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At home, we’ve been in the throes of college prep, a process that somehow involves the entire family–except the dog. My son is a senior in high school and he has spent this academic year applying to a bunch of places, fretting over essays, and waiting, waiting, waiting for the all-mighty Admissions Office to say yes—or no.
He’s in. And so are all of his friends.
That’s how life—in their world—is: Step by predictable step, they will get their educations. It’s as good as guaranteed.
But that certainty, that unquestioned assumption about opportunity, sometimes makes me wince, especially when I think about people like Atsbha Abraha and the many years of struggle he bore to earn his own degree. An interpreter who helped me recently while I was visiting Oxfam America programs in Ethiopia, Abraha is a young father of 32 from Tigray, a rugged region in the north where many people eke a living from the small plots of land they farm and the few milking animals they own. Life there is hard for many—and in some years, impossible.
Abraha was just 7 when one of those impossible years struck, the year from 1984 and 1985 when one million Ethiopians, including his sister, died in a famine triggered by drought. Tigray suffered unfathomably. As a solution, the socialist government at the time, known as the Derg, launched a campaign to resettle people, forcing them from the homes they had known all their lives. Abraha, with his mother, found himself swept up, packed into a big truck, and driven across the country to Gambella , more than 900 miles away.
There they were deposited, among the first wave of families to be dropped in a region with virtually no services. Their only water came from a hand pump; home was a hut patched together by university students for resettled families.
“We would have preferred to die in Tigray than move to Gambella,” said Abraha, recalling the suffocating heat, the malaria, and the fate of a family of six. “I remember they all lost their lives because of different epidemics.”
But for Abraha, there was a silver lining to the struggles his family endured: the beginnings of an education, the hunger for which drove him night and day as he entered his teens.
“For those children who survived the hardships, we got an opportunity to go to school,” he said. “It was free.”
When the Derg lost power in 1991, his family returned to Tigray and Abraha—only 14—faced possibly the toughest decision of his life.
“I had to choose between going to school and supporting my family,” he said. “My mother was sick in Gambella. She had tuberculosis.” She also had her own mother—very elderly by then—who needed support. Abraha felt the pressure keenly: They wanted him to stay.
But he couldn’t. Not after his experience in Gambella and what he knew could be possible in his own life—if he had an education.
“Without the knowledge of my family, I ran away,” he said.
And so, living hand-to-mouth in the city of Mekele, Abraha did what few in my comfortable corner of the world could have mustered the internal strength to do : He finished high school—sometimes sleeping on the street between shifts in the classroom and the endless hours he spent hawking cigarettes and carmels to make a few cents.
Of the class of 24 with which he started in Gambella, just five found a way to graduate from a university. Abraha, who is now a national United Nations volunteer posted in the Tigray Women’s Affairs Bureau, was among them, putting behind him a life that would have tied him as a farmer to the land—and, most likely, to another generation of poverty.