A True Story of
The American Dream
(Megadee, Box 57060,
Chicago IL 60657)Mawi Asgedom and his family left Ethiopia when he was three years old. The insurrections and civil wars had made life impossible for his father, a doctor, to survive there. Ultimately, they ended up in Chicago, where Asgedom learned English, attended school, and, along with the family, fought for survival.
It's a story of many battles: getting out of the town of Adi Wahla, walking for days to the Sudan, living in a refugee camp, finding a sponsor to bring them to the United States, and then, once here --- making it through school and into college with no assets at all outside of brains and gumption.
Asgecom manages to convey in less than 150 pages a story of horror, mayhem, and joy. One of his first memories is of a refugee woman fleeing with them from Ethiopia, "limping, wanting to stop, but knowing that if she did, she wouldn't move again."
She pressed on and on, and soon her limp became a crawl. And then I saw a sight that I would never forget --- the soles of her naked feet melting away, and then disappearing into the desert, leaving only her bloody, red flesh, mixed with brownish sand and dirt.
Any writer can come up with horror tales --- and the refugees of Ethiopia can come up with some of the most squalid and disheartening. But there must be hope (for the writer, for the reader) and, at times, humor. For instance, in his case, there are always the puzzles of America. Like his fellow Ethiopian, Fisoom,
who mistook the refrigerator for a clothes dresser. He organized his trousers and shirts on the shelves, even placing his underwear and socks in the pull-out drawers on the bottom.
Or watching television after arriving in Chicago, having just left one of the bitterest civil wars on the planet. Asgedom's father cries out,
God show mercy on us! Did you hear that? The boyfriend killed his girlfriend and her parents, too. He stabbed them more than fifty times. What kind of country have we come to?
Not the least of their problems is Asgedom and his brother trying to survive in the American schoolyard:
"African Boodie Scratcher! Scratch that Boodie!"
"Black Donkey! You're so ugly!"
"Why don't you go back to Africa where you came from?"
He and his brother are fighters. They had to be:
We were just two, and they were often many. But they had grown up in a wealthy American suburb, and we had grown up in a Sudanese refugee camp. We were accustomed to fighting almost daily, using sticks, stones, wood chips, and whatever else we could get our hands on.
§ § §
One of the tests of a worthy writer is how he or she handles unbearable tragedy. Sentiment and pulling out all the stops is easy (we see such in the newspapers every day). Using restraint --- no matter how deep the grief --- can move travail into art. In the midst of surviving and beginning to prosper in America, Asgedom's older brother Tewolde is killed by a drunken driver.
Not long after his death, I went to his room and looked through some of his papers. A single picture stopped me. It showed a dark-haired South American boy, about five years old....
I flipped the card over and read it: "Here is your child. Thank you for sponsoring him...."
I wondered how my brother had donated $240 a year to Compassion International, when he had so little money to spare.
The joy of his own success is pitted against the death of his brother and the decline of his father --- spiritually, emotionally, physically. Asgedom compares his father to Gregor, in Kafka's Metamorphosis. Soon after arriving in America, blindness made it impossible for him to work, and he turned into a querulous old man, with little to do, making the children clean and re-clean the house, the driveway, the basement. But just before his death, at a gathering of Ethiopians, he offered them a memory of what they had left behind:
He had a rare talent for rhyming in geetme, our culture's spoken-word freestyle rap. He would go on for half an hour without pause,
"ISIKOOM DHO KITBAHALOO AKAHL GODOLO, AYNISIKUM INDEEKUM BEHAGOD NETEE MULUO KEYHEE BAHREE TIZELILWO."
(OH, YOU, WHO ARE CALLED HANDICAPPED. AREN'T YOU THE VERY ONES WHO WITH BOUNDLESS JOY LEAP OVER THE EXPANSIVE RED SEA?)
"In my younger days, my embarrassment created a smokescreen that blocked me from hearing my father's rhymes," the author says. Later, "maturity opened my ears and my heart....I remember one time when his poetry rivaled Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare. I waited until we got home and then asked him to repeat the lines."
I have since forgotten those lines, but I can never forget the quiet, almost embarrassed shock that flooded his eyes when I asked him to repeat them. It was the shock of a man who had slowly been convinced by those around him that he had little to offer; a man whose new country had labeled him insignificant; a man whose opinion rarely mattered as it once had.
§ § §
We reviewers prize our toughness when reading books that may try to push us into sentiment. With this one, however, I surrendered. Asgedom finds himself accepted to five colleges. Then, later,
I got home and found two envelopes waiting for me, one from Harvard and the other from Yale. I opened them and read their contents. Then I walked over to the living room to tell my parents. Their dream had come true. Their boy had earned admission to the best universities in the country. And Harvard --- the best-known one in the land --- had offered him a full-tuition scholarship.
His parents wept. He wept. And, dear reader, alas --- so did this reviewer.--- Lolita Lark