Ghirmay Yeibio was outspoken against the Eritrean government.

Winnipeg’s newcomer community is mourning the loss of a human rights advocate who was among the first to publicly challenge the Eritrean regime that he fled and those enabling the country dubbed the "North Korea of Africa."

Ghirmay Yeibio, 61, died Wednesday after a lengthy battle with cancer. He arrived in Canada in 2001 as a privately sponsored refugee, got a job at a gas station, then a bank, then sponsored 115 Eritreans who escaped from the country that’s been one of the world’s biggest sources of refugees.

"He saved a lot of lives," said Ghezae Hagos, with the Eritrean Canadian Human Rights Group of Manitoba.

Marty Dolin, a refugee advocate and retired executive director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council said Yeibio dedicated his life to helping newcomers while challenging the Eritrean regime and its supporters in Canada: "He stood up for his community — he was willing to speak out."

When the Eritrean Community of Winnipeg Inc. invited pro-regime speakers and performers here for fundraising events, Yeibio went to the media. When it started squeezing Eritrean refugees to pay a two per cent diaspora tax, Yeibio spoke out. When the Free Press investigated and reported on it, the organization backed by the Eritrean government staged a protest in front of the newspaper. Any critics of the Eritrean government would be shunned by the local organization — including refugees who risked life and limb escaping Eritrea.

Back in Eritrea, relatives of Yeibio were locked up by the regime for his criticism of the government, and he was asked for thousands of dollars to have them freed. Yeibio called for the Eritrean consulate in Canada to be shut down and its officials deported.

"When people were not talking, when people were really, really scared, he was one of the first persons to defy them at the risk of being ostracized and intimidated," Hagos, who works in the resettlement sector, said. "He took a great risk in doing that."

A memorial service for Yeibio will take place Tuesday, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Living Gospel Church, 520 William Ave. His funeral will be held Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. at Bardal Funeral Home, 843 Sherbrook St.

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