On 20 June 2009, Elsa Chyrum, a human rights activist and advocate for Eritrean refugees all over the world, has received a Distinguished Medal Award of Excellence from the Eritrean Community For Human Rights and Refugee Protection in a symposium organized by Eritrean Global Solidarity in recognition of her human rights crusade, in general, and her tireless work with refugees, in particular.
Without exaggeration, Elsa Chyrum is a one-woman institution. First and foremost, she is the one person who has been handling the plight of Eritrean refugees from all over the world single-handedly, be it from stranded Eritreans in Khartoum in imminent risk of their lives, detained and abused refugees in a prison in Libya, traumatized refugees in fear of perishing in the Mediterranean high seas, terrified refugees soon to be deported from Egypt, or refugees who have reached their destination but afraid of rejection by their host country. Calm and reassuring at times of emergency, she is known to have turned hopeless seeming cases into happy endings at the 11th hour.
Second, through her years of compassionate work, Elsa has been able to build a formidable array of connection in the NGOs world of the humanitarian type. Some of those humanitarian groups with whom she has been working are Amnesty International, UNHCR, Reporters Without Border, Human Rights Watch, CSW, Eritrean Civic Societies, etc. Impressed by her dedication, hard work, perseverance and knowledge on her subject matter, these organizations have not only been very helpful in raising consciousness on the humanitarian plight of Eritreans in the homeland and all over the world, they have also depended on her for the rich material she has meticulously compiled during her years of work and for the knowhow she has perfected on the subject matter.
Third, Elsa hasn’t shied away from walking the corridors of powers to be when the urgency of the matter demands it. She has been a regular visitor to the EU headquarters in Brussels and to the UN headquarters in Genève on an awareness mission to enlighten parliamentarians and policy makers on the humanitarian crisis in Eritrea, in the desperate hope that they would take the necessary measures against the authoritarian regime in Asmara. She has been teaching, lecturing, pleading, begging, crying, shouting, lobbying … It is at times like this that we see both the soft and iron side of Elsa. As she relates the plight of her people to a professional crowd very hard to sway, she is known to have chocked in tears in the middle of her speech. But our iron lady is not known for giving up: she is also known for sternly berating higher officials when she cannot bear their indifference anymore.
And fourth, she is the only Eritrean who has had the guts to go after a PFDJ criminal who resides outside Eritrea. Even though there are many former criminals residing in the free world, to date, there hasn’t been a single case brought to the court of law. Among these pathetic Diaspora population that cannot stand up for their rights even in the free world, Elsa stands out as the exception. She has been relentlessly going after Naizghi Kiflu, a notorious criminal who has been instrumental in butchering many innocent prisoners. In this, she has not only set a precedent for other Eritreans to follow, she has also struck terror at those who have committed humanitarian crimes in Eritrea and are now living in the free world.
It is only when we realize that Elsa is a full time employee, a dedicated wife and a loving mother of a 6 years old child that we understand how much she is sacrificing to help others, for everything that she does, she does it at her spare time.
Below, we will let a short biography of Elsa Chyrum as a human rights activist speaks for itself.
A short bio of Elsa Chyrum
Elsa (Elizabeth) Chyrum is an Eritrean human rights activist based in London, UK. Although she is known to be involved in many community-based activities, much of her time and energy went into working to raise awareness of the human rights abuses of Eritreans since 1998 when the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia led to the forcible and inhuman deportation of over 70,000 Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin to Eritrea.
Elsa and other concerned Eritreans in the UK and the rest of Europe formed an organisation called Network of Eritrean Professionals in Europe (NEPE) in 1998, to highlight the horrific situation their compatriots were subjected to. At the UK branch, Elsa was assigned to work with the human rights task group to raise awareness in the international community of the plight of the illegally deported Eritreans.
During her visit to Eritrea in the summer of 2001, she witnessed the torture, mistreatment and imprisonment of over 2000 Eritrean University Students and the subsequent death of two of them due to harsh prison conditions. On her return to the UK, she vowed to speak for the voiceless in Eritrea and has since been actively campaigning for the rule of law, justice and respect for human rights in Eritrea.
Elsa is one of the founding members of the Eritreans for Human and Democratic Rights in the UK (EHDR-UK). She is also a founding member of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP), and she is the focal person for Eritrea. Elsa is also the founder of Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE).
Elsa operates through her extensive network of human rights activists across Europe, Africa, USA and Canada. She also works as a full time employee with a big refugee organisation in the UK which provides support and accommodation to refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world. Outside her work and family commitments, she is passionately driven to campaign against the suffering of her people. Her spare time is completely devoted to raise awareness of the injustices suffered by fellow Eritreans inside and outside Eritrea. To this end, she works with many respected human rights organisations in the UK and other countries.
Among other human rights issues, her focus has been on Eritrean asylum seekers, political prisoners, prisoners of conscience, prison conditions and torture.
