How an Ethiopian girl is start­ing fresh af­ter be­ing a vic­tim of child traf­fick­ing

Mercury (Hobart) - Magazine - - Up Front - WORDS AMANDA DUCKER PHO­TOG­RA­PHY RICHARD JUPE

A vic­tim of child traf­fick­ing, fol­lowed by years of forced servi­tude and life in an or­phan­age, Bru­tukan Melkamu has a new be­gin­ning in Ho­bart

If you don’t like it,” the woman said, “I am go­ing to bring you back home.” At 10, Bru­tukan Melkamu be­lieved her. She loved the idea of go­ing to school ev­ery day and thought she might not get sick as of­ten in Kenya, where the woman was of­fer­ing to send her to study with her own two chil­dren. There was just one thing Bru­tukan wanted to do first. “I said, ‘What if we can call up my dad and say that I am go­ing’. And she said, ‘No, no, no, you don’t have to tell’. And I said, ‘OK, we go’.”

In that mo­ment, the young Ethiopian’s life changed for­ever. “I re­gret­ted say­ing yes,” says Bru­tukan, sit­ting at the kitchen ta­ble of her small Ho­bart flat, “but what could I do?” As the 20-year-old tells her story to TasWeek­end as part of Refugee Week, her life is at an­other turn­ing point. But this time it is a good one, as she counts down the weeks un­til she starts study­ing at UTAS next se­mes­ter.

Look­ing back, it is hard to iden­tify the point of no re­turn for the trust­ing child. Was it when the woman, vis­it­ing rel­a­tives in the Ethiopian town where Bru­tukan was hol­i­day­ing with her un­cle, be­gan to cul­ti­vate her by prey­ing on her love of learn­ing? Was it when Bru­tukan, with heart­break­ing naiv­ity, agreed to the plan? Was it when they boarded the bus in the wee hours of the morn­ing, or when they reached the far­away bor­der cross­ing to Kenya at Moyale, where the lan­guage changed from Amharic to Swahili, and the chances of a small, be­wil­dered child find­ing her way home with no money and no way to com­mu­ni­cate be­came re­mote?

Ten years since she was tricked into leav­ing her home­land, Bru­tukan has not seen a fam­ily mem­ber. Within days of her ar­rival in Kenya’s Embu County, she was forced into servi­tude by the woman, whose own chil­dren went off to board­ing school. For about two years, Bru­tukan did not go to school at all. “I was do­ing all the house chores,” she says. “She was very cruel. I don’t want to men­tion it [in de­tail].” Af­ter neigh­bours be­came sus­pi­cious and com­plained to author­i­ties, Bru­tukan at­tended a lo­cal school spo­rad­i­cally. “I would of­ten be late be­cause I had to do things in the house,” she says. “And then af­ter school, do­ing chores, some­times I would be so tired I would just sleep in the next morn­ing. Also, if she was not in the house, I would have to miss school be­cause we couldn’t leave the house unat­tended be­cause it was not se­cure.”

Af­ter about a year, teach­ers re­ported Bru­tukan’s er­ratic at­ten­dance to the lo­cal area chief and she was res­cued. At 13, she found her­self in court tes­ti­fy­ing against the woman on child traf­fick­ing charges. Be­cause Bru­tukan had no le­gal sta­tus in Kenya, though, the de­part­ment of chil­dren ser­vices had no char­ter to help her. She was trans­ferred to Nairobi and handed over to the United Na­tions refugee agency (UNHCR), which or­gan­ised for her to stay at a women’s shel­ter for refugees in tran­sit. With talk of de­por­ta­tion, she was briefly hope­ful she would be re­united with her fam­ily back in Arba Minch in south­ern Ethopia, more than 1500km away. “But they ei­ther didn’t have enough in­for­ma­tion or maybe they were just so busy they couldn’t trace them so far away. I don’t know what hap­pened, but I ended up stay­ing there for a long time,” Bru­tukan says. “They were al­ways ask­ing me what I wanted to do. In the be­gin­ning I was al­ways say­ing, ‘I want to go home, I want to go to my mum and dad’, and they would say OK, but then noth­ing would hap­pen.”

Even­tu­ally, she changed tack, be­liev­ing that school­ing would some­how help her find her way home. “I said, ‘OK then, I want to study’,” she says. By then aged 14 and liv­ing in an or­phan­age for girls, her luck changed when an Amer­i­can woman spon­sored her to at­tend a board­ing school four hours from the cap­i­tal. The ar­range­ment worked well for four years, with Bru­tukan re­turn­ing to the or­phan­age in hol­i­days, be­fore it all came crash­ing down.

“I was able to catch up and even skipped two grades at school, and I per­formed well in the na­tional exam in Year 10,” she says. “But then I turned 18 and I couldn’t stay any­more in the or­phan­age be­cause of my age, and then the lady who was pay­ing for the school fees stopped pay­ing when I still had two more years of school to go.”

