Upham's Corner Online

Focus on People:  G. Michael Tzerai

March 6, 2013

"Focus on People" is an Uphams Corner News Series dedicated to the people who have contributed to UC News content or who have made significant contributions to the Greater Uphams Corner area. 

G. Michael Tzerai has worked as an architect in the Boston area for over twenty years.  He recently contributed to the 2013 Black History Month issue of UC News with his article: "Awakening the Conscience of America. He is also active in efforts to resolve a humanitarian crisis affecting the youth of his country of origin, Eritrea. 

G. Michael Tzerai Architectural Studies - Ethiopia and Cornell

G. Michael Tzerai is a naturalized citizen of the United States having emigrated here from his native country of Eritrea. His view of the world has been heavily influenced by his country's history and by his dramatically different experiences here in the United States.

After 50 years of colonial rule under Italy, Eritrea expected to gain its independence shortly after the close of World War II.   Instead, it was under British rule for an additional of 10 years. Eritrea was then federated with Ethiopia, and annexed in 1961. A thirty year war ensued and that ended in 1991 with independence.  

Michael first came to the United States as an American Field Services (AFS) exchange student in Sherman, New York for his senior year of high school in 1963-64 and returned to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to continue his education. He graduated with a degree in architecture.

In 1975, he had an option to join the 30 years war along with his brother or to come to the United States for graduate studies in architecture. He chose to come for graduate studies, and  later on did not regret the decision since educated Eritreans, especially those who joined from Addis Ababa, where treated as security risk by the leadership of the Front.

Michael did his graduate studies at Cornell in urban design and city and regional planning. By then, his brother had passed away in the war. " To lose one brother is significant," he said, " but it is nothing compared to the losses suffered by many families in Eritrea. Some lost most of their brothers or most of their children. It was a brutal, brutal war."

Michael has had a long and rewarding career as an architect. And after leaving Houston Texas, he moved to Boston and opened his firm, GMT Architects. He has worked on such projects as the Big Dig ( 1993-2004), participated in BSA’s Urban Design Focus Team on Harbor Point (1994)  and assisted various CDC's in the Boston area (1990-96) . He currently lives in the Ashmont area of Dorchester.

GMT Architects Website

Active Involvement in the "Eritrean Youth" Problem

Michael married and raised two boys and two girls who have gone on to college and graduate studies. In addition to his architectural work and participation in community development activities, He is deeply involved in the "Eritrean Youth" problem which represents a distressing violation of human rights, especially for the youth of Eritrea.

Persistent news of Eritrean youth facing serious problems that include deaths to escape the brutal rule of the current government in Eritrea is of a major concern to Michael. "It is hard to believe for Americans," he said, "including some here in Boston who supported the independece of Eritrea, to imagine that the war for independence which ended in 1991 had lead to a condition of very bad governance there."

In speaking about his country with a great deal of love and devotion, he often compares Eritrea's struggles with what he saw happen right in the United States history - a history he has come to love and know well since naturalizing here. 

"What happened," he says, "is akin to George Washington waking up one morning in the euphoria of independence, then announcing:  "I ran this war as I saw it fit and now it is time for me to protect and run this young union as I see fit” - in other words, autocratically or worse. For President Washington to have taken the reins in that manner "would have put the union in great turmoil."

Michael emphasizes that the world at large may not be aware of what has taken place in Eritrea since 1991 and the tremendous suffering it has caused. 

He continues:  "What happened in Eritrea is this: Issayas Afuwerki, the revolutionary leader, put in place a social engineering with total disregard to law and order.  He has destroyed the Eritrean family, stripped Eritrean society to the core and promoted the exodus of the Eritrean youth as a mechanism of self-survival."

"Deaths," he said, "occur at several places: If the youth did not die in one of the wars that Issayas instigated or under torture in one of the countless jails then death happens as part of the migration out of Eritrea: 
  • At the boarder crossing due to the shoot to kill policy of the government
  • In the deserts of Sudan and Egypt
  • In the Mediterranean Sea (hundreds at a time) 
Michael emphasizes that the worst suffering and death of the youth is when they are the in the hands of Bedouin Human traffickers in the Sinai. 

"These traffickers attempt to exact ransom from relatives in the sum of $20,000 to $40,000.  A ransom unpaid leads to death and the use of the body for organ sale.  Thousands have perished and thousands more are in the hands of these traffickers."

President Obama raised the issue as a serious problem in an address at the United Nations.

Michael is part of a group of Eritreans who reside in the Boston area who are actively involved in efforts to aid the Eritrean youth so at risk.  Last month, for example, he attended a conference at the Eritrean Community Center at 590 Shawmut AVE to discuss and increase public awareness of the issues.

The two keynote speakers were:
  • Professor Dan Connell of Simmons College – a long time expert on Eritrea
  • Ms. Yelsa Chirum from the United Kingdom, a dedicated Eritrean who is intimately involved with addressing the problem

More from the BBC  - Escape from Sinai

"Escape from Sinai" was produced by Nina Manwaring as part of the BBC World Assignment Series.  This episode was first broadcast on Thursday 07 March 2013 and runs for 25 minutes.

From the BBC Website:

Every year thousands of young men and women make the treacherous journey from Eritrea to Egypt via Sudan in search of a better life. Along the route many fall victim to unscrupulous people traffickers who kidnap them and demand ransom money from their families. Some are able to pay and their loved ones are released. Others are not so lucky. Mike Thomson talks to the people caught up in this brutal trade and travels to Sinai to meet those who are trying to help them.

Click here to listen - (be patient - may load slowly)

Michael welcomes your questions and comments.  You may contact him at:  gmtarch@comcast.net

Posted: March 7, 2013     Nancy J Conrad

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