Eritrean refugee’s dreams find footing in Kenya’s thriving food business

Abiba Haimanot at the the traditional coffee making area in her restaurant along Ngong Road. She serves Ethiopian and Eritrean delicacies. [Photo: David Gichuru/Standard]

As sweet aromas of anjera, wat, kita bread and hard-brewed Eritrean coffee waft from the kitchen accentuated by the soft beats of traditional Ethiopian music, relaxation and peace blanket this Eritrean restaurant along Ngong Road.

However, beneath this cloak of serenity, bubbles of fear, uncertainty and anger simmer as a group of men and women hurdled on one corner murmur in low tones.

“I ran away from Eritrea to Kenya because I wanted to get a better education for my daughter after the death of my husband,” says Abiba Haimanot, one of the women in the group and the proprietor of the restaurant.

“After Eleventh Grade, all children in Eritrea go to military schools. I didn’t want my daughter to go through this.”

More than 5,000 Eritreans flee their country monthly according to Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat research in 2013. This figure is second only to war-torn Syria on the global statistics.

Many have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in rickety boats to Europe while many more have suffered in the hands of human traffickers in Libya and other countries.

Abiba says she fled Eritrea after the death of her husband fearing for her life. She left behind property worth millions including the biggest oxygen factory in the country which was confiscated by the government.

But despite these tribulations, she has since found her footing in her now-thriving food business.

In Kenya, she felt much at home as soon as she reached. In trying to set up her business, she says, she did not encounter hurdles.

Flow with bitterness

“Getting the permit for my business was hassle-free and even in its operations things, have always been good since we do everything within the law.

“Eighty five per cent of our clients are Kenyan and the rest are mzungu and people from the Horn”.

But her memories, like those of many other Eritreans forced to flee their country, flow with bitterness, regret and a hunger for vengeance.

“The trouble is that while we thought fleeing from the Asmara dictatorship to seek a new life in Kenya as a business person was a guarantee of freedom, we soon found out that it was not. The regime still suppresses us through their embassy here,” says Abiba, adding that the embassy labels Christians from Asmara Ethiopian puppets and Muslims Al Shabaab.

Abiba says she has been asked by the embassy not to serve some people at her restaurant because they are ‘anti-government’ but her opinion is that her customers get equal treatment.

“The bad thing is,” she says, “they even want to determine who we employ. They particularly don’t want us to hire Ethiopians ‘because they are against the Eritrean government’. But I told them that my restaurant is a business not a political party.”

Abiba says after that the ambassador labelled her an Ethiopian spy since she also refused to obey his order to stop playing Ethiopian music.

“In retaliation after my refusal to heed his orders, the Eritrean government seized all my property back home including the oxygen factory,” she says, “But I am not intimidated. I have struggled on with my business and I am glad that the Kenyan authorities have accorded me the same treatment given to any other business person in Kenya.”

Secret tax

Apart from the taxes that Eritrean businessmen, workers, refugees and residents in Kenya pay to the Kenyan government, they also pay another “secret tax” to the Eritrean embassy every month.

“Every Eritrean in Kenya pays two per cent of their income, including those with refugee status, to the embassy,” Abiba explains. “If you fail to pay the tax your passport is withdrawn and your family back home harassed”.

Although there are many Eritreans who have invested heavily in various sectors like hospitality and real estate, all of whom confirmed the existence of the two per cent tax, none was willing to talk for fear of retribution.

“The illegal two per cent tax is charged on Eritreans by its embassies across the world. Only the Canadian refused to allow it and chased the Eritrean ambassador from their country,” says Batha Afwerki, who came to Kenya in the early 1990s and invested in the transport industry.

She adds: “Personally I am having issues with the embassy and they have already withdrawn my passport”.

The only Eritrean businessmen and nationals bold enough to revolt against the two per cent tax are holders of foreign passports, since most never transact any business with their homeland embassy.

“The Kenyan government has been very helpful; it comes to our aid when we desperately need papers,” says Afwerki who is now living as a refugee after the revocation of his passport by the Eritrean embassy. “The government here has ensured that we do our business without harassment”.

To organise themselves and help fellow refugees get papers and financial help, Eritrean immigrants in Kenya formed Eritreans Diaspora in East Africa (EDEA) in 2013.

Back and forth

But Eritrean Ambassador to Kenya Beyene Russom says all these accusations are not true and that EDEA does not represent the interests of the Eritrean Diaspora in the region.

“The organisation has less than 20 people and most of them are not from Eritrea but people who were born in Europe,” Russom told Wednesday Life in an interview. “These people are liars and you can confirm whatever I am saying by talking to other Eritreans in Kenya”.

He says EDEA is operating illegally and whatever they say should not be treated seriously.

“These people are not even recognised by this country and, therefore, whatever they say should not be taken seriously,” says Russom.

However, EDEA says they are registered under the Companies Act Chapter 486 of the Laws of Kenya and one of their meetings attended by this writer had more than 50 people.

 Hussein Said, a proprietor in the construction industry in Kenya for the last 15 years, says he lost his passport many years ago after he revolted against the two per cent tax.

“But I am very glad to the Kenyan government for providing a level playing field for Eritrean business people here,” Hussein, who doubles as the Chairman of EDEA, says.

“The problem with my country is if the government does not like you it will prevent even your body from entering the country for burial. The situation is that bad.”