Tragedy is Catalyst for Success

By LeAnn Spencer
Tribune Staff Reporter
May 2, 2001

Selamawi "Mawi" Asgedom, former African refugee and new author, sprawls on a sofa in his mother's modest apartment in Wheaton talking of hopes and dreams. Crowding a small table is an array of spicy native dishes along with distinctly Western beverages, cans of cold Pepsi and a jug of Sunny Delight.

It is a blend of worlds akin to Asgedom's two-decades journey from a childhood as an impoverished refugee on the war-torn Ethiopian-Eritrean border to a young man with a degree from Harvard University and a newly published book. By drawing on his early, tough beginnings, Asgedom, 24, is building a career by promoting an autobiographical book and by working as a motivational speaker. He has a Web site ( and an online inspirational newsletter.

"I want people to think about their values and beliefs. We all have hidden potential," he said. Dreaming big dreams and living them are two of the themes that are woven in the text of Asgedom's book, "Of Beetles and Angels," a moving memoir of the family's journey to the United States.

The "beetles" in the title refer to overlooked servants of God, such as Asgedom's father, who went from a well-off village doctor to a lowly "black beetle" in America working as a janitor. "Angels" are sent from God to live among people and help others.

Asgedom spent $10,000 of his own money to publish his book, fearing he would lose control of his story if he turned it over to a major publisher. He calls his publishing company Megadee Books, after an African word that means "the path" or "the journey."

The Asgedom family arrived in the U.S. after spending three years in a crime-ridden Sudanese refugee camp.

Today, Asgedom describes himself as an Ethiopian-Eritrean refugee, reflecting the mingled roots of his homeland and of his heritage. He was born in Ethiopia, near the Eritrean border. His father was Eritrean; his mother Ethiopian. The family was driven from their home because of fighting between the two countries.

"Ours was a tiny village," Asgedom said. There were no paved roads, water was drawn from a public well and no one had a television. "We didn't have any conveniences, but we were happy to be there," he said. "It was our culture, our home, and we'd still be there except for the war."

From there, they wound up in a motel on Roosevelt Road in Wheaton. The year was 1983, they spoke practically no English, had few possessions and knew little of Western technology. They were black people in a predominantly white world. Asgedom was 7.

Tragedies hit early years

The early years were tough. The children were teased and called names. They got into trouble for fighting at school. There was very little money.

And there was tragedy. Asgedom's older brother, Tewolde, was killed by a drunken driver halfway through his senior year of high school. A few years later, another drunken driver killed their father, Haileab, during Asgedom's junior year at Harvard.

"Ironic, isn't it, that father and son both survived disease, war and famine in Africa, but could not survive something as preventable as drunk driving in America," Asgedom writes.

Asgedom says he was shored up by his family's rock-solid faith and guided by the belief that things will turn out all right if one works hard enough.

In 1999, thanks to a full-tuition scholarship, he graduated cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in American history and gave the commencement address.

Family remains close

Asgedom, who now lives in Chicago, often spends the night in his mother's apartment if he has a speaking engagement in the western suburbs. . Asgedom's framed Harvard diploma hangs prominently on one wall. It was, Asgedom said, a gift to "my mother to say thank you after everything that my parents had given to me."

Asgedom's mother, a food-service worker, modestly declines to take credit for her children's successes. Her daughter, Mehret, 22, teaches English as a Second Language at Wheaton High School, and son Hntsa, who was born in the U.S., is a junior at Wheaton-Warrenville South High School.

Such accomplishments, Tsege Asgedom said, are "not me," but "from God."

But Asgedom said the lesson that dedication pays off is something he learned from his parents. "They told us that we could do anything if we worked hard and treated others with respect," he writes in his book. "And we believed them."

During a recent speaking engagement at Wheaton Academy, a private high school in West Chicago, he noted how he once studied for finals by spending an entire vacation rereading all of the assigned texts in a class. He got an A.

"You have to be ready for success," he said. "If we want miracles to happen in our lives, you can't have fear. I believe there is power that each of us has to do great things."