Student from Eritrea beats odds to earn master's degree
Even the most formidable obstacles to education pale in comparison to the arrest, imprisonment and torture that students living under oppressive regimes may have to endure. The courage and dreams of Semere Kesete, born in the African state of Eritrea, launched him from a harsh desert prison to a master’s degree in social justice and human rights at Arizona State University.
“Social justice and human rights are very important to my people and my country,” says Kesete. "But they are a forbidden field of study in Eritrea.”
While earning a Bachelor of Law degree (LL.B) at the University of Asmara, he was elected president of the Students' Union, an organization which aspired to defend and protect student academic rights.
In a harsh crackdown, the Eritrean government ordered University students to perform forced labor during the summer. Kesete criticized the Eritrean government in his graduation speech. Three days later, members of the Eritrean Security Agency arrested him.
Due to a Habeas Corpus writ from the Students' Council as well as condemnation from the outside world, Kesete was granted a court appearance after 10 days. No charges were filed against him and a second court appearance was ordered. However, government officials denied the second appearance and Kesete was imprisoned in solitary confinement without charges for the next year.
More than 3,000 students were detained, beaten and delivered to camps in the isolated and harsh deserts of Eritrea. The government has since closed the Asmara university.
Kesete was tortured during his imprisonment.
“The situation was unbearable for me and psychologically dehumanizing,” he says. “However, I made a pact with myself to do my best to remain strong and keep my morale high.”
He befriended a prison guard who eventually hatched an escape plan for both. Kesete and his guard trudged five days by foot across the desert and crossed the border into Ethiopia. Kesete made his way to Sweden, where he was granted a permanent residence permit as a political refugee.
He arrived in Arizona in December 2008 and began his master’s studies at ASU.
“I am very grateful to generous American human rights advocates who offered me a scholarship to study,” he says. “As a social justice and human rights graduate, I have become better equipped to contribute my share in promoting justice and human dignity for my Eritrean people in particular and other oppressed people in general.”
Written by Michele St George
Publications, Graduate College