By Roberta Bell
As Zekarias Mesfin traversed the Sahara Desert on foot, he held on to the hope that he was slowly trudging towards a better life.
Born in Ethiopia, he was orphaned at 14 years old. He’d already walked from Eritrea — where he lived when his father disappeared and his mother died — to Sudan.
He’d worked for a pittance as a barber’s apprentice, saving his meager earnings because he’d heard that with $2,000, someone would be able to sneak him into Israel.
Of the other men and women with whom he shared that goal, he’d seen many robbed by gangsters and left alone under the sweltering sun to die of dehydration.
He eventually made it to Egypt, where he was crammed into a car with other refugees. He was arrested and thrown in jail en route to his final destination.
Recounting his story brings tears to Zekarias’ eyes, as he sits in the living room of his sunny Edmonton home. His wife, Nardos Tadesse, is making coffee in the kitchen and his two young sons are playing upstairs.
“It’s very painful,” he said, apologizing for becoming overcome with emotion.
But Zekarias, now 32, wants others to know what he went through, why he crossed borders illegally and why he’s grateful to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and to Canada for helping him to start over.
So he wrote about his journey. Then he went back to Ethiopia where he connected with Sabisa Films, which helped turn his story into a movie.
The movie, Ewir Amora Kelabi, takes its name from a phrase, that when translated loosely, refers to a higher spiritual power guiding the lost. The film will premiere on May 5 at the prestigious African Film Festival in New York City.
“I lost many, many friends. They tried to leave like me,” Zekarias said. “They didn’t succeed and their dream is not coming true.
“I made this film for them.”
Revisiting his past
Between September 2015 and March 2016, Zekarias travelled back to East Africa to film at the places he was forced to leave when he was younger.
At his mother’s gravesite, he found himself unable to go on.
“That was the very hardest part for me,” Zekarias said. “I couldn’t keep going to the shooting of the film. It was stopped for one week.”
He said he doesn’t want the next generation to endure the same hardships and to have to live with the pain that he carries with him every day.
Zekarias plays himself in the film, alongside actors, to tell the story of his life.
He produced the project with his wife, together saving up their money to bring it to fruition.
Born in Ethiopia like her husband, Nardos grew up in a very different reality in Canada. When Zekarias finally told her his story, it was difficult for her to process.
“It wasn’t hard to believe, but it was hard to take what he was telling me, what he went through to get here,” Nardos said.
She, too, felt it was important for other people to understand the complex situation in which her husband and so many other refugees find themselves.
Nardos said making the movie was hard for her. It got the the point she couldn’t even look at the footage in the editing process.
“He suffered so much to do this,” she said of her husband. “I’m so proud of him, more than words can say.”
Nardos will accompany Zekarias to the premiere in New York.
“He’s inspiring me,” she said. “I hope he’s going to inspire a lot of people.”
Ed.’s Note: The article first appeared in CBC News.