Fleeing Eritrea For Better Ball, Life

by June 20, 2010

We recommend reading the entire New York Times story, but here’s an excerpt to whet the appetite: “Long before he learned to dunk on warped wooden backboards, Awet Eyob nursed a dream: to play basketball in America…But one big problem stood between him and his dream: his homeland, Eritrea, an isolated, secretive nation in the Horn of Africa that is refusing to let its young people leave…So this January, in great secrecy, Mr. Awet gathered four pairs of boxers, two pairs of socks, his high school transcript, his Air Jordans and some cash to pay a gang of human traffickers (or coyotes, as he calls them). ‘I remember that first call,’ he said. ‘The coyote said: ‘Hello, this is Sunshine.’ I answered, ‘This is Thunder.’  Mr. Awet, 20, who is now living in Amman, Jordan, is the embodiment of Eritrea’s lost generation. This tiny country is spawning more refugees per capita than just about anywhere else in the world, according to United Nations statistics, and most of them are young men, and often the country’s most promising ones at that… Mr. Awet was lucky. Dressed in an extra, extra large gallebeyah (a long flowing gown common in the Muslim world), he sneaked through Sudan and then on to Kenya and Dubai. He is now camped out in the basement of an American family’s home here, doing push-ups, working on his jump shot, playing on a Wii set with the family’s children and trying to get into an American college or prep school… A big reason why he has gotten this far is Matthew Smith, a gregarious, athletic American diplomat who befriended Mr. Awet a couple years ago on a basketball court in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, where Mr. Smith was working. Mr. Smith was impressed by the young man’s game, but more than that, he was moved by Mr. Awet’s burning ambition to break out of his hermetically sealed world. ‘He wanted more, and I could relate to that,’ said Mr. Smith, whose father was a taxi driver in Brooklyn. ‘Who would’ve ever thought the kid of a cabbie and nanny could be a diplomat?’ Mr. Smith matched up Mr. Awet with an American basketball coach in Amman who is now training him.”