A Tribute to Berhane Woldegabriel

By Amanda Woolley

Amanda Woolley

Berhane Woldegabriel, a journalist and activist, leaves behind a legacy in Initiatives of Change as a bridge builder between opposition groups and civil society in the diaspora.

My friend Berhane Woldegabriel, who has died aged 74, was an Eritrean who settled in the UK after fleeing from Sudan, where he had been a journalist. Based in London from 1993, he then worked in various roles, including as a university lecturer and as a community representative and facilitator with the Eritrean community in Britain and the disapora.

Born in Adi Cheganow, Eritrea, to Woldegabriel Woldegiorgis, a police officer, and his wife, Weizro Tebereh Adane, Berhane attended Prince Mekonnen high school in the capital, Asmara, before moving to Ethiopia to train to be a teacher at Debre Berhan. After gaining his diploma he worked in various schools and went on to study at Addis Ababa University.

War and political upheaval meant he was never able to return to Eritrea for more than a few days. Eventually, in the late 1970s, he finally decided to get away from the repression of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, escaping by foot into Sudan, where he lived for the next 13 years.

In Sudan he wrote for the magazine Sudanow and worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, helping with the settlement of Eritrean refugees in Sudan. In 1990 the Sudanese government marked him out for his critical writing and he was forced to seek sanctuary in the UK.

From 1993 onwards Berhane took on various jobs, most recently at Soas University of London as a lecturer in Tigrinya and Amharic. He also helped refugees who had arrived in Britain from Eritrea and from other countries, including Uganda and Iraq.

In the 90s he founded a charity, the Eritrean Education and Publication Trust (EEPT), which helps people from the Horn of Africa to develop their work and life skills and promotes conciliation techniques. He was also part of the group Initiatives of Change, which, in conjunction with EEPT, has built up relationships between Eritrean opposition groups and civil society in the diaspora.

Three years ago Berhane gave up his post at Soas to work with Save the Children to help refugees making the boat crossing from Africa to Europe. By then in his 70s, he trained for his role by rolling off rafts into the sea at Dover. Once in the Mediterranean he descended into rubber rescue dinghies as the first person to assure traumatised people that they were now safe.

Berhane was a modest man, noted for his warmth, erudition and wit. He had great political insight and the gift of being able to provide subtle encouragement both to his many friends and to the groups he supported and developed. He loved people regardless of nationality or creed.

He is survived by five children, Yemane, Medhanie, Fewien, Hadish and Jonathan, two grandchildren, Raphael and Abigail, his sister Haimanot in London, and seven other siblings abroad.


Originally published by Amanda Woolley for The Guardian 

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