When he fled Eritrea – the small East African nation that Amnesty International says is one of the most repressive countries in the world – Saeed Saleh left behind his family, his former wife and two young children.
If he had been caught leaving, he would have been imprisoned.
He spent several months in a refugee camp in Sudan, where he met Zaid Nuguse Eseyas and they married. They trekked on foot across a large swath of the Sahara Desert, stayed briefly in Libya and then went by boat to the island of Malta, where they were in a camp four years.
It was there that their daughter Randa was born.
Finally, three years ago with the help of the Catholic Social Services Resettlement Program, they came to America and eventually ended up in Dayton, a city known as immigrant friendly.
“They went through all that hardship – leaving home, going to Sudan, crossing the Sahara, Libya, Malta — and were able to sustain all that pain,” family spokesman Tekeste Abraham said as he sat with a grief-numbed Zaid and a dozen other saddened people in the family’s Southshore Drive apartment the other afternoon.
“They had settled here and Saeed was providing for his family, as well as his children and other family members back in Eritrea and his brother who’s in a camp in Egypt. They thought they had left all their troubles in the past.
“And then ‘Boom!’
“He is killed Saturday night.”
Saeed was one of nine people murdered in the Oregon District just past 1 a.m. Sunday by Connor Betts, the 24-year-old Bellbrook man who wore body armor, a mask and ear protection as he repeatedly fired an AR-15 style .223 caliber weapon equipped with a pair of high-capacity magazines.
Betts’ rampage lasted just over 30 seconds before he was shot dead by Dayton police as he tried to burst through the front door of the crowded Ned Peppers bar on East Fifth Street.
“This is just a very difficult situation,” said Abraham, who has both Ethiopian and Eritrean roots. “Saeed was her life.”
As Abraham spoke, Zaid’s sister – Senait Mebratu, who had just flown in from Phoenix — translated to her 24-year-old sister in her Tigrinya language.
Zaid teared up and finally said in a whisper: “The other hardships I could endure, but not this loss. His departure is just too painful.”
Her voice trailed off and she looked down in silence, her pain filling the room.
Everyone there shifted a bit uncomfortably, not sure what they could say to comfort her. Another person came in the front door and, like everyone before him, he first removed his shoes.
Some of the women there, like Zaid and Senait, were Christian. Others were Muslim. All of them except Zaid wore a head covering. One woman got up and began passing around a tray filled with the traditional, slightly sweet himbasha bread. Another woman poured tea. There was a platter of dates on the coffee table.
Zaid ignored the offerings.
“She does not eat, she does not drink,” Senait said. “She loved Saeed very much. She’s devastated now. She is not coping.”
They had had to coax her downstairs to speak with me.
“If you had been here yesterday, she would have sat there and not seen you or heard you,” Abraham said. “She is in such pain.”
The couple’s five-year-old daughter, Randa, played nearby and while she knows something happened – she was there with her mom at the Dayton Convention Center early Sunday morning when Zaid was informed of Saeed’s death – she doesn’t know the gravity of the situation.
“When Zaid found out it was absolutely horrific,” said Monnie Bush, the former police officer who now runs the Victory Project and also serves as a volunteer chaplain with PACT (Police and Clergy Together.)
He had been called in to comfort people after the shooting and found himself with Zaid when she got the news.
“She was so devastated,” he said. “I won’t forget her grief, her expression. She was on her knees pounding the ground, pulling at her clothes. It was stomach churning. And her little girl was there. It was just awful.”
Both Abraham and another family spokesman, Yahya Khamis – the leader of Dayton’s Sudanese community and, like the 38-year-old Saeed, a Muslim who once went through the refugee camp experience – say Randa does not know her father is dead.
“Their daughter is so young, she does not understand what has happened,” Abraham said. “Occasionally she asks. ‘Where is my dad? When is he coming back?’”
She last saw him Saturday night. He had played with her and then enjoyed dinner at home with fellow Eritrean Kidane Adal. Zaid said she roasted coffee that night and they were having a good time.
Then sometime after 9 p.m, Saeed got a call from a friend asking him to join him in the Oregon District so they could walk around and take in the scene.
Abraham said Saeed was a forklift driver at DHL and often worked six or seven days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day.
“He finally took one day off, went with a friend and this happened,” Abraham said.
Senait said Zaid was told when the shooting started, Saeed’s friend ran and was able to get through the front door of Ned Peppers to safety.
