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Former refugee Robel Teklay knows what it means to be hungry

Robel talks to UNICEF NZ about growing up with precious little food in Sudan and his journey to New Zealand

Author: Shelley Knowles

When you take photos and capture happy memories, that means you're having a good life. I don't have any photos of my childhood. Most refugees don’t.

We were just trying to survive. Living day to day to stave off hunger.

In the 1980’s, Ethiopia and Eritrea had been at war for twenty years. My father was in the Eritrean army and as the fighting intensified, my Mum was forced to leave the country.

Mum crossed the border into Sudan, carrying her most precious belongings – my three siblings.

I was born in Kassala, Sudan in the late 80’s and I do have some happy memories. We played a game called Bili with soft drink lids, lining them up carefully on the dusty ground in a triangle before hurling rocks at them.

When I was ten years old, I started to work. Every morning I sipped hot black tea steeped with cinnamon before selling cigarettes and plastic bags. On really hot days I borrowed ice and sold cold water by the capful. I would do anything to make a little bit of money to support my family.

Sometimes I was so hungry that I wanted to buy breakfast for myself, but then I knew I wouldn’t have money to share with my family. We didn’t eat until 2pm and we were never full – food just kept us going.

My Mum is a magician, she can make incredible food with just a few ingredients. A traditional base called Silssy uses chopped tomatoes, onions and oil. On special occasions Mum borrowed money so we could eat meat but it didn’t happen often. To make Injerra bread would take a lot of planning as it takes two days to knead and ferment. It smells so nice when it’s fresh.

I didn't know I was a refugee until I was 13 years old. The Sudanese kids had a lot of things that I didn't have. They had food. They had nice homes. They had opportunities. I went to school for a few hours in the afternoon but we didn’t have books.

Education is key, it is a way out of poverty but there are no universities for refugees. Most young people give up – you have to be so optimistic to continue.

People are always scared of the “Mad River Gash”. The water from the Gash river comes from the highlands of Eritrea and in 2003 Sudan was hit by severe flooding. I watched our mud house collapse under the pressure of rain. Acres of agriculture and crops disappeared along with entire villages. The floods stole my bike and everything we had worked so hard for.

Every year the floods would come and sometimes your house goes down, sometimes it doesn't. But that year was particularly tough.


Flooding in Kassala, north-eastern Sudan

My Mum was always stressed but she tried to hide it. I was happier for her than for me when we left Sudan to come to New Zealand.

The last day in Sudan was very emotional because all my friends came to our house to say goodbye. In our culture, people are used to sleeping on the floor and when I woke up the next morning our loved ones were with us.

A UN car drove us to Khartoum and then we waited nervously in an office. After the interview and medicals, we boarded a bus. A guy said we were going to New Zealand. I didn’t even know where it was, I thought it was in Switzerland!

I didn’t care where we were going. I knew I was going to a better place and that my family would be happy. As a refugee, I didn’t feel like a human being. I desperately wanted to have an education and make my own decisions.

We stayed in the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre for six weeks. The first day we were handed a voucher to buy food and I remember staring at all the options. We could have milk and meat and vegetables. We were so happy because we didn't have to worry about being hungry again.


Robel Teklay

Getting food is the priority, after that you can plan your life. It took me a while to get used to Kiwi food and I still like my Mum’s cooking the most!

Refugees learn to take any opportunity that comes towards them. Life isn’t easy, often it goes in zig-zags and the journey is bumpy but I have high hopes for the future. I can speak three languages and I recently graduated with an IT diploma.

I often think of my family and friends back in Kassala who are really struggling right now because of Covid. Children have been out of school for months because of lockdown and there are no wage subsidies so families can’t buy food. They're in a really tough situation.

Children don’t have a choice where they are born. Some are born into poverty and they don’t have any power to change it.

No child should ever go hungry.