Meet Eritrean human rights activist Vanessa Tsehaye (@vanessatsehaye). In 2001, Vanessa’s photojournalist uncle, Seyoum Tsehaye, and his colleagues were imprisoned for demanding democracy in Eritrea. At 16, she launched One Day Seyoum to advocate for her uncle and other prisoners of conscience.
In 2018, Vanessa shared her story on the Oslo Freedom Forum stage. Later on, Vanessa participated in the Human Rights Foundation (HRF)’s Freedom Fellowship, a one-year program that provides hands-on, expert mentorship across seven critical areas: leadership, movement-building, organizing, fundraising, media, mental health, and digital security.
HRF sat down with Vanessa to learn more about the situation in Eritrea and her work with One Day Seyoum.
Tell us how your activism started and One Day Seyoum came to be.
I grew up in Sweden hearing about my uncle’s story and knowing he was in prison even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. I was only five when he was imprisoned in Eritrea. I grew up not knowing that I could do anything about it. When I was 11 or 12, I joined an Amnesty club at my elementary school. Through that, I learned what activism was and that if something wrong is happening in the world, you can do something about it. I realized I could do this for my uncle. I could do this for my country.
When I started high school, I instantly started working on setting up One Day Seyoum. The aim was to mobilize and campaign for my uncle’s release and the release of my country.
The international community doesn’t give much attention to the dictatorship in Eritrea. What is your assessment of this regime, and why is it different than others?
As an Eritrean activist, I am tired of explaining how bad the situation is in Eritrea and for the Eritrean people — not those just in the country but those who’ve been forced to flee. No one wants to stay in the country because everything there is collapsing — the standard of living, the infrastructure, the political and civic riots. People are forced to flee through countries that treat them terribly and, once they make it to the West, they continue to suffer in so many ways. It’s a country, an entire population, that’s suffering.
No one is aware because Eritrea is not important geopolitically. The government is left alone to do what it wants.
What has One Day Seyoum been doing? What has your work looked like in the last few years?
When the country transitioned to a dictatorship in 2001, they shut down everything. There’s no independent media, no independent civil society, no university, no open conversations. This means you can’t do anything without risking getting imprisoned, disappeared, or killed. The only option is to do things outside of the country.
So we, living outside the country, try to raise awareness, campaign, and apply pressure to end abuses in Eritrea. We also support the people who have fled the country through campaigning and providing support services. We focus on the issues they face in the first countries they go through after they flee and the issues they face once they reach their final destinations. Our aim is to combat the government’s plan to destroy the current generation by ending the abuses against them and helping them recover and restart their lives.
How has the Freedom Fellowship impacted your activism?
The Eritrean government has a stronghold within the country and outside, they have a “long arm” — there’s a lot of abuse and harassment funded and supported by the government. People in the diaspora were also too scared to speak out because it could impact their family in Eritrea, their ability to travel home, and their legal rights in the country such as their inheritances.
In 2018, after the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea ended – which the government had previously used to justify the abuses within the country – many people started to speak out. There was incredible interest and passion coming from people, and One Day Seyoum’s membership and community grew immensely.
I needed to figure out how to properly mobilize, recruit, and activate all these people. I had so many questions I struggled to answer, and then I received an email about the Freedom Fellowship. The program was an amazing opportunity to navigate all of my questions, not just with external professionals but also with other activists and the team leader, Jhanisse. We were all dealing with the same questions within our countries, and we were able to lean on and help each other. The Fellowship really came at a perfect time and helped form how we mobilized.
What can people do to support your work and the work of One Day Seyoum?
One Day Seyoum is completely volunteer -run. Our wonderful members make our operations possible — people volunteer their time to campaign, do casework, fundraise, everything. Anyone can join our team and help in any way they can with the time they have available.
You can also follow us on social media or sign up for our newsletter where you will get regular updates about how you can support our ongoing initiatives in simple ways – petitions, social media actions, volunteer stints. And, of course, you can also donate to support us! We want our operations to be sustainable and long-term, and no matter how many dedicated volunteers we have, we need financial support to ensure that. Thank you.