for a stranded boat carrying around 400 people in the Mediterranean that was in danger of capsizing. She had to hurriedly figure out which authorities to call, how to contact coast guards, and use social media to drum up assistance, staying awake nearly 24 hours straight to do so. Now, she says, the phone numbers of authorities such as the Italian coast guard are saved on her phone. Since then, she’s played a role in securing political asylum for Eritrean air force pilots who f led to Saudi Arabia with the Eritrean presidential jet, and worked in the past to raise ransom money for escaping Eritreans kidnapped and held in the Sinai Peninsula.
Many Eritreans who flee the country are kidnapped along human trafficking routes and ransomed. Estefanos describes the kidnappers as bedouin who regularly travel between Sudan, Eritrea, and Sinai, where enforcement of laws is difficult on account of it being a demilitarized zone. The United Nations High Council on Refugees confirmed almost 400 cases of kidnapping between 2011–12 and reported that its field office in east Sudan received between 30 and 50 cases a month of people who claimed to have been kidnapped at the Eritrean border. Human Rights Watch has estimated that between 2009 and 2013, 5,000–10,000 trafficking victims in the Horn of Africa died and that 95 percent of human trafficking victims were Eritrean.
“Someone called me who lived in the United Kingdom, and told me his brother had been kidnapped, along with 28 others, in Sinai and he was being asked to pay $20,000, which was shocking to me,” says Estefanos, adding that ransoms in previous years were typically in the $2,000–$4,000 range. “I said, are you kidding me? $20,000 for the group? But no, that was individually. I didn’t believe him, to be honest. I thought he was exaggerating. But he said if I didn’t believe him to at least call them, and he gave me two or three phone numbers. I wasn’t going to call, but after 24 hours felt really bad for not calling and decided I should give them a call.”
The person who answered the phone was an 18-year-old man who was crying like a baby, remembers Estefanos. He asked whether she wanted to speak to the others, so she spoke to all 28 of them, and told them she’d call them that night to do an interview.
“Normally people might say, ‘Oh, I have to hang up, I’m going to go eat,’ but people would instead say, ‘Oh, I have to get tortured, call me back in one hour,’” said Estefanos. “Since I had used my house phone to call them, they had saved my number. And every two or three minutes they’d call me. And the person would tell me the person I had spoken to previously died. It turned my whole life upside down. This wasn’t something I was prepared for, these kinds of issues.”
But at the same time, Estefanos felt if she didn’t talk to these people, and share their stories, then what would happen to the people being kidnapped? So she decided she had to bring the plight of Eritreans to the world’s attention with her interviews, so that people would have to react. At one point, this involved making the decision to put someone who was being tortured live on air, after their captors called her to prove it was happening.
Estefanos, along with others, eventually raised the funds to have one of the refugees from the group of 28 freed, but it wasn’t as straightforward as it initially appeared. The captors told her she had to pay for at least five refugees to be set free, at a rate of $5,000 per person. Eventually they raised the funds from the refugees’ families and others in the diaspora community. They were told after sending a Western Union money order that the agreed-upon individuals in the group had been released.
“For the first three days or so, we were not worried. We were actually celebrating with some friends who were very worried about the group and had contributed,” says Estefanos. “And then four days later, one of the brothers called me and said, ‘Meron, they are playing us, my brother is still there. I spoke to him.’ So they didn’t release them. That drove me crazy.”
When she called the numbers she had, she learned that the captors had forbidden anyone from speaking with her again. Then another group reached out to her, one with 38 people, and while they understood she couldn’t raise more money, they just wanted somebody to listen to them. And the calls kept coming. At one point, Estefanos estimates she was in touch with 20 different groups of prisoners held at various torture camps.
Estefanos no longer raises money to ransom those who have been kidnapped, but she does try to arrange financial aid for former victims who can’t support themselves as a result of the torture they endured.
For those she can’t help directly, she still talks to on an almost daily basis, to show she does care about what happens to them. “What is surprising is that the people I couldn’t help appreciate my phone calls more than the people I helped and always say my phone calls gave them hope,” she said.
But as the fervor and media focus on the refugee crisis in Europe dies down from earlier peaks, Estefanos finds it harder to get the plights of Eritreans into the news and the public’s consciousness.
“I have many journalist friends, and I email them with an offer of new stories, and sometimes I literally beg journos to cover Eritreans or Eritrea,” she said. These include tales of Libyan prisons and kidnappings, the stories that she loses track of after someone’s cell phone is taken or destroyed, and the financial toll that ransoms can take on whole generations of families.
“I have to get tortured, call me back in one hour.”
Recently, Estefanos was a key source for a piece in The New Yorker about a case of mistaken identity that put the wrong person on trial for human trafficking. She continues to research kidnapping in Sinai, and she continues to do her radio show every week, offering tangible help when she can—like letting people know which routes to the Mediterranean are safest—and emotional support when she can’t. Estefanos wants to create a sense of hope in a world that, for refugees, is chaotic and increasingly dependent on European goodwill.
“No people can be oppressed forever, and I believe the only way to stop the migration from Eritrea is a regime change,” she says. “Who knows, maybe eventually [those of ] us in the diaspora could go home. That’s my dream.”
But even with her increasing profile and the gratifying work, all this comes at a cost, both emotional and financial. “Sometimes I’ll make good money for three months and maybe don’t get any more projects the rest of the year, which means I have to live with three months’ salary the whole year,” says Estefanos. “I live a very simple life, often broke. My children are not happy with the way we live, as I am a single mother of two with no father in the picture. They hate that I have been telling them all their lives that we can’t afford to buy this game or toy. They often tell me to get a real job.”
Even so, Estefanos intends to continue helping refugees as long as she is able to support her family. She does sometimes wonder about getting a “normal job.” And yet she’s continuously reminded of the burden that refugees and other migrants face, and how few resources are available to aid them. Considering how she could build on her work and help more people, Estefanos imagines simple, practical things: regular hours, an office space, a colleague or two to pitch in on reading and responding to the hundreds of emails she receives daily, and some help cataloging all the calls and information and people she needs to track around the world. Not to mention building a website to better communicate her mission to the world. It doesn’t seem like much, compared to the potential good she has done and can do.
“But right now, I just don’t know how to get there,” said Estefanos wistfully. The clock is always ticking. Even a short conversation had caused her to miss three calls. It was time to call them back.
Meron Estefanos can be reached via Twitter (@meronina), Radio Erena (erena.org), and the organization she founded, the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights (eirr.org).