John Bond reviews a book about a remarkable refugee.
In many European countries, hostility to immigrants is a major electoral factor. In Britain the Government has responded by hardening its approach to asylum seekers.
A new biography by former TV journalist Stan Hazell implicitly challenges this approach by describing the contribution of an asylum seeker to the wellbeing of Britain. Long Way from Adi Ghehad tells the story of Dr Teame Mebrahtu, an Eritrean educator who received asylum in Britain 40 years ago.
Teame headed the Teacher Training College in Asmara, Eritrea. But in 1976, amidst the turmoil of Eritrea’s struggle to break away from Ethiopia, he was forced to flee to Britain. When the Ethiopian Government demanded his return, he was granted asylum. From the start he declined state benefits, saying he was not entitled to them.
Teame was born in a village in rural Eritrea in 1939. He was the first in his family to go to school, thanks to his father’s determination that his son would be educated. That was easier said than done, and the book describes how Teame overcame obstacle after obstacle, eventually completing both schooling and teacher training. He then gained a place at the American University of Beirut.
He returned from Beirut to a tense situation, as Ethiopia had annexed Eritrea, forcing the country to adopt the Ethiopian language and methods of governance. Resentment grew, not least in Teame. He longed for an end to Ethiopian domination.
At this stage he met Moral Re-Armament (later Initiatives of Change) in Asmara, and discovered he shared their moral and spiritual values. At the MRA centre at Caux in Switzerland he talked with people such as West Indian cricketer Conrad Hunte, and concluded that hatred would not achieve justice for his people. He understood that if he was to be part of creating a free and just Eritrea, he had to live the moral qualities he wanted for his country.
As the head of a College which comprised students from different parts of Ethiopia, this took courage. When an Ethiopian student at the college drowned while swimming in a nearby river, Teame travelled 1600 kms to take the student’s body back to his home village – ignoring warnings of the dangers. He was met by a crowd of 2,000 angry students and villagers, many of them armed. Eventually he won them over.
Back in Eritrea, the liberation struggle was growing, Ethiopian rule was becoming more ruthless, and a close friend and colleague of Teame’s was assassinated. Then he was warned that his name was on a death list. That prompted his departure, followed by his wife Teblez and three daughters.
For the next 24 years he worked at the Graduate School of Education in Bristol, teaching at diploma, graduate and post-graduate levels. From there he initiated an array of programmes aimed at building bridges of understanding between Britain and the developing world, and improving education in countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Hundreds of educators have travelled across these bridges.
He also organised major national and international conferences on multicultural education in Britain, development education, and the contribution of the developing countries to the developed world. In 1984 he was recommended for service as a magistrate, and he became Bristol`s first black member of the Bench.
Through it all he has kept a focus on Eritrea. He made five visits to the camps in Sudan which housed Eritrean refugees, helping to improve the schools there. Then he went into the areas liberated by the Eritrean fighters, risking attack by Ethiopian Mig jets, to train teachers and develop an education system for the country following liberation.
By 1991 Eritrean military victories had made independence certain, and Eritrean leaders invited Teame to meet with them in Bologna, Italy to plan for the rebuilding of the country. There he gave a seminar on the challenges facing Eritrea, warning that national euphoria could be followed closely by individual despair. He urged the development of an education system which created well-rounded citizens with the skills to develop their country, and the qualities of integrity and empathy needed to create a harmonious society. Then he set to work to build such a system, making many visits to Eritrea and recruiting skilled British educators to deliver intensive in-service programmes for school administrators.
Contrary to Teame’s hopes, Eritrea has since become an authoritarian state from which 5,000 are fleeing each month, many arriving in Britain. Some of the most moving stories in the book describe his and Teblez’s care for their fellow refugees. Teame has become acknowledged as an expert on the plight of those who flee oppression, and on how diverse communities can come together in harmony and understanding.