By now it was 2014. De­pressed and dis­tressed, with home­less­ness loom­ing and un­able to com­plete her stud­ies, Bru­tukan packed up and left the or­phan­age one day, mak­ing her way to the UNHCR in Nairobi. “And they said, ‘We can­not help you be­cause you are not a refugee’.” Then, by luck, she ran into an­other young woman who had grown up at the or­phan­age. Solange, a refugee from DR Congo, had come into the agency to fol­low up her im­mi­gra­tion process. “I said, ‘I don’t have any­where to go’,” Bru­tukan re­calls. “And she said, ‘Let’s go. Stay with me and eat what­ever I eat, I am work­ing a bit, so stay with us’.”

For the next year, Bru­tukan lived with five other girls and Solange’s young son in one room in Nairobi, but when Solange’s re­set­tle­ment to the US came through, Bru­tukan was un­able to pay her share of ex­penses and had to leave. Be­fore she left, Solange asked her brother and his wife to take Bru­tukan in, and made her prom­ise not to give up hope. “I had told her, ‘I am not go­ing to the UN any­more, they are not help­ing’ … but I agreed, fol­low­ing up, fol­low­ing up, not giv­ing up hope,” Bru­tukan says. “Then one day they just said, ‘You have a man­date’, a doc­u­ment that recog­nises you as a refugee … and you are go­ing to Aus­tralia.” May 2016. Nairobi. Dubai. Mel­bourne. Ho­bart. All alone, as she has so of­ten been, Bru­tukan flew into Tas­ma­nia. She knew no one, but was thank­ful to be placed in tem­po­rary hous­ing at Clare­mont, in a two-bed­room flat next to an Ethiopian fam­ily that was also be­ing re­set­tled from Kenya. “As soon as I ar­rived, they said, ‘Come, come, come’, and called me for cof­fee, for din­ner, for ev­ery­thing,” Bru­tukan says. “We would eat to­gether and then I would go with one of their daugh­ters to sleep in my flat.”

She has since moved to pri­vate ac­com­mo­da­tion in Sandy Bay, where she is liv­ing in a tiny flat in the large two-storey pe­riod home of a lo­cal fam­ily. It is just a stone’s throw from the univer­sity at which she will take her place in the Univer­sity Prepa­ra­tion Pro­gram in com­ing weeks, hav­ing com­pleted her first year study­ing English and Re­turn To Study at TAFE with other mi­grant stu­dents. She has part-time work in com­mu­nity health with Red Cross Aus­tralia, is grad­u­ally form­ing friend­ships and has joined a lo­cal church be­cause, God knows, she has needed faith over the years. “I think my strength comes from God be­cause I re­ally tried to pray,” she says. “I would say, ‘I have done my part as a hu­man be­ing. Now it is your turn’.”

As her world fi­nally comes to­gether, there is one gap­ing hole in Bru­tukan’s life. When we met for the first time, in March, at a Stu­dents Against Racism event at the Sala­manca Arts Cen­tre, Bru­tukan told me she was search­ing for her fam­ily through the Red Cross trac­ing ser­vice. But there had re­cently been a dis­ap­point­ment. “There was an­other per­son with the same name as my fa­ther who had lost a daugh­ter of my name. He thought I was the one and Red Cross thought I was the one, and when I came to talk to him on the phone I was very ex­cited. But he couldn’t an­swer most of my ques­tions that as a child I knew – my brother and mother’s names and things like that.

“So I said, ‘No, this can­not be my dad’. I didn’t hang up on him. I just said, ‘I don’t think you are the one and I don’t think I am the one, so this is wrong’. And he kept say­ing ‘No, it’s not wrong, I am the one’.”

Since that day, Bru­tukan has had the best pos­si­ble news. Ten years af­ter she started telling peo­ple, “This is my fam­ily, this is where I am from”, the Red Cross Aus­tralia team came up with a pos­i­tive match.

“I spoke to my dad first,” she says. “I told him my name. He was quiet for a while, maybe load­ing in his head. I said, ‘Yeah, it’s me’. He said, ‘Are you for real?’.”

Bru­tukan’s fam­ily had be­lieved her to be dead. Her fa­ther passed the phone to her brother, who quickly re­alised she was “for real”. He passed the phone back to her fa­ther, who got ex­cited and be­gan trans­lat­ing for her mother, who speaks only her birth tongue. It is a lan­guage Bru­tukan no longer speaks but which she thinks will come back to her when she goes back to Arba Minch to see them, hope­fully at year’s end, be­fore start­ing a so­ci­ol­ogy de­gree here next year. “My mother said she was re­ally happy and thanked God I was alive, be­cause she had lost hope,” Bru­tukan says. “They say they can­not rest un­til they see my face now.”

Ethiopian mi­grant Bru­tukan Melkamu came to Aus­tralia a year ago and will soon be study­ing at UTAS.

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