Colorado Eritrean Community event

Eritreans in the U.S. Raise Money for Cancer Medical Equipment

Development News

Eritrean communities in the U.S. are campaigning to finance the purchase of cancer-detection medical equipment for six medical centers in Eritrea across the country. Aside from the size of the contributions – made by people who do not appear to be wealthy – what was heartwarming and inspiring was the spirit of love for country and solidarity.

It has some of the highest social indicators in Africa for literacy, elementary and high school education, healthcare facilities, and the general well-being of its population but from the mainstream media reports you’d never know it. Instead, we are flooded with news stories – from the exaggerated to the outright bogus – of “support for terrorism”, an “authoritarian” government that is not defined as a “government” but a “regime”. Its leadership is continually slandered, and its socio-economic achievements denied (unless United Nations’ statistics are viewed – then another quite contrary story emerges). All in all a negative portrait crafted – that like so many others (Iraq, Libya, Syria) – is little more than a prelude for a “color revolution” and regime change.

In fact, among the world’s smaller countries, perhaps with the exception of North Korea and Cuba, few countries get a worse rap from both the State Department and the mainstream media than Eritrea, that strategically located country on the western edge of the Red Sea the southern flack of which sits just across from the Bab El Mandeb Strait, one of the world’s most strategic “choke points”, through which a goodly portion of the world’s oil travels through on oil tankers either coming from or heading towards the Suez Canal. Its strategic position turns out to be both a blessing and a curse – a blessing as it places Eritrea square in the center of trade with the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Yemen) and Asia, a curse as a result of its location it has long been a political football tossed around by the world’s more powerful nations, making autonomy, self-determination a challenge, never more than it is today.

It is a country that has been at war for the better part of a century in which the Italians, the British, and the United States have all had a hand in keeping the pot boiling. Then there was the long effort to achieve independence from Ethiopia, and the wars with Ethiopia that followed. It is a land that has known much human suffering and regional strife. Yet like other small countries, I can think of – this harsh history has produced one of the most resilient, self-sufficient – and I might add – toughest people anywhere, a people with a great love of country and an astounding sense of solidarity. The Eritreans bring to mind their neighbors across the Bab El Mandeb straits – the Yemenis. Likewise, the Finns, far to Eritrea’s north, have a similar toughness shaped by history, and love of country.

In 1991, as the result of a long and difficult armed struggle against Ethiopia – which had illegally absorbed it in 1962 – Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia. Washington supported Ethiopia’s absorption of Eritrea as it provided the United States with a major communications base at Kagnew. According to a New York Times article that appeared in 1970:

Kagnew was originally a British base and was established as a United States communications facility in 1953 under a 25‐year treaty. Since then the United States has spent $ 70 million here for rent, food, salaries, and other local services, maintaining 4,500 Americans, including 1,500 dependents, plus 1,000 Ethiopians.

Originally a British military base established during World War II, satellite technology rendered the base less strategic and it was closed down in 1977 but as a result of Eritrea’s strategic location, it remained – and remains – a political football in both regional and global politics. Shortly after gaining its independence, its relationship with Washington deteriorated and has remained tense since. The first line of the 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices expressed this hostility:

Eritrea is a highly centralized, totalitarian regime under the control of President Isaias Afwerki.

A recent State Department report claims that U.S. interests in Eritrea are about “preventing Eritrea from undermining regional stability, urging progress toward a democratic political culture, addressing human rights issues including religious freedom, and promoting economic reform and prosperity”. All this is standard fare behind which Washington hides the more cogent reasons for its hostility behind the veil of human rights concerns, either exaggerating or downright fabricating the picture. What then might the more pertinent explanations be for Washington’s hostility? I would suggest four factors:

1) Eritrea has adamantly – and wisely – refused IMF/World Bank assistance because of the structural adjustment conditions forcing the country to open its markets and banking sector to “the West”.

2) While the United States through AFRICOM has established military relations with 53 out of 54 African countries – the one holdout that has refused such “assistance” – and all the strings attached – is Eritrea

3) Eritrea’s regional policy to reduce tensions throughout the Horn of Africa and especially the peace agreement it signed with Ethiopia in 2018. and the Eritrean-Ethiopian joint effort to defeat the Tigray-Peoples’ Liberation Front attempt – with full Washington backing – to return to power in Ethiopia, and overthrow the government of Abiy Ahmed was defeated, upsetting Washington’s plans for the Horn of Africa.

