A Man I Met at the Y

By Lindsay Sterling

At the YMCA, a tall, fit man was checking in at the front desk. He was professionally dressed in trousers and a crisp white shirt. As he and the desk attendant were exchanging friendly hellos, I heard an an accent from another country. I interjected a friendly hello myself and asked the man in the white shirt if he liked to cook.

With a smile of pleasant surprise, he replied, “I do, but I don’t do it often.”

“How do you eat then?” I asked.

“Some of the guys I live near, they cook up something and I eat that. I’m so busy working, I don’t usually have time to cook dinner.” His English was fluent and easy to understand.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

When he said “Eritrea,” I must have looked like a child meeting someone from the North Pole. My curiosity about how to make a mysterious dark red Eritrean sauce had launched my cooking quest a decade ago. My excitement at the remote possibility of learning how to make this sauce made me feel weightless.

When I asked him if he might by chance teach me how to make his favorite Eritrean dish, he changed his tune about cooking immediately.

“I can teach you a dish.”

“You can?” I said in disbelief.

“Can you bring the ingredients?” He asked. “We can do it here. Can you bring a blender?”

I said I could.

He wrote a list of ingredients, and circled three that I would need to get at the nearby Eritrean restaurant: shiro, berbere, injera.

“Text me when you have the ingredients and we’ll do it.”

Two days later we met in the Y kitchen, and he taught me how to make a dish of three vegetarian sauces — spicy tomato, lentil, and chickpea — on a sourdough crepe.

First he sorted and washed pink lentils and covered them with water in a pot on the stove. He blended five tomatoes in a blender, and cut up an onion into fine pieces. In a medium pot he cooked the onions in oil until they were soft and then added three tablespoons of a red powdery spice mixture called berbere [pronounced Bare Bare Eh]. While this first sauce was cooking, I asked how he came to be living in the U.S., and he told me the following story.

Because of a war and famine in Eritrea, he had to start working at the age of seven in a bakery to feed his family of 8 people. He recalled standing on a stool to be above the counter. By high school he was working from 8pm to 6am at the bakery, and then going to school. He spent two years doing mandatory military service and got a college degree in math and statistics before starting a spice production company, which farmed 50 acres and produced berbere. He married and had three kids. With the profits from his business, he was able to build a house for his parents in the village where he grew up, and rent a place for his wife and children, ages 2-11. 

Then the government began forcing all men to join the military indefinitely for no pay, claiming it needed to build an army to prevent Ethiopia from taking power. Because people's jobs had been replaced by unpaid military work, the economy plummeted. His spice sales were frighteningly low. His workers, who had been forced to join the military as well, were beginning to risk their lives fleeing the country. To stay meant to be enslaved. Soon, he figured, he would have no workers, and no clients. Rather than watch his business drain to bankruptcy, he decided to join the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing. He figured that if he could get out of the country, then he could at least put his math and business skills to use elsewhere and send money home to provide for his wife and kids.

As he set out to escape the country, there was no internet or cell phone service. He was completely on his own without access to information, and could trust no one because you never knew who would turn you into the government, leading to torture and imprisonment if not something worse. He ended up paying $3000 in bribes for information on which way would least likely lead to being captured or dying in the desert. He walked for 12 days without food or water, carrying a bag of sugar, which he diluted in whatever water he could find, which was usually dirty. When I asked why he didn’t try to bring his wife and children with him, he said, “I didn’t want them to die.”

After he successfully escaped, he started an 80-seat Eritrean restaurant in Sudan. The restaurant was successful enough to garner the attention of the Sudanese government. Its enforcers liked the delicious food and coffee, but they did not like that the restaurant was owned by an Eritrean and attracted Eritreans, so they shut it down.

Next, he went to South Sudan, where he invested all he had, about $100,000, in a hotel. Things were going well until members of the South Sudanese military kidnapped him and held him at gunpoint on his knees for three hours, demanding that he sign ownership of the hotel them. He refused. They took him to his office and demanded that he give them all his money. He asked himself: which one is better for me: my life, or my money?

He gave them all his money, which they took, and then they put him in prison. He was there for 1 year and 4 months. With time on his hands, he read the Bible eight times and became known as a pastor in and outside the prison. Missionaries would come in and speak to him and take his story out to the community outside the jail. He suspected that he had become somewhat of a public relations problem for the government, because finally a judge inexplicably set him free.

Once released, he went back to his hotel. Everything in it, every TV, every bed, every piece of furniture, had been stolen. Some time after that, he applied at the American Embassy for a business visa, hoping to start a business in a country with a constitution that protected human rights and law and order. The visa was granted. He arrived in the U.S. with nothing but photos of his wife and kids.

In the YMCA kitchen, he spread out a large brown, sourdough crepe on a platter, and then put dollops of three sauces in a circular decorative pattern. He garnished the edge of the platter with three small green chilis. Then he said it is part of Eritrean culture to never eat alone. He invited a Y member from Burundi who happened to be in the kitchen with us, and the Y employee from Angola who had been working at the front desk, to join us. Before we ate, the man from Eritrea said a prayer, as was his custom before eating. “Thank you for this food. I pray for people suffering in prisons, for family who we are not with, that we would be with them and eating together, and for peacefulness.” He hadn't seen his wife and children for nine years, and felt it would take a miracle to see them again.

The Burundian gentleman’s first taste of the food lead to an exclamation: “This is my favorite food!” He said as if he had lost it long ago and couldn’t believe he had found it again. “I used to eat it with Ethiopian roommates in Kenya. Thank you for reminding me of something that I liked!” I, too, had rejoined with a fond memory of my past. I’d tasted the dark red sauce in an Ethiopian jazz club long ago and had long since wondered how it was made. Here I was twenty years later, finding the answer: berbere spice cooked with onions, blended tomatoes, and finished with butter that had been simmered with ginger, onion, bay leaf, turmeric and fenugreek. 

As for what the Eritrean gentleman will do here, he said he was torn between trying to start a spice business and becoming a math or theology professor. For now, he’s tutoring students and auditing the books for a hotel. I thanked him for taking time out of his busy schedule to teach me his favorite Eritrean sauces, and sharing the story of what had happened to him. “I’m happy to do what I can for the community,” he said, “Thank you for listening.”