We’re sitting in one of the offices tucked inside Siemens’ Munich headquarters. Listening to Filmon, as he tells us about life back in his home country, we feel very far away from Eritrea. It’s easy to read about refugees in newspapers over breakfast in a removed way, but it’s a privilege to sit down with somebody and hear their stories firsthand.
Telling us about some of the smaller trials he’s faced since coming to Germany, Filmon gives a wry laugh as he describes getting to grips with German grammar. “I like it because it’s a bit like programming… the verbs change depending on the sentence.”
Filmon fled Eritrea after being subjected to over three years of enforced military service. Getting there, to a new life in Munich, has taken him years and it’s a journey that was soberingly brutal in parts. But, he tell us, finding work has been crucial to becoming integrated in a new country.
“I want to improve myself little by little,” he says. And with a background in Computer Engineering, working in the IT development department in Munich is helping him achieve that.
Ambition for life
Staying focused on his ambitions and the future has allowed Filmon to endure the most turbulent moments of the last few years. Although military school was particularly gruelling and at times violent, incredibly, Filmon still managed to study Computer Engineering. “I was motivated by the hope that I could continue doing the work I was passionate about. I thought ‘I can learn this stuff on my own.’”
As a student, Filmon and a bunch of classmates worked independently from a book on C-programming, giving each other challenges to complete outside of class. But there was one snag: their military school only allowed them four hours of access to computer labs a week, and the group didn’t own laptops. The solution? “I started fixing other students’ laptops,” Filmon says. “In exchange for using it for three days.”
When a swell of student protests at military school resulted in multiple arrests, Filmon made plans to flee the country. At this time, leaving Eritrea was illegal.
“Perhaps I have Steve Jobs to thank,” says Filmon, reflecting on his time hiding in the capital city of Asmara, fixing software to save money. “Because smart phones became so popular, I could fix one screen for the same price as 10 TV screens.”
“I managed to get a book about programming, and me and my classmates gave each other challenges to complete outside of classes. We’d analyze solutions and try to make things better.”Filmon Debru, Apprentice
With enough money saved to finally flee, Filmon travelled to Sudan on foot in 2012. “We made it to a Sudanese refugee camp but while there I was kidnapped, chained and taken to Northern Egypt where I was sold on a major human trafficking route.”
Here, Filmon tells us in detail about the torture he endured. It was non-stop, and because he suffered blood poisoning from his wounds, he had to have a number of fingers amputated from both hands.
His family and friends managed to scrape together a ransom, and he was released. “I knew without medical care I’d die.” He got to an Israeli hospital just in time for life-saving surgery.
It took several false starts and unsuccessful attempts to settle legally in other European cities before Filmon arrived in Germany. There, a family offered to host him after reading his story in the press. They helped him to organize reconstructive surgery for his hand, to learn German, and find safety and stability for the first time in years.
Enrolling on the Internship for Refugees Program at Siemens has allowed Filmon to put his skills to use and realise his ambition to continue studying. After learning that German universities would not recognise his Eritrean qualifications, the dignity of getting back to work was especially important.
Splitting his time between theoretical and practical lessons, Filmon has already worked on developing a new app to facilitate project management. “I had to learn a new technology and then implement it, which was exactly what I wanted. It’s always fun to learn a new programming language.”
“My passion is creating code for microcontrollers, and working on circuit boards to control a mechanical hand, or robot.” But since his amputation, handling intricate equipment has been difficult. “I’m trying to find solutions for that; I have a special fiber splint that fits into my hand, so I can hold a removable knife or a screwdriver. The next step is designing something that would allow me to hold a soldering gun and small devices like resistors and transistors.”
The program offers the chance to move between departments and work with new teams, so interns like Filmon have scope to learn more on the job. But working with the development department has confirmed it’s where his passion lies.
When asked what he misses most about Eritrea, Filmon says: “I miss my family, and my neighborhood, and just being able to look at the trees.” He dreams of returning but, unless the political situation changes in Eritrea, his long term plans involve Germany and Europe.
“Based on my previous experiences I’ve stopped making long term plans because you always get surprised.” He says. But reflecting on the ordeal of his journey, he continues to have faith in the resilience of people. “Sometimes,” he says, “you manage to face the things you wouldn’t expect to.”
But concrete plans aside, Filmon is sure of one thing: “I want to specialize in one field.” He says, looking thoughtful. “To be at the frontier.”