“Saeed was unable to get inside,” she said.
Afterward, she said, “his friend ran away and we have not been able to find him. ..But you don’t know how you’d act when an accident comes like this.”
Zaid pulled up a photo on her phone that the friend had posted on an imo app. It was a picture of Saeed superimposed with a message written by the guy:
“Why did you met me Saeed. Was that make me the last person you want to say goodbye?”
‘A good person’
Under the dictatorship of President Isaias Afewerki, who is in his 28th year of power in Eritrea— there is no legislature, no independent judiciary, no independent civil society, no media outlets. Every Eritrean is conscripted into the military for an indeterminate period, sometimes for more than a decade and often doing forced labor.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, nearly 13 percent of the population has fled.
“Saeed spoke seven languages and was very smart,” Senait said.
Zaid, like her sister, said nothing critical of the Eritrean government.
“We still have family there,” she said. “Saeed’s other two children are there,”
Zaid was just a teenager when she met Saeed and they married in 2011.
“She said he was a very easy going guy who got along with everybody,” Abraham explained. “He loved his friends and spent most of his spare time with his daughter.”
Senait nodded: “He was very kind and very honest. He was just a good person.”
Those remembrances and this new reality are difficult for Zaid to come to grips with, said Abraham:
“She is sad, she’s angry, she’s lost – you name it. A lot of it has to do with the way he died.
“Had he been sick, it would be easier to accept. You could prepare yourself. But to die like this is very hard to accept. Very hard.”
And that’s something Abraham knows firsthand.
Some 27 years ago his family went through similar pain when Sarah Abraham, his younger sister, was one of six people killed by four young Daytonians in a deadly rampage that began on Christmas Eve 1992 and ended with their capture three days later.
Until this past weekend it was the worst murder spree in modern Dayton history.
Sarah Abraham had been working in the family’s Short Stop Mini Market at West Fifth and South Williams streets in West Dayton when three of the four killers walked in.
They demanded money. Sarah gave them the $30 that was in her register and then Marvallous Keene walked up and shot her point blank.
She died a few days later, leaving a smart, charming 11-year-old daughter named Desta.
Abraham said Desta has since graduated from the University of Cincinnati and works as a linguist in Washington, D.C.
As he talked about his niece, you had to wonder about five-year-old Randa and if one day she would fare as well.
‘You’re seeing how good Dayton can be’
After 15 years in law enforcement, Monnie Bush started the Victory Project, a non-profit, Christian organization that provides an alternative to the streets for inner city youth.
He said in his volunteer work with the police chaplaincy program – PACT – he is paired with clergy from “a lot of faiths and denominations in Dayton.”
That he found himself working with Zaid early Sunday morning, he now believes, was not coincidence:
“After we got her calmed down or, basically, after she just wore herself out, we were able to escort her to her car and I gave her my card and told her to call if there was anything I could do”
She did not call, but again – not by coincidence, he believes – he was about to leave the Convention Center after a meeting the other morning when a car parked in front of him.
He saw the two men – Tekeste Abraham and Kidane Adal – get out. He recognized Adal because he had accompanied Zaid and Randa early Sunday.
He introduced himself and Abraham – whom he’d not met before – explained Zaid’s financial dilemma and how he was going to see if the Red Cross could help.
“They went on their way and I knew what I wanted to do,” Bush said. “I stood there and started making phone calls to people I knew – people who have a heart, a feeling – and I called my wife. And 30 minutes later I was ready to leave again when Mr. Abraham walked out with a stack of paperwork. He was frustrated. He didn’t know how Zaid could document everything.
“And that’s when I was able to say, ‘I’ve got some good news for you. We’ve come up with the $4,500 for Saeed’s burial!’
“They couldn’t believe it. Mr. Abraham started to explain that Saeed was Muslim and we’re Christian and I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. We just want to love people.’
“Ever since Sunday I’d just been sick and this was one good thing to come out of it. And so we just stood there and praised God.
“And now people are still contacting us, seeing how they can help. (You can too by going to the website: victoryproject.org).
“Once again, you’re seeing how good Dayton can be.”
And so Saturday at noon, Saeed Saleh will be buried according to Muslim traditions at the Islamic Cemetery of Greater Dayton at 4989 Old Troy Pike.
It will be a difficult time for Zaid.
It will be the day she finally has to answer Randa’s question about Daddy coming home.
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