After fleeing Eritrea as a refugee, Faisal Saeed was able to pursue a bachelor’s in Morocco thanks to scholarships. “This is such a good point in my life…. I’m finally here,” Saeed says.
Casablanca – “I still can’t remember how I felt when I got my letter. I was numb. I couldn’t believe that finally my future would start, and at the same time, I was sad because I might not be able to see my family for several years. It was a huge mix of emotions. I was in shock.”
Faisal Saeed received an acceptance letter from a Moroccan government scholarship program in 2014 that opened up new possibilities for the young Eritrean refugee. The program allowed him to leave Saudi Arabia for Morocco where he could pursue a university education. Although he arrived in Rabat over four years ago, his experiences as a refugee has made it challenging for the 22-year-old to find a sense of home in Morocco.
Today, Saeed is one of nearly 6,500 refugees living in Morocco, according to numbers from the UNHCR. Although most refugees in Morocco are from Syria and Yemen, some, like Saeed, are from Eritrea, a coastal country in the Horn of Africa that borders Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti.
Saeed is Tigrinyan, one of nine recognized ethnic groups in Eritrea. While the Tigrinya tribe makes up 55% of the country’s population, Saeed said the tribe is often a target of government abuse.
Eritrea has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Arbitrary detention, mandatory and indefinite military conscription, torture, sexual violence, and forced labor are just some of the violations that have driven nearly 15% of the population to flee Eritrea since the 1998 war with Ethiopia.
The one-man dictatorship ruled by President Isaias Afeweki faces little resistance for the abuse against its citizens. Eritrea’s independent press was shut down in 2001, and no domestic institution exists that can investigate abuses. The Committee to Protect Journalists has consistently ranked Eritrea as the number one most-censored country in the world with a record worse than North Korea.
The United Nations Human Rights Council stepped in to fill the shoes of local media and has attempted to report on claims of human rights abuse. Despite requests to visit Eritrea to conduct a fact-finding mission, the HRC was denied. Instead, a team gathered 550 first-hand testimonies from witnesses living in other countries in addition to 160 written submissions.
From the testimonies, the HRC revealed in its 2015 report that “widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the government. Some of these violations may constitute crimes against humanity.”
‘Returning to Eritrea means death’
Saeed’s family members witnessed the abuses described by the HRC’s report around them every day. Saeed said his family left Eritrea in 2000. They made their way to Saudi Arabia where he spent most of his childhood in Riyadh.
“Some people there were nice. Some people were the absolute opposite. They constantly reminded you that you don’t belong there,” Saeed said of Saudis. “I knew that from an early age that I didn’t belong there.”
As he grew older, Saeed felt trapped in Saudi Arabia.
After finishing secondary school, his residency permit expired. Saeed faced a very real fear of being repatriated, of being sent back to Eritrea. As Saudi Arabia is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention that grants rights to refugees, many of Saeed’s friends and family members were deported from Saudi Arabia back to Eritrea.
For Saeed and other Eritrean refugees, “returning to Eritrea means death,” he said.
The Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly insisted that people who fled are free to return without repercussion. However, repatriated refugees told Human Rights Watch that upon return to Eritrea, they received harsh punishment, including torture and indefinite detention without outside contact.
A report from the European Asylum Support Office stated that “shortly after their return to Eritrea, [repatriated refugees] were beaten and imprisoned in overcrowded cells. One informant explained that several people in his group of returnees died as a result of those beatings.”
If Saudi Arabia repatriated Saeed to Eritrea, an unpleasant return awaited him, at best. At worst, death. So as graduation grew closer, Saeed desperately searched for opportunities to avoid what he perceived as imminent repatriation. He needed to leave Saudi Arabia.
In December 2014, Saeed received an acceptance letter from the Moroccan Agency for International Cooperation program that provided funding for a university education in Morocco.
New life in Morocco
Almost immediately, Saeed moved to Morocco. He focused on French at a language center in Rabat before he started his bachelor’s degree in Kenitra, a city on Morocco’s Atlantic coast north of Rabat.
In 2018, Saeed was one of a handful of refugee students selected for the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative program (DAFI) to continue his studies in Morocco. He currently studies radiology in Casablanca at the Higher Institutes of Nursing and Health Technology Professions.
Saeed has been in Morocco for over four years, but he does not yet feel at home in the North African country.
“I feel like no matter how my situation is here in Morocco, I don’t feel like this is my home,” he said. “The word ‘home,’ the definition of it in my mind is the place where my family is because I didn’t have a homeland. I was hardly there. Eritrea is not my home. Saudi Arabia is not my home. Morocco is not my home. I am always a foreigner.”
Saeed is unsure of when he will see his family next, as most of his family members are in Saudi Arabia, but he is making the most of his time in Morocco. Since coming to Morocco, he became the vice-president of the DAFI student association. Above all, Saeed says he is grateful to have found safety, security, and an opportunity for a better life in Morocco.
“I’m thankful, to be honest. This is such a good point in my life that I was hoping I would reach that so many refugees don’t reach. I’m finally here,” he said.