Tekle Mezghebe stood onstage at ACL Live at the Moody Theater in downtown Austin and looked out over a sea of screaming young Americans. It was Sunday evening and the crowd was there to see pop star Maggie Rogers, who stood nearby, watching Mezghebe intently. “Selam, Austin!” he said, reading from a sheet of paper he held in his hands. The throng of 2,700 cheered. “Selam, America!” They cheered again. Mezghebe paused. “Can you say selam?” he called out again. “Selam!” they yelled back even louder. “It means ‘hello’ in my language,” Mezghebe continued. “It also means ‘peace.’”
Just three weeks earlier, the 32-year-old Eritrean singer and political activist had been sitting in a cell at an ICE facility in the East Texas town of Livingston, trying to picture the faces of his wife and two young children, whom he hadn’t seen in a year. Mezghebe had recently been granted political asylum in the United States, but he’d had to do it on his own, leaving his family behind in East Africa. He had no idea when he would see them again.
Mezghebe is a short man with tight curly hair and a mustache and goatee on his friendly face. He looked like a prince, clad in traditional Eritrean garb of white trousers and a vest with gold and red diamond shapes, signifying the cross, lined down each side. He had borrowed the vest and the shoes too. He wore no jewelry except a watch and a thin black choker around his neck. “My English is not that good,” he finished, telling the crowd, “but with music and some love in the air, we will communicate well.”
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Rogers, a fresh-faced 25-year-old with long brown hair who wore a fashionable white pantsuit, walked over to Mezghebe and gave him a hug. Rogers had been touring for most of 2019 in support of her album Heard It in a Past Life, a potent collection of songs that debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 charts. This was her second sold-out show at ACL Live, and the final song of the final show on a tour that had lasted most of the year.
The bassist began playing a simple, bouncy bass line, and the drummer joined in, followed by the keyboard player and guitarist. Mezghebe and Rogers began dancing together, two musicians from opposite sides of the world taking steps in unison, forward and back, drawn by the unstoppable feel of the riff, the tune, and the beat. The entranced crowd clapped along. “This isn’t real,” he thought, looking out at the dancing bodies and smiling faces. “I’m dreaming.”
Tekle Mezghebe was born in 1987 in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, a country bordering the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa. He is a member of the Tigrinya ethnic group that makes up about half the country, and he was raised as a Catholic, singing in church and elementary school. As a teenager, he learned to play the krar, a lyre-like stringed instrument, and wrote songs and plays, usually religious ones. Like everyone in the one-party state of Eritrea, when he was nineteen he was forced into military service, where he became an entertainer, singing songs and telling jokes in front of thousands of his fellow soldiers, as well as hosting a TV show called Medeb Teawet. Mezghebe was also writing and recording songs on his own, mostly love songs.
Since winning independence from neighboring Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has had one of the most repressive governments in the world. The country is ruled by Isaias Afwerki, a dictator who has never allowed elections and severely limits press freedom. Eritrea is often compared to North Korea, with Afwerki likened to Kim Jong-un. Eritreans can be jailed for belonging to the wrong religion (Jehovah’s Witnesses or any of the Pentecostals) or even having too much money in their pockets. The UN Human Rights Council has reported that “systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations” have been committed by the Eritrean government: “Eritreans live in constant fear … of arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, disappearance, or death.”
In 2014, Mezghebe—married to a woman named Winta, with whom he then had one daughter, Abigail—was arrested en route to a religious celebration in Teseney. He was thrown in a detention center and held for several months and tortured by security police before being released. A month later he, Winta, and Abigail fled to Ethiopia, where many of his countrymen had also gone. “Everybody tries to escape from Eritrea,” Mezghebe said. “It’s not a country. It’s a big prison.”
He became an activist in Ethiopia, giving interviews and speeches about the need for democracy in Eritrea. He was an outspoken opponent of Afwerki, often telling jokes at the dictator’s expense. In 2015, Mezghebe (by now father of a second daughter, Raenay) gave an interview in which he mocked Afwerki’s tendency to ramble when asked a question. Mezghebe’s joke, recorded and widely heard on YouTube, became famous in Eritrea. He began hosting an Ethiopian TV show, doing programs on Eritrean culture and politics, and released his own music too. The video for his song “Lomi Ngbero” quickly amassed hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. The more famous Mezghebe got, though, the more he and his wife worried about their safety.