4) The strengthening of Eritrea’s ties with China at a time when Washington is in nothing short of a panic to limit Chinese growing economic and political influence in Africa only exacerbates the tensions between the United States and Eritrea. Eritrea supports the growing multipolar global order coming into being in contrast to U.S. global unipolar domination. Within the context of a multipolar foreign policy, Eritrea has no problem – none – improving its ties with Washington.

The poor give more generously than the rich

I didn’t count but I would guess that between 300-400 Eritreans showed up yesterday (June 4, 2023) at Denver’s Jewish Community Center in Southeast Denver to hear Eritrean Embassy Political Attache, Dawit Haile, speak on his country’s campaign to finance the purchase of cancer detection medical equipment for six medical centers in Eritrea across the country. At present there is only one cancer screening facility, a hospital in Asmara, making early cancer detection available to Eritreans living in more rural regions far from the capital.

Colorado Eritrean Community event for cancer medical equipment
Dawit Haile, center, from the Eritrean Embassy in Washington DC at a Colorado Eritrean Community event at Denver’s Jewish Community Center in Denver. The slide above – first graduation class from medical school in Asmara, 2009.

The precise size of Colorado’s Eritrean Community is not clear; community leaders suggest it to be approximately 5000 with the heart of the community residing in Aurora and Denver, although scattered families exist throughout the state’s front range on the eastern edge of the Rockies.

Colorado’s Eritreans are a segment of the surging Black immigrant population across the country, estimated to have surged to 4.6 million nationwide, and expected to double from that figure to over 9 million by 2060.

While some are prosperous, in its main, Colorado’s Eritrean is a working-middle-class community as a whole. Unlike some other African immigrant communities where ethnic tensions tend to divide communities along ethnic and religious lines, here in Colorado the Eritrean population is a tight-knit community with a high level of group identity and solidarity. The fact that in Eritrea citizenship is based on birth (i.e. – anyone born in Eritrea regardless of ethnic or religious background gains citizenship) – rather than based upon ethnic background – is a strong unifying factor both in Eritrea and in its emigre communities abroad.

Haile’s talk, in Tigrinya, included a slide show emphasizing the dramatic progress that Eritrea has made in improving the socio-economic conditions since the 1991 independence. It has one of the most, if not the most, educated populations in all of Africa with its number of high school and university graduates growing by leaps and bounds. The government has reduced infectious diseases to one of the lowest levels in Africa and its healthcare system both in urban and rural areas has increased dramatically. Its cities are spotless and although still a poor country, unemployment and homelessness have already been eliminated for all practical purposes. All this has been accomplished while ignoring Bretton Woods rules and conditionality, without major financing from the World Bank and IMF, and under the pressure of U.S. sanctions.

Haile’s talk about Eritrea’s socio-economic accomplishments was followed by a fundraising session. I’ve seen many of these before among immigrant communities but really nothing of the size, scope, and spirit of what happened at this meeting of a community, the Eritrean Community, that is both small numbers wise and overwhelmingly working class and poor. First, the contributions that had already come in (for the purchase of Ct Scans and other cancer-detecting machines) were announced by a group of community elders. They were sizeable. Many were in the $1000-to-$5000 range. This was followed by people in the audience coming forward with both donations and pledges of $1000, $2000, and more dollars from the floor. The pledges included people with cancer, or whose family members both in the U.S. and Eritrea are afflicted with the condition. Several people, many of them women, pledged $1,000 in honor of each child they had. One woman who had recently moved to Colorado expressed “shame” that she could only contribute $500 at this time but committed to raising another $500 over the next six months. Many more testimonials, and contributions of this nature.

It was both the size of the contributions – from people who do not appear to be billionaires or millionaires – and the spirit of love of country, of solidarity – that was heartwarming, moving. I asked an Eritrean friend not known for exaggerating how much money he thought had been raised at the event. My sense was that I had never seen anything like this from a small community with such modest means. He didn’t know for sure but guessed somewhere around $150,000.

As we were about to leave, friend Nate Kassa from Colorado’s Ethiopian Community (and the Party of Socialism and Liberation chapter here) and I were asked to make a few remarks … and we did. They were well received.

[by Rob Prince]