Stories of Welcome

A refugee family experiences true kindness through sponsorship

Maryland sponsors become friends and neighbors to refugees from Eritrea

“I have seen a real act of kindness for the first time,” shared Samuel “Sami” Fisshaye when members of the Rockville 5 sponsor group welcomed his family to Maryland.

After enduring years of torture by kidnappers near the border of Sudan, then spending over a decade in exile in Israel, Sami, his wife Ruta “Rut“ Abraha, and their young daughter Mlat found safety in the United States through the Welcome Corps. 

“I don’t have words to explain my experience,” he said. “They treat me as if I’m part of their family.”

That’s exactly what Donna and Steve Sprague hoped to accomplish when they learned about the Welcome Corps. In the past, the couple often hosted exchange students and athletes who needed temporary housing. Now empty nesters, they read an article about the Welcome Corps and determined they had the time and resources to sponsor a refugee.

“This felt like a really tangible way to say if we want to really help people, let’s really help people by becoming their friends and neighbors.”

Donna Sprague, sponsor

The couple began reaching out to their network to form a sponsor group. They were soon joined by their friends: Ed Clifton, Caroline, and Kimberly.

Prior to meeting Sami and his family, the sponsors did not know much about their background, but were eager to welcome them. The bulk of their fundraising efforts went toward housing costs, and the group has worked hard to double the required amount of fundraising in order to provide support to the family beyond the required 90-days.

After living a nightmare for so many years, Sami found it almost hard to believe that this opportunity for safety and belonging in the United States was possible.

“When I was sent to the UNHCR, I heard about these things, but I was not sure it could be a real thing, and I didn’t believe it until I boarded the plane,” he said.

While Sami and his family are finally experiencing the compassion and support of sponsors in Maryland, he and his wife may have faced some of the worst of humanity in Sudan. As teenagers, both Sami and Rut became victims of human trafficking when they attempted to leave Eritrea and cross the border into Sudan.

In 11th grade, Sami attempted to leave Eritrea to avoid mandatory military training.

“People flee from [Eritrea]and they try to cross the border to Sudan,” he said. “The place is a desolate land, a desert, and crossing the border takes around three to four days. And these hijackers, they always lurk in this place.” 

Rut also tried to leave Eritrea in the 10th grade and suffered a similar fate, being captured and held hostage for nearly a year.

Victims are blindfolded, taken to an undisclosed location, and held as kidnappers attempt to extort money from family and friends. While in captivity, Sami and Rut both experienced brutal torture. Others held in cells near them were severely tortured and left for dead. 

Rut was hijacked twice and, after kidnappers received a $20,000 ransom, she was left near the border of Israel—alone and with growing health conditions she developed in captivity. Even though Sami gathered the initial ransom, he was sold twice more for higher ransoms. Eventually, he, too, was left in the desert near Israel.

Sami and Rut connected in Israel and fell in love, bonding over their bravery and experiences.  They lived in Israel for 13 years, but without permanent status, they feared for their futures. They eventually had a daughter together, Mlat, which further motivated them to find a safe and secure place to live as a growing family. 

“In Israel, we didn’t have legal papers. You have to update your status every month. You don’t know what your future is, let alone your child’s future,” Sami said.

Watching warmups before a Washington Capitals hockey game, from left: Donna, Sami, Rut, and Steve.

In 2018, the family applied for asylum through the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). A few years later, they were approved to resettle in the United States through the Welcome Corps.  In February of 2024, Sami, Rut, and Mlat were welcomed with open arms at the airport by the sponsor group in Maryland.

“I want to say that I really, really feel safe,” Rut said. “The group has surrounded me with love. I feel like I am with my mother and my father. I can see I have a future. I am planning to study and provide a better future for my daughter, also.”

Sami and Rut are both enrolled in English classes. Sami, who learned to speak fluent Hebrew during his time in Israel and who worked as a baker there, found a full-time job working at a Jewish bakery in Silver Spring. Rut is helping to style and promote dresses on social media for a dressmaker who designs traditional Ethiopian/Eritrean clothing.

The couple and their daughter are enjoying their new community and now have hope for their futures. They enjoy local activities with the sponsor group, such as hockey games, visiting the National Zoo, and touring monuments in D.C. 

“It is really a pleasure to be with them,” Donna said. “They are curious, good-natured, funny, and always so appreciative of any kindness. We do a lot of laughing.” 

As a sponsor, Donna said, “Bottom line, we feel incredibly blessed to have Sami, Rut, and Mlat in our lives. The program has delivered on providing us with a tangible feeling of making a huge difference in the lives of people in need, and they have made a big difference in our lives as well.”

When Sami reflected on his previous life, he said, “This is a sad part of our story. This part of my life I don’t want actually to remember. I have endured so much. But I also met people who have faced much more.” 

“I hope others also get the opportunity to come here through [the Welcome Corps],” he added. “I hope that my story influences other people to do the same thing, to sponsor other people.” 

With the support of their sponsor group—and their shared bravery and resilience—the couple is forging ahead and reclaiming the lives that were stolen from them not long ago.