With no hope and no future but a life of misery, the two young women risked everything — and lost — while trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
The sisters' bodies were among the 364 bodies recovered Oct. 3 off the Italian island of Lampedusa, said their cousin, who might have made that fateful trip too, if he hadn't been sponsored to safely come to Canada.
"Their goal was to be in a safe place," said Zeresenay Andemichael who arrived in Winnipeg Sept. 13.
'They were very cheerful, lovely ladies — very social'— Zeresenay Andemichael (left), of his cousins Merhawit Gebremichael Gebrekidan, 26, (above left) and her sister Semhar Abraham Gebrehiwet, 22 (above right)
"I can't control myself," said Andemichael who lived with those same cousins for more than a year at a refugee camp in Sudan after they fled Eritrea. "I cry and I fall down on the ground."
Merhawit Gebremichael Gebrekidan, 26, and her sister Semhar Abraham Gebrehiwet, 22, told him they were getting out of the UN camp where food aid regularly went missing. They were going to Libya.
There, he said, they paid a trafficker US $3,200 and waited to be crammed onto the next boat to Europe or a watery grave.
"I don't have any ability to stop them," said their cousin, who attended a memorial service at the University of Winnipeg Thursday night for the victims of the tragedy. "They were very cheerful, lovely ladies — very social."
Only 155 people survived, and 364 bodies have since been recovered. More than 13,000 migrants have arrived in Lampedusa this year. Hundreds haven't made it.
Canada could save some of the world's new "boat people" fleeing Eritrea, Somalia and Syria if it lifted the cap on the number of privately sponsored refugees, say human rights advocates.
"The reason lots of youth are leaving is they're young people who can't work and live in their own country," said Daniel Awshek, a community health worker and human rights advocate from Eritrea. "They're leaving in the thousands."
They end up in overcrowded refugee camps in Sudan and Kenya. They're safer places than home but not a bearable place to live the rest of the their lives, said Awshek. Now, for many, there's no hope of being sponsored to start new lives in Canada.
The federal government has capped the number of new refugee sponsorship applications it will accept. For 2013, the visa office in Cairo is handling 50 refugees for Sudan and Egypt while the Nairobi visa office has a cap of 130 refugees in the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia. That is less than half the number of refugees who died Oct. 3.
Awshek and other human rights advocates are organizing a rally today at noon outside the legislature asking the provincial and federal governments to help.
"We are worried that our relatives are losing hope and some are resorting to desperate and risky measures such as trying to cross across Mediterranean to save their lives," the Eritrean-Canadian Human Rights Group of Manitoba said in a news release
They want the cap on private sponsorships lifted and the allocation of new and additional private sponsorship initiatives for Eritrean refugees. They want the federal government and the international community to pressure the Eritrean government to change its laws, policies and practices that are causing the continuous outflow of refugees willing to risk everything.
Andemichael, who is attending the Entry program for newcomers while he mourns his cousins' death, is anxious to work so he can go back to school. He attended one year of college and was sent to teach in a remote farming community in Eritrea where he was paid about $15 a month, he said. Young people in Eritrea are forced to perform national service for a pittance, and for some it becomes a life sentence, he said.
"There are very big problems."
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.