Lila Yohannes was born in Asmara, Eritrea where she had a wonderful early childhood. With her father having a ministerial position in the government and her mother working in banking, she enjoyed a very comfortable upbringing.
All that changed when she became a child refugee at the age of six. The war between Eritrean freedom movement and the Ethiopian government escalated and Lila’s entire family was forced to flee Eritrea to Sudan to escape possible persecution, and ultimately the horrific fate she witnessed for other Eritrean families .
“We fled our home with nothing but a bag of clothes and food for this arduous journey. I remember being urgently woken early in the morning by my parents, urging my siblings and I to get ready. We were told we were going to our beach house for “a few days”, but it soon became apparent to us kids that the “beach house” might not be our destination. Our father, who was usually immaculately dressed, was now dressed to appear like a nondescript farmer. To add to our confusion, our parents asked us to board a public bus instead of taking our car as we normally would.
Tensions were so high in Eritrea due to the escalating conflict that Lila’s parents had no choice but to keep their escape a secret from their children. If word had spread that they were fleeing, the soldiers would have been at their doorstep. The bus dropped off Lila and her family at the edge of Asmara city, and they walked to the nearest village.
“My father had to leave the village almost immediately; he hid in the back of a van heading for the Sudanese border. My mother and siblings (ages two to eight) could not join him, as the risk of our entire family being captured and executed was a very real threat. Instead, my mother would guide, cuddle and care for us as we traveled the country to safety. Sudanby all available means.
Lila, her mother, and siblings walked, rode camels, and sometimes rode in the back of open trucks, usually used for transporting livestock. During the day they hid, risking traveling only at night to escape the fighter planes that constantly surveyed the area for convoys and caravans.
“I have many vivid memories of our grueling trip to Sudan. One of them was being woken up at night to the sound of machine guns and bombs and having to run into the forest to escape an ambush. I also remember nights when the cattle truck we were in got stuck in quicksand and everyone had to get out and help dig it up. I remember the back of the truck was packed with other Eritreans who were also fleeing the war. There were only standing places.
“As difficult as the trip to Sudan was, I also remember the kindness of the strangers who took care of us, who opened their homes and their hearts to help us. We were lucky and extremely grateful to escape with our lives; many people have failed.
After residing in Sudan for about nine months, Lila’s family moved to Nigeria, where she stayed for a few years before migrating to Canada and settling there. After her brother passed away, she found herself in need of a fresh start to help her heal and deal with her grief; she moved to the United States, where she still resides today.
During the time Lila spent living in Nigeria, she experienced international travels that allowed her to become a world traveler and fueled her love of exploration. Once her family settled in the West African country, her parents did everything they could to bring back a sense of normalcy and the carefree childhood that Lila and her siblings had enjoyed in Eritrea.
“Every summer, my parents took up to three months of vacation and traveled to Europe or North America. Every other summer, we children were included in this holiday. Some of my favorite places I visited as a young girl were Sweden, Italy, Holland, and the UK. My sense of adventure and my love of travel were instilled in me by my parents. I credit them with igniting the spirit of travel in my siblings and I during our early childhood.
Growing up with access to the wonders of global travel taught her from an early age to appreciate diverse cultures. Living in multiple countries and experiencing different cultures further fueled Lila’s desire to explore the world.
She has now traveled to 56 countries and enjoys sharing her passion for travel and enthusiasm for learning about diverse cultures in hopes of inspiring others to start their own journeys. Lila is particularly passionate about sharing the beauty and diversity of the African continent.
Her experience as a child refugee has made her an adaptable and versatile person, able to feel comfortable in a wide variety of situations.
“I am equally comfortable staying in the Albouystown area of Georgetown, Guyanaor in a small fishing village along the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, as I am in a luxurious overwater villa in the Maldives.
Some of Lila’s favorite destinations include Turkey and Hong Kong for delicious cuisine Zanzibar and the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas for spectacular beaches, the Maldives for total relaxation, Rwanda, Namibia and Sri Lanka for scenic breathtaking, and South Africa, namely Johannesburg, Spain, and Trinidad and Tobago for a party atmosphere.
And, of course, Lila loves going home to Eritrea. His last trip there was in January 2020, on the eve of the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My first trip back to Eritrea was bittersweet. Returning to the land of my ancestors was incredibly euphoric! It was a joy to come home, to be reunited with my grandparents and my extended family. It was also heartbreaking to see the devastation the war had wreaked on my beloved homeland.
Lila is currently planning trips to the Mediterranean and North Africa. You can follow her on Instagram at @lilasfootsteps.
Related: Why Sabrina Aman Created a Documentary and Charity to Help Eritrean Refugees