When Mohamedali Mohamedali saw his wife for the first time in nine years, he kept telling himself, “I don’t have to cry today, I’m just happy. I don’t have to cry today.”
In 2008, he left his home country of Eritrea to make a new home for his family in the United States. He could not have imagined at the time how long he would be separated from his wife and three children.
In December 2015, Amnesty International released a white paper called Just Deserters: Why Indefinite National Service in Eritrea Has Created a Generation of Refugees.
Mohamedali can attest personally to why this tiny African nation, not even at war, was bleeding the third largest group of refugees to Europe, behind Syrians and Afghans.
“In Eritrea, you can’t live your own life,” he said. “If you are a man, 18 years old, you go into the military forever. You have no hope to come out from the military and live your life freely and with peace.”
He says young Eritrean men have to decide if they want to serve in the military until they are 55 or 60 years old or leave home.
According to Amnesty International, Eritrean military conscripts do not earn enough to support a family, which forces families apart and pushes children into the workplace. Young men are conscripted straight from school or in “round-ups,” raids on young people fleeing the country. Young men caught in round-ups are often detained in underground shelters and shipping containers.
Mohamedali entered the Eritrean military straight from school. After two years, he and his wife made the decision for him to leave and find a home for his family. The first stop was Djibouti, an even smaller country directly to the south, where he hid and worked laborious jobs for three-and-a-half years before traveling to the U.S.
The ordeal for his wife and children was even harder. As they fled westward into Sudan, Eritrean troops raided their bus near the border.
“They dragged my wife from the bus,” he said, “while my children stayed with their grandmom in the front. My wife spent 45 days in jail.”
When every bureaucratic box was checked and his wife and children were finally supposed to join him in early 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president and immediately sought to implement his travel ban against majority Muslim nations.
Mohamedali’s family’s plans to join him in Jacksonville had suffered a cruel setback, seemingly at the whim of the president. Just when it looked like his family would finally reunite, they now wondered if they would ever see one another again.
But Trump’s ban hit enough Constitutional walls that finally, at the start of Ramadan in May, Mohamedali welcomed his wife and children to America.
“It was the happiest day I ever had,” he said. “I can’t explain the happiness I had at the airport when I saw them.”
When playwright and Florida State College of Jacksonville English professor Jennifer Chase first met Mohamedali in 2013, she had no idea she would include him in a play based on her experience with immigrants and refugees. Chase has taught ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) since 2003.
Her play Renunciant, premiering Sept. 28 and 29 at Bab’s Lab at CoRK Arts District, takes its name from the oath immigrants take in their naturalization ceremonies. The oath asks new citizens to “absolutely and entirely renounce” the foreign state of which they once were citizens.
“I love my country,” Chase said, “but I wish we didn’t do this. It seems unfair to exploit their already organic love of America in this way. They are vulnerable.”
The stories and characters in Renunciant are based on immigrants from around the world Chase has known and taught. She changed some names, and kept others, as some immigrants gave her permission to use their names.
Chase said, “Mohamedali would never complain or even share his difficulties with most people. His smile is authentic and sweet. When he sees you, he is the first to ask, ‘How are YOU?’”
Mohamedali Mohamedali has little desire to speak of what Chase rightly calls his “extreme psychological trauma.” What’s most important to him is establishing a new life with his family with whom he is at long last reunited. And that’s precisely why Chase’s play is so important.
“He worked in hiding for years. He and his wife, parents, and children all agreed for the family to take the risk of allowing Mohamedali to escape and find work with each successful mile marker. He continued to pray, to fast during Ramadan, and to wait patiently to be reunited with his wife and children.”
Chase hopes her play leads others to work with refugees. Once you start, she says, you’ll never want to give it up.
“Knowing people from around the world who are willing to know you back illustrates each day the best of what people can be,” she said.
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