Here is a partial summary of what she has achieved in the last 10 years:
- Assisted in the release of Eritrean refugees who were languishing in Libyan jails. They were released in April 2004, after almost two years of unlawful incarceration. Had it not been for the intervention of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and the efforts of Elsa, the prisoners would almost certainly have been deported. Elsa fought for their resettlement and 8 of them were resettled in Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark.
- Together with other concerned local and international human rights organisations, she fought for the release of 105 Eritrean asylum seekers who were detained in Maltese prisons. They were all released and granted humanitarian protection.
- Advocated for resettlement programme of 234 ex-Malta deportees who had been forcibly deported from Malta to Eritrea, in September and October of 2002. They were imprisoned, tortured and detained in Eritrea and escaped for the second time to the Sudan. So far over 200 have been resettled in Canada, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, the UK and Australia. The programme is still continuing.
- Has been raising funds from family, friends, and organisations to assist ex-Malta deportees, the 75 Eritreans who hijacked a plane to stop their forcible deportation from Libya to Eritrea, Eritrean journalists in danger and other individuals in dire need of support.
- Advocated for the resettlement of 28 Eritrean asylum seekers who were detained in a Saudi Arabia detention centre - some for up to 5 years. They were all resettled in Sweden in October 2008.
- Has been advocating for the release and resettlement of Eritrean detainees in Libya. So far, about 250 have been resettled into different countries and the programme is continuing.
- Financed and directed a documentary `Eritrea: Voices of Torture’ and it was launched on 18 September 2006, at the Amnesty International public meeting on Eritrea. The documentary is available on DVD in Tigrinya, English and Italian. It has been used as an advocacy tool by Eritreans and friends of Eritrean human rights defenders.
- Has been publishing testimonies of ex-prisoners of conscience on Eritrean websites and wrote reports on human rights abuses in Eritrea.
- Researched and wrote short life-stories of prisoners of conscience.
- Gave talk on the human rights situations in Eritrea at different public meetings and gatherings.
- Has been broadcasting about the human rights abuses in Eritrea on Voice of Delina (a Satellite radio programme) aired from South Africa.
- Presented a paper on the general human rights situation in Eritrea, at the European Parliament (EU) hearing on Eritrea in Brussels on the 18th September 2008.
Participated in a panel discussion on the human rights situation in Eritrea, on the 19th September 2008, during the 9th Session of the United Nation Human Rights Council in Geneva.
- Lobbied and campaigned for respect of human rights in Eritrea with some members of British Parliament, friends of Eritrea and other Eritrean human rights organisations in Europe, USA, Canada and Africa.
- Closely works with Amnesty International, UNHCR, Reporters Without Border, Human Rights Watch, CSW, Eritrean Civic Societies and other organisations to raise awareness of the human rights situations in Eritrea and to assist Eritrean asylum seekers who are threatened with deportation. This part of her work is not only for those in the UK but involves working for Eritrean asylum seekers detained in Malta, South Africa, France, Sudan, Italy, Libya, Zimbabwe, USA, Canada, Egypt, Ethiopia, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, etc.
- Has assisted and signposted hundreds of Eritrean asylum seekers in the UK, Europe, Africa and in other places.
When asked why she gets involved with the helpless, Elsa says to console the traumatized, to embolden the fearful, to give hope to the desperate, to study the victim case thoroughly, to speak for the voiceless and to alert those in power of their situation.
Finally, it has to be mentioned that all Elsa’s dedicated work and activities to promote and protect human rights in the last ten years are self-financed.
Perhaps the best way to end this brief bio of Elsa Chyrum as a human rights activist is by looking at the various ways her supporters, detractors and the indecisive middle perceive her. To the likes of Naizghi Kiflu, and the whole PFDJ crowd, she is the nightmare that wouldn’t go away. Used to getting away with any kind of humanitarian crime, she is the Eritrean that they are afraid to meet – least of all, because others might emulate her.
For the majority of Diaspora Eritreans, who prefer to straddle in the middle and watch from a distance, she is the one that disturbs their conscience. Their choice to remain on the sidelines at a time when horrendous humanitarian crimes are committed are time and again challenged whenever a single act from the likes of Elsa Chyrum makes all the difference that there is in one Eritrean human life.
Understandably, it is among those refugees who have been directly helped by her that we find her most enthusiastic supporters. Many of them simply call her by that endearing name “mother”, with all the loving and caring connotations the term carries in the Eritrean context.
And then, of course, there are those of us who lack the guts or the dedication to do what she is doing but nevertheless are grateful that such an individual is in our midst – a testimony that the Eritrean spirit lives on.
Congratulations Elsa for having won such a well deserved prize! And our thanks goes to the Eritrean Community For Human Rights and Refugee Protection in DC that have identified her work for what it is and went to the length that they did to honor her with this prize.