For seven years, Eritrean refugee Tesfalem felt his life was on hold. He had fled his home country, where open-ended military service and forced government service constrains the lives of young people, and found safety in neighbouring Ethiopia, but as a refugee Tesfalem’s options were limited.
He watched as fellow Eritreans, stymied by their refugee status and struggling to get by, felt compelled to leave in pursuit of a better life, making the perilous journey to Europe via Libya, in the hands of callous smugglers who control the route.
Desperate though he was for greater opportunities, Tesfalem knew the dangers of travelling with traffickers—the likelihood of kidnap, abuse, violence, detention, and death in the desert or at sea—and decided not to take such risks. “Most people think that going to Europe through the Sahara is their only option, but I had no desire to go through that,” he says.
Instead, Tesfalem applied for a scholarship through the University Corridors for Refugees (UNICORE) programme, promoted by 32 Italian universities and supported by the Italian government and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency . He is now studying a two-year master’s degree in economics and behavioural science at D’Annunzio University of Chieti-Pescara, on Italy’s eastern Adriatic coast.
“What makes UNICORE unique is that it offers a safe way to get to Europe to study,” he says, adding that winning the scholarship was “like starting a new life” after the years of oppression in Eritrea and the difficulties of refugee life in Ethiopia.
“After completing high school, I went on Sawa like all Eritreans,” he says, referring to the compulsory national service system whereby young students are conscripted into military training.
Afterwards, Tesfalem became one of the thousands of Eritreans who flee their country every year, escaping to Ethiopia where he was fortunate to be able to continue his education. “The best opportunity I got as a refugee in Ethiopia was education,” he says. “So I took it.”
While studying at Adigrat University in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Tesfalem helped set up an association for Eritrean students in the country, aimed at informing them of the risks of taking the smuggling route, and seeking out legal pathways instead. “Public service was our prime target,” he says. “A lot of people travelled irregularly to Europe through the Sahara.”
The association sought to inform and dissuade them, though it was not easy. “Some of the young people listen to you when you tell them how dangerous the road is, but the young still continue to go there.”
For Tesfalem, his tenacity, hard work, and refusal to join others who left for Europe illegally, paid off when he applied for and won a UNICORE scholarship, meaning he was able to travel to Italy, safely and legally.
“I feel like the door for me to grow and improve myself has opened,” he says. “I know my future will be bright.”