For the past five years, Aaron Berhane has been rebuilding his life in Toronto after fleeing arrest in Eritrea. Today, he is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Meftih, a monthly community newspaper for the 20,000-strong Eritrean community in Toronto. His goal: to help Eritreans, who are scattered across the GTA, integrate and make a contribution to Canadian life.
“The first thing I observed here is this community is divided in two,” he said. “Some are supporters of Eritrean government; others are opposed.
“Regardless, the challenges they face here are huge and yet they spend their time discussing Eritrean politics. Their children drop out of school. The divorce rate is high. And they don’t change their lives.
“Once they start working in odd jobs, they end up doing that for the rest of their lives. They don’t try to improve their lives. They just discuss Eritrean politics and what should be done and they don’t contribute here at all.”
Berhane wanted to change all that with his newspaper. The 39-year-old is one of five foreign journalists featured in a recently released documentary called So Far From Home, which examines their experiences in conflict regions and their efforts to build a future in Canada.
Berhane grew up in a war zone – Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, after a 30-year war and a landslide referendum. In 1997, he set up Eritrea’s largest independent newspaper, Setit, named for the river that runs through his homeland.
“I wanted my newspaper to flow without interruption, like the river,” he said.
But the Eritrean government didn’t have the same idea, and shut down the paper after Berhane published a letter from senior government officials criticizing the government. It was part of a countrywide clampdown on press freedom in September 2001.
Later that month, police came to arrest Berhane, but he escaped jail because he hadn’t slept at home since the crackdown. Other colleagues weren’t as lucky and some 11 others were arrested. Many remain in Eritrean prisons today along with other journalists, says Berhane, 30 in all.
“Four journalists have died in prison already. The rest, we don’t know whether they are alive or not. They’re not allowed to be visited by their family members or Amnesty International.”
Berhane was in hiding for 103 days, eventually fleeing Eritrea to Sudan in disguise. He was shot at by border guards and walked for more than seven hours until he felt safe in Sudan. He then made his way to Nairobi and on to Canada after being granted political asylum in 2002. He arrived in Regina on Aug. 21, 2002. It was an auspicious day. “My newspaper started Aug. 21 and I landed in Canada Aug. 21. It was a good coincidence.”
He studied English at the University of Regina. He loved the people there but found the weather too cold and was eager to come to Toronto, where there was a large Eritrean community. His plan was always to start a local newspaper.
When he arrived in Toronto he got a job as a security guard. Then Berhane, who has a degree in mass communication from the University of Asmara, won a scholarship to the Journalist at Risk program at Massey College. He studied Canadian society, the economy and politics in order to understand his new home. The following year, he got a job as a PEN lecturer at George Brown College. He launched Meftih – which means “key” in Eritrean – in September 2004. It has a circulation of about 6,000.
Some of the recent issues he has looked at include allegations of mismanagement of funds by an Eritrean community association. But he tries to keep his coverage of local issues only.
“We say: `You’re in Canada. Understand how the system works. If you understand how the system works you can start to help yourself and your children.'”
He hasn’t given up criticizing the Eritrean government or its policies. But he submits those reports to other publications and websites.
As for the future, Berhane has plans for expansion, perhaps printing sister papers in other cities with a large Eritrean population.
“I have a lot of freedom compared to where I was. Here you just follow the principle and do the right thing. There is great potential … I’m going to go international and do more online.”