Photo Credit: Lila Yohannes
This Former Child Refugee From Eritrea Started A New Life Full Of World Travels
Lila Yohannes was born in Asmara, Eritrea, where she had a wonderful early childhood. With her father having a ministerial position with the government and her mother working in banking, she enjoyed a very comfortable upbringing.
All of that changed when she became a child refugee at the age of six. The war between the Eritrean freedom movement and the Ethiopian government escalated and Lila’s entire family was forced to flee Eritrea to Sudan to escape possible persecution, and ultimately the horrific fate she witnessed befalling other Eritrean families.
“We fled our home with nothing but a bag of clothes and some food for the arduous journey. I remember being urgently roused from sleep early one morning by my parents urging my siblings and I to get ready. We were told we were going to our beach house for ‘a few days’ but it soon became apparent to us kids, that the ‘beach house’ may not be our destination. Our father, who was usually impeccably dressed, was now dressed to appear as a non-descript farmer. To add to our confusion, our parents directed us to get aboard a public bus instead of taking our car as we normally would.”
The tensions were so high in Eritrea because of the escalating conflict, that Lila’s parents had no choice but to keep their escape a secret from their children. If word had gotten out that they were escaping, the soldiers would have been at their door. The bus dropped Lila and her family off at the city limit of Asmara, and they walked to the nearest village.
“My father had to leave the village almost immediately; he hid in the back of a cargo pickup truck headed towards the Sudanese border. My mom and my siblings (ages two to eight) couldn’t join him, as the risk of our entire family being caught and executed was a very real threat. Instead, my mom guided, cajoled, and cared for us as we traveled across the country to get to the safety of Sudan, by any means available.”
Lila and her mother and siblings walked, rode on camels, and sometimes rode on the back of open trucks, typically used for transporting livestock. During the daytime they hid, only risking travel at night to escape fighter planes constantly monitoring the area for convoys and caravans.
“I have several vivid memories of our grueling journey to Sudan. One of which was being woken up at night to the sound of machine guns and bombs and having to run into the forest to escape an ambush. I also recall nights when the livestock truck we were on would get stuck in quicksand and everyone had to get out and help dig it out. I remember the back of the truck was packed end-to-end with other Eritreans who were also fleeing the war. It was standing room only.”
“As difficult as the journey to Sudan was, I also remember the kindness of strangers who looked out for us, who opened their homes and hearts to help us. We were fortunate and extremely grateful to escape with our lives; a lot of people didn’t make it.”
After residing in Sudan for about nine months, Lila’s family moved to Nigeria, where they remained for a few years before migrating to Canada and settling there. After the passing of her brother, she found herself in need of a fresh start to aid her in healing and handling her grief; she moved to the US, where she still resides today.
During the time Lila spent living in Nigeria, she experienced international trips that would set the stage for her to become a world traveler and fuel her love of exploration. Once her family was settled in the West African nation, her parents made every effort to bring back a sense of normalcy and the carefree childhood Lila and her siblings had enjoyed in Eritrea.
“Every summer my parents would take up to three months’ vacation time and travel to Europe or North America. Every other summer, we kids were included in these vacations. Some of my favorite places I visited as a young girl were Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. My sense of adventure and my love for travel have been instilled in me by my parents. I credit them with igniting the wanderlust spirit in my siblings and I during our early childhood.”
Growing up with access to the wonders of global travel taught her at an early age to appreciate diverse cultures. Living in multiple countries and experiencing different cultures has further fueled Lila’s desire to explore the world.
She has now traveled to 56 countries and enjoys sharing her passion for travel and enthusiasm for learning about diverse cultures with the hope of inspiring others to begin their own travel journeys. Lila is particularly passionate about sharing the beauty and diversity of the African continent.
Her experience as a child refugee has made her an adaptable and versatile person who is able to feel comfortable in a wide variety of situations.
“I am just as comfortable staying in the Albouystown neighborhood in Georgetown, Guyana, or in a tiny fishing village along the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam, as I am in a luxury overwater villa in the Maldives.”
Some of Lila’s favorite destinations include Turkey and Hong Kong for delicious food Zanzibar and the Bahamas’ San Salvador Island for spectacular beaches, the Maldives for total relaxation, Rwanda, Namibia, and Sri Lanka for breathtaking landscapes, and South Africa–namely Johannesburg, Spain, and Trinidad and Tobago for a party vibe.
And, of course, Lila loves returning home to Eritrea. Her last trip there was in January 2020 on the cusp of COVID-19 being declared a pandemic.
“My first trip back to Eritrea was bittersweet. To be back in the land of my forefathers was incredibly euphoric! It was a joy to return home, to be reunited with my grandparents and extended family. It was also disheartening to witness the ravages the war had taken on my beloved homeland.”
Lila is currently in the process of planning trips to the Mediterranean and North Africa. You can follow her on Instagram at @lilasfootsteps.
Related: Why Sabrina Aman Created A Documentary And Charity To Aid Eritrean Refugees