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Alumni

His Story in the Making

March-April 2002

Most classmates thought Selamawi "Mawi" Asgedom '99 was just another kid from outside Chicago, a history major and resident of Pforzheimer House. He flashed a 1,000-kilowatt smile, waved to everyone in the Yard, and peppered his speech with hip slang: "What'sup? Yeah? That's cool." Yet Asgedom's story--which he barely revealed before delivering the senior English address at his Commencement--is extraordinary. By the time he emigrated to the United States in 1983, at the age of seven, he had survived famine and civil wars in his dual homelands of Eritrea and Ethiopia and spent five years in a Sudanese refugee camp. Years later, once settled in the United States, both his father and older brother were killed by drunk drivers in accidents only a few years apart.

In many people, these events would have engendered toughness, depression, or even hate. But as Richard Marius, the late, longtime director of Harvard's expository writing program, noted in a Boston Globe story on Asgedom, "There's a gentleness that has come from the horror. You and I might become bitter...But Mawi has become very gentle as a result."

Just as fine dancers can make the most awkward of partners feel light on their feet, so, too, does Asgedom impart grace to those who engage with him. Energetic, funny, and courteous, he is aware of the conversation's balance and never wants to usurp its focus. "Magnetic" is the word that comes to mind. Yet he would be the last to use it. Much of his time is spent speaking to high-school students across the nation about his family's history and what he has learned from it: the importance of respect and self-respect, the need to find one's passion--be it for track or trigonometry--and the heartbreaking perils of driving drunk.

This sort of open, public communication did not come naturally. "In my language we have a saying," he says: "'Keep the mysteries of your home and your family to yourself.'" But now thousands--even millions--of people have heard Asgedom's tale: the audience of 30,000 at Commencement, readers of his autobiography, Of Beetles and Angels (Megadee Books, 2000), or viewers of the Oprah Winfrey Show, where Asgedom appeared last October.

He didn't start out seeking a wide audience, or a spot on a top talk show--goals often associated with American tales of success. Versed in American history at Harvard and unsure of what to do after graduation, he decided to seek temporary employment in his hometown, Wheaton, Illinois, but had trouble finding a suitable job--even Target turned down his application. His much publicized Commencement address ("Wheaton grad a Harvard class act," the Chicago Tribune crowed) led to an invitation to speak at his old high school, with his former teachers standing proudly in the back of the auditorium. This led to several more engagements at local schools.

"The audiences always said, 'You should write a book,'" Asgedom recalls. And so he did. "I wanted to show students that it is cool to see beauty in other people, to treat all kinds of people with respect...No one has written about the experiences of a black refugee family from a third-world country. I wanted to show my people's courage, to show that politics is less important than a lot of awesome things that my culture has," he explains. "I hope that, because I am half Ethiopian and half Eritrean, readers will be forced to consider the others' perspective a little bit."

Of Beetles and Angels "is a personal story," he says. "It's about sharing the story of my brother and father." He chose to self-publish the memoir in order to retain control over the marketing and cover art (a black and white photograph of his brother and sister, Tewolde and Mehret, as children). "I didn't want it sensationalized," he notes. "Telling the story, to me, was more important than picking the best way to promote it, or using shocking effects to sell a lot of copies." Yet 10,000 volumes have sold and the book is in its third printing.

Writing about his father, Asgedom charts the orphaned Haileab Asgedom's self-education in a Coptic monastery, his medical training, and his successful bid to move his family to Illinois, where the former doctor and revered community leader became a custodian. Welfare checks supplemented his meager salary. In the book, Mawi draws on Kafka, likening his father's experience to that of Gregor Samsa in his sudden transformation from man to insect. Daunted but not defeated, the elder Asgedom endured diabetes-induced blindness and insisted his children join him at five o'clock every morning to run around the local track. He emphasized the importance of hard work and a college education, and preached that his children should never "add hurt to the hurting." Haileab Asgedom was also so intent on being a good neighbor (he regularly raked neighbors' leaves), that when the family moved to a housing project near a lake, he attempted to clean up all the leaves around it--an enormous task that culminated in his setting a bonfire, much to the chagrin of local firemen.

Throughout Of Beetles and Angels, Haileab Asgedom speaks in capital letters. His son explains: "I had read John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. Owen Meany's speeches are always in capital letters, even though he's a tiny guy who almost seems like he'sinconsequential. Words in capital letters say to the reader, 'You've got to listen up.'" He adds, "When my father came to this country, a lot of people didn't value him by looking at him on the outside, but I wanted to let everyone know that this man's words are important. As with Owen Meany, the capital letters gave his words an otherworldly or divine feeling."

Yet the book's stories are also compellingly human. Mawi's brother, Tewolde, also took their father's talk of good deeds to heart. Mawi describes sorting through his dead brother's belongings and finding a picture of a five-year-old South American child with a card from Compassion International thanking Tewolde for sponsoring the boy. He did it despite the fact that he had almost no money and was struggling to save for college and help his own family. Mawi also reports his and his brother's youthful misadventures, which include relieving young neighbors of their Halloween candy and an attempt to purloin a fortune in quarters from a wobbly parking meter. Once the brothers succeeded in knocking over the meter, they carried it--filled with quarters and with a 100-pound cement block attached to its base--toward a secret tunnel they destined as their hiding place, only to be quickly followed by a policeman. The young boys outran the officer, leaving their booty behind.

Asgedom does not glorify the act. "Those chapters are made for middle-school and high-school students. After they read them, kids love the rest of the book. They think, 'He stole a parking meter, he must be cool,'" Asgedom laughs. "I've had school administrators shaking their heads at me while I'm reading or speaking, afraid that there'll be anarticle the next week in USA Today saying, 'Cities report an alarming rise in parking meter vandalism.' But you've got to get kids on your side, you have to establish a good rapport in order to get them to want to hear what you want to say. No one studies the lives of black refugees, and now they're studying it."

And people do respond to him; his message is not lost amidst tales of delinquent pranks. Sometimes a teenager in his audience will raise a hand and say, "I'm new to this country, and my family had a hard time getting here," notes Asgedom, who then calls that child up to the microphone to relay his or her history. "Growing up, refugees are made to feel bad for being different. I'm impressed by kids who can talk about it," he says. Asgedom, it seems, is partly telling his own story so others may be told.

Although his brother and father occupy important roles in Of Beetles and Angels, Asgedom pays tribute to many other "angels" as well--including his mother, Tsege, who bears the scars on her shoulders from carrying him, then a sickly child, from Ethiopia to Sudan. He also cites the high-school track coach who bought him new sneakers and school clothes when he had none; the guidance counselor who encouraged him to apply to Harvard when he had set his sights on a local college; the dining-hall worker at Pforzheimer, also named Tsege, with whom he spoke Tigrynia; and Harvard lecturer on social studies Benjamin Berger Ph.D. '01, a former resident tutor willing to stay up until four in the morning to help Asgedom on a paper for Moral Reasoning 22: "Justice."

The next few years will likely bring more speeches at schools, another book --on self-esteem and success strategies for high-school students--for which Asgedom has a book contract, and perhaps a screenplay for Of Beetles and Angels. That vision is a far cry from the days--not so long ago--when he had so many copies of his book that they filled his closets and much of his mother's house. In the living room, he piled them into a tall square and covered them with a cloth, pretending he had a solid wood table. In the same way, Asgedom has taken the many disparate things life has given him up to now, bound them together to make them whole, and transformed his experience into something solid for the nourishment and use of others.