A letter to Ciham Ali, in an Eritrean jail on her birthday

Ciham Ali was born in the United States and moved to Eritrea with her family. Her father was a minister in Isaias Afwerki’s government. He fled to Australia when he fell out with the president. When Ciham tried to leave, she was arrested at the border. She was 15. On April 2, she turned 23, after eight years in jail. Human Rights Watch has called her release.


Dear Ciham,

We have never met. You have no idea I even exist and still here I am, writing you a letter on your 23rd birthday. 

Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Vanessa and, just like you, I am a 23-year-old Eritrean who was born in the diaspora. But unlike you, who left your hometown Los Angeles to move back to Eritrea, my family stayed in Sweden.

I don’t remember the first time I heard about you. The reason I don’t remember is because I had to see your face and name many times before I realised that you were real. As a naive teenager reading about your situation, I did not think for a second that a 15-year-old girl who was imprisoned without a trial could be ignored the way that you were. 

But I learnt early that you can’t expect others to do something when you aren’t doing it yourself. My uncle is a journalist who also is imprisoned in Eritrea — that’s why I became an activist. When he was warned about the risks of his work, he always replied: “If we don’t give them a voice, no one will.” If he was free, I am certain he would have been your biggest advocate.

And that brings me back to the reason I am sending you this letter. Today is your 23rd birthday, the eighth one you are spending behind bars. 

When I was in high school, two Swedish journalists were imprisoned abroad and the entire country was engaged in the fight to free them. When they were released they said that what kept them alive, more than any visits or food and books they were given, was hearing about all the support and knowing that they were not forgotten.

I wish we could give you food, books and visits from your loved ones. But we can’t. 

So instead, we make noise. We make noise to increase pressure for your release and in the hope that somehow this noise will reach you and give you strength. 

Today, on your birthday we are painting the world purple — your uncle said it was your favourite color. Light purple, he told me, the colour of royalty. I have no idea if it still is. You have frozen in time. The Ciham we know has a fringe, dreams of being a fashion designer and loves the colour purple. But that was you eight years ago. They have robbed you from the ability to grow and change. I don’t think many could imagine who they would be if they hadn’t been able to interact with the outside world for eight years, especially during such formative years

The regime has stolen these years from you. I have no idea what you are feeling today, I wonder if you even know that it’s your birthday. But despite what you are feeling today, or any other day, I hope you remember that the world will still be here for you when you come out. 

I know it’s easy for me to say this. There is no way I could ever understand what you are going through, physically or mentally. I don’t know what comes after hopelessness. I don’t know how you conceptualise a situation as temporary when there is no end in sight. But I am begging you to not lose hope. You have lost and missed so much, but once you come out you still have so much to see and live for. 

I think about you a lot, Ciham: everytime I see my friends, hug my mom, laugh with my siblings, try something new, travel or discover a new app (I’m going to show you Tiktok when you come out, it’s hilarious). All those times, and in between, you are in the back of my mind. I imagine you in a small cell, sometimes with a window, sometimes without, at the mercy of guards operating in a country without the rule of law. 

And I feel guilty, powerless, useless and privileged. I feel an overwhelming feeling of sadness because you are where you are and an extreme sense of shame because we aren’t doing enough about it. But that image of you, in a cell by yourself, also reminds me that it’s not too late. You are still there. Despite the circumstances and conditions, you are still there. And as long as you are there, we will be here on the outside fighting for you.

On behalf of all your sisters and brothers across the world, I want to send you love and wish you the happiest of birthdays. May it be the last one you spend behind bars.

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