Meanwhile, almost seven thousand miles away, Maggie Rogers was attending the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University. Rogers had grown up in rural Maryland playing harp, piano, and guitar. She loved folk music and even recorded a couple of acoustic albums, but had gotten tired of the genre’s limitations. Then she discovered electronic dance music, and her songwriting changed. One day in 2016, famed producer Pharrell Williams came to her class to critique the students’ work. Rogers played her quirky folk song “Alaska” for him. In a video of the session, Williams, sitting next to Rogers, can be seen widening his eyes and shaking his head as a series of synth bloops and percussion loops morphed into a lush groove with angelic harmonies—Joni Mitchell by way of Solange. “Wow,” he says in the video when “Alaska” finished. He was obviously moved. “I have zero notes for that,” he told Rogers. “I’ve never heard anyone like you before. I’ve never heard anything that sounds like that.”
The video went viral and was seen by millions. Rogers signed with Capitol Records, and in 2017 released Now That the Light Is Fading, an EP of passionate, self-empowering songs that showed someone finding herself through her music, a synthesis of folk harmonies and percolating dance rhythms. Rogers was like a folktronica Kacey Musgraves, and her music was particularly embraced by young women. She began touring extensively, taking an energetic stage show on the road.
By 2018, Mezghebe’s wife and friends, convinced that he was a target of the Eritrean government, were encouraging him to leave East Africa. “Your life is in danger,” Winta said. That September, Mezghebe signed up to accompany a group of eight Eritrean cyclists who were flying to a race in Chile. He went along as a journalist. None of the group were planning to return to Eritrea.
Before the race was over, a smuggler led the men north toward the U.S. on foot. For the next three months, they walked and rode buses. They hired more smugglers. They fled the border police in Peru and got lost in the jungles of Panama. After three months, they arrived at the California border town of Calexico, where they were taken into custody while they applied for political asylum. After time at a detention center in Mississippi, Mezghebe was sent to Livingston, where he shared a cell with seven men from Cuba, Guatemala, and Mexico. He worked in the laundry, sang in the chapel, and spent two hours every day in the library reading immigration law. Though detention in the U.S. was better than it was in Eritrea, his mood was dark. “You don’t know what will happen to you until you go before the immigration court,” he said. “Every night you’re thinking, ‘What will happen to me?’” Though at last he could speak to his wife, the two refrained from talking about the future; too much could still go wrong. He wasn’t allowed to use WhatsApp to make video calls.
Finally, in September, Mezghebe was granted asylum. He was ecstatic but terrified. He had no home. Where would he go? One of his fellow Eritreans gave him the address for Casa Marianella, a shelter for immigrants in Austin. Mezghebe wrote a letter saying he had no family in the U.S. and nowhere to go. A month later, Mezghebe received a reply: come to Austin.
Casa Marianella was founded in 1986 on a narrow, leafy street on the east side of Austin as a haven for immigrants fleeing war in Central America. Soon, Casa (as it was known by residents) expanded to include several more homes specifically for women and children fleeing violence. The shelter eventually grew to encompass twelve houses in a compound centered around an office, a community kitchen, a computer room, and a patio and yard full of balls and toys. Casa residents are able to take English classes, consult with lawyers about legal issues, and talk to staff members about how to find a job and sign up for government benefits. On any given day, immigrants from all over the world can be found sitting in the yard, cooking in the kitchen, playing games with their children, hanging out on the picnic tables, or talking on their cellphones with family back home. Casa is a transitional place, a sanctuary where immigrants can pause after a terrible ordeal and get their bearings before finding something more permanent.
Mezghebe arrived at Casa with one set of clothes; everything he owned was on his body. The staff and other refugees—from Cameroon, Mexico, Honduras, Rwanda, and Eritrea—greeted him with hugs and congratulations. For a year, Mezghebe had lived like a refugee, and now he felt at home. “They treated me like family,” he said, “very loving and caring, not like a stranger.” To other Eritreans, Mezghebe was something of a celebrity—not only a pop star but a man who had fought against the dictator.
He called his family on WhatsApp, and saw the faces of his wife and children for the first time in a year. He and Winta began talking again about the future. Now that he had won asylum, he could bring his family over too, and Casa staff began helping him gather the paperwork.
Two weeks later, on Saturday afternoon, October 19, a van packed with toiletries pulled up outside Casa, and Mike Keidel and Mackenzie Dunster got out. The two worked for Maggie Rogers, who was finishing a long tour in Austin that night and the next. Rogers is a civic-minded musician—she publicly supports Planned Parenthood and urges fans to register to vote—and hires like-minded people in her band and crew. They had been having a contest the entire tour to see who could collect the most hotel toiletries, with the goal of donating them all to a nonprofit organization at the end. With 1,100 hotel-sized containers of shampoo, soap, and toothpaste in tow, Keidel and Dunster headed to Casa Marianella to drop them off.