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