Our very first encounter was in the winter of 2008. He was a young man of about 20 years old. He was very polite, eloquent and not afraid at all to talk about his future. In fact he enthusiastically shared with me his hopes for the coming years; he would continue playing indoor soccer, complete a study in informatics, and at some point leave home to start his own life somewhere in Amsterdam or its vicinity. I found him remarkable, perhaps because he somehow reminded me of my younger self. In any case, he was totally different from what I expected.
A week before this encounter, a senior employee of the Eritrean consulate in the Netherlands asked me to help a mother with her “problematic” son. I told the consulate employee that I increasingly felt uncomfortable helping Eritrean parents, because I began to realize that Eritrean parents themselves are often the problem, not their children. By pushing their children to identify themselves exclusively with Eritrea, and by propagating the ideology and discourse of the current regime in Eritrea, Eritreans parents were corrupting their children’s identity, and with that, the community.
Though the consulate employee took note of my thoughts, he wanted to focus on Dani, a young man who was in a dire situation. According to the employee, Dani suddenly started to have epileptic seizures 5 years ago at the age of 15. Over the years the seizures increased in intensity and frequency to 10 a day. Dani could not live a normal life anymore and was homebound. Even at home he had broken many bones after falling due to seizures. This horrible scenario gave me no choice but to try and help this young man where possible.
I visited Dani at his home in Amsterdam, where his mother warmly welcomed me. I had eaten already on my way, but to please Dani’s mother I silently took on the challenge of a second dinner. I should have known that dinner would be served, as is the common hospitality of Eritreans. During dinner it was Dani’s mother who did the talking while Dani remained silent. She was like most Eritrean mothers; concerned about her son, and occasionally overbearing to the extent that he had to bend to her will. I noticed that Dani was uncomfortable with this.
Dani’s mother described how after a difficult birth he grew up as a normal child until he started having epileptic seizures when he turned 15. She talked at length about what could have caused Dani’s seizures, and she repeated a number of times that his difficult birth 15 years earlier must have left brain damage that is emerging now. I tried to reassure her by saying that there is no point in trying to trace back causes, and that she instead should focus on Dani’s current and future well-being.
When Dani’s mother started cleaning up the dishes, he took the opportunity to share his thoughts with me. I expected a timid young man, but he was refreshingly open and spoke frankly. Dani explained how in the past few years his seizures had drastically changed his live. He understood that his mother was concerned, but he was at the same time tired of being constantly reproached by her. Also, while he appreciated the efforts of his neurologist to help him, he was also fed up with the side effects of the medications he took. One could see that all of this was frustrating Dani, yet he was mindful, rational and surprisingly hopeful.
Behind Dani’s hope was a recent message from his neurologist: Dani was selected to participate in a scientific experiment with epileptic patients at the Academic Medical Center in Utrecht. The source of his seizures would be identified anatomically with state-of-the-art Neurofeedback techniques, and if possible removed surgically. Knowing my cognitive neuroscience background, Dani interrogated me about Neurofeedback and implications of removing part of the brain. It was clear to me from the onset, however, that he had already set his mind on surgery.
Few weeks after our first encounter, Dani, his mother and I went to the Academic Medical Center in Utrecht. Dani’s neurologist informed him once again about the proposed surgical treatment and possible implications, and asked for a formal consent. Dani stared at the neurologist for a moment, and said, “I rather risk loosing some cognitive or physical abilities than having to live with 10 seizures a day. Yes I would like to undergo surgical treatment.” To digest Dani’s decision, we went to the cafeteria of the Academic Medical Center and grabbed something to eat.
This was where Dani’s Dilemma unfolded in front of me. Dani was visibly excited and convinced that the operation would succeed. He began to imagine building a new and normal live in Amsterdam. At that point, Dani’s mother said, “The first thing we will do when you have fully recovered is to go to Eritrea and visit Sawa (military camp)”. However well-intended, this remark was mind-blowing metaphorically but also literally: immediately after Dani’s mother finished her sentence, the plate with food on the table fell and so did Dani. He was having a seizure.
In the weeks before this incident, I urged Dani’s mother not to frustrate him with her plans or wishes, but to appreciate him as a sensible young man. I shared with her what Dani confided to me; that sometimes he gets so angry by her demands that his anger leads to a seizure. The incident in the cafeteria was plainly evident of this. It solidified my decision to distance myself from Eritreans who, perhaps due to group pressures, are more concerned with Eritrea, and the ideology and discourse of the current regime, than with the intrinsic well being of their children. Weeks after the successful surgery of Dani, I informed his mother about my decision and broke any contact with her.
Last month, 7 years later, I met Dani at an event organized by Amnesty International Students Amsterdam on the theme “Are Dutch Eritreans chained to their home country?” I took part in this event on invitation of my students at the Amsterdam University College. In the middle of the discussion, a young man in the public raised a question. I immediately recognized him as Dani, and was happy to see him in good health after so many years. At the same time, however, I was surprised to see him among young supporters of the Eritrean regime who were fiercely and fallaciously defending discrepancies between ideology and reality. I asked myself, “Is he here of his own free will or because of pressure from peers and parents?”
The panel discussion ended late in the evening. Immediately afterwards, Dani approached me and asked: “I know you, right? You helped me many years ago and suddenly broke contact.” I confirmed and told him I was happy to see him in good health. I considered for a moment whether or not I should tell him why I broke contact. I decided to do so because the evening was so symbolic. I said, “Do you know that you were a reason for me to distance myself from certain Eritreans?” He was shocked and exclaimed, “What did I do?” I explained that my reasoning did not stem from his actions but was rather due to the obtuse attitude of some Eritrean parents. While some attendees were waiting in line with questions for me and a number of interesting informal discussions had commenced as a result of the panel discussion, I happily sat down with Dani and shared my thoughts with him.
The image of Dani that I cherished over the years was one of a young man who, if his health had permitted, would live a life pursuing his own dreams based upon values that he himself had cultivated. I strongly felt that my image of him did not correspond with the reality of that evening. Dani apparently sensed this feeling and started justifying some of the choices he made. He explained somewhat admittedly that he engaged with young supporters of the Eritrean regime on initiative of his mother. He however also showed a glimpse of the sensible thinker that he had been; he stressed that he is not a “hardliner”, just a person exploring different perspectives. Dani’s Dilemma emerged again after so many years.
Dani’s dilemma symbolizes a larger problem in the Eritrean diaspora community. On the one hand community members, young and old, aspire to pursue a life based upon values cultivated in the hosting country. On the other hand they fear that cultivating such values culminates in dissociation from the country of origin. This fear is planted in the minds and hearts of community members through the message that valued community members stay close to Eritrea, and its current ideology and discourse. Paradoxically, this fear is weakening, not strengthening the Eritrean community because it hampers attaining intrinsic values such as integrity, authenticity, empathy and ability. It is such values that make one worthy wherever one is, but attaining them requires the freedom and audacity to invest in oneself, in one’s own unique talents, perspectives and believes.
Prior to publication, I gave Dani - a fictitious name - the opportunity to give his view on this blog and to share his concerns, if any. Without having read this blog, Dani expressed the wish not to be involved. This blog is thus solely my view!