First-year student Vaneesa Berhe is not only outgoing and dedicated in the classroom. She is also an activist who started her own NGO, One Day Seyoum, in support of her uncle, Seyoum Tsehaye – one of Eritrea's foremost journalists – who was unjustly thrown in prison by the Eritrean government in 2001, and has been held, without charges or trial, ever since.
Berhe arrived at Villanova University in August from Stockholm, Sweden, after graduating from high school in June. She is studying at Villanova through The Dr. Peter Wallenberg Scholarship, which was established at the University by Wallenberg’s life-long friend, Ambassador Charles A. Heimbold, Jr. ’54, to provide worthy Swedish scholars the opportunity to attend Villanova for one year as visiting students.
Berhe’s NGO is fighting not only for Tsehaye’s release, but for others unjustly imprisoned in Eritrea and for democracy in the country.
“I wanted to work to strengthen freedom of expression and democracy in Eritrea,” Berhe wrote in a 2014 article for Asmiro Independent. “Today, not many people know that simultaneously with Dawit Isaak (a Swedish-Eritrean playwright, journalist and writer), nine other journalists and 11 politicians were detained, and that since then thousands of other regime critics have been imprisoned, murdered or have disappeared. Many people do not realize that Eritrea during the last eight years has been designated as the country with the least freedom of expression worldwide.”
Located in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea is bordered by Sudan in the west, Ethiopia in the south, and Djibouti in the southeast. Eritrea’s oppressive government and lack of communication infrastructure have left the population disconnected from the world, and refugee rights, national slavery and human trafficking are significant, ongoing problems for the country. In fact, after Syria, Eritrea is one of the largest sources of refugees coming to Europe.
Through Berhe’s fight to free her uncle and shine a light on the issues in Eritrea, she has become an international spokesperson on human trafficking and press freedom. She serves as a youth ambassador for the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences – run by Argentine Catholic Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo – and, in that role, has spoken at numerous international conferences, including a 2014 conference at the Vatican. Pope Francis, outspoken on the topic of refugees and the dispossessed, concluded the conference by encouraging the young leaders in the room in their work for human rights and efforts to fight human trafficking and abolish modern-day slavery.
Afterwards, Berhe met Pope Francis and spoke with him about her fight. The Pope endorsed her cause, taking a picture with her and holding up a sign reading, “I am the Pope and Seyoum is my brother” – a message of support utilized by One Day Seyoum in its campaign.
While Berhe was only five years old when her uncle was unjustly imprisoned, it had an immediate impact on her life. When she began grade school, Berhe and her classmates raised the money to buy a plane ticket for her to go to Eritrea and free her uncle and take him home to Sweden.
As she got older, Berhe realized that her fight would be much more complicated. When she reached high school, Berhe finally felt she had the tools and the platform to start building an organized movement that she hopes could someday free Seyoum.
Berhe started with an information campaign to shine a light on her uncle and Eritrea and, six months later, established an official NGO, One Day Seyoum. Her organization uses social media, video and web platforms, petitions and speaking engagements to spread its message. Berhe has steadily built a network of “ambassadors” across the world, who together help in sharing the story and spreading the message. Through the work of her organization, Berhe now has more than 70 ambassadors across numerous continents, including Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and North America.
Berhe and her organization have also been active in their communication with various government agencies – aiming to find ways to work together to free the journalists unjustly imprisoned in Eritrea and to help create a democratic transition in the country.
“I have been in contact with representatives of the Swedish government and am hoping that our dialogues with them will expand to a dialogue with more governments.” Berhe said. “However, in order for governments to take interest in your issue, you need to have support from the public. That is exactly what we are trying to do.”
Although Berhe’s organization bears the name of her uncle, One Day Seyoum is focused not only on her uncle’s freedom.
“It’s about fighting for those unjustly imprisoned in Eritrea,” added Berhe. “It’s about working for democracy in Eritrea and spreading the word about those issues impacting the country – national slavery, human trafficking, refugee rights and press freedom.”
In between her Villanova classes – international law, history, philosophy, religion, and the University’s first-year Augustine and Culture Seminar – Berhe has already organized a campaign to raise awareness on campus by way of a petition drive. She is spreading her message at Villanova, as she has everywhere she’s gone.
Despite her youth, Berhe’s journey has already taken her around the world, including a trip with her family to Eritrea – where she witnessed first-hand the lack of everyday freedoms so many take for granted.
"Our belief is that when the voices of democracy have been silenced, we need to use ours," Berhe said about her campaign in an interview with Al Jazeera. "My uncle and his colleagues were imprisoned because they were considered a threat against the Eritrean government. Their critical, democratic and progressive approach was weakening the government's position in the country.”
Now, Berhe is making her voice heard. In November, her journey will take her back to the Vatican for another international conference – this one titled: Real Love Chases Away Fear, Greed and Slavery: Young Leaders Must Pave the Way. And who knows, Berhe’s path may once again cross with Pope Francis.