Tsege Asgedom with her children, Tewolde, Selamawi (Mawi), and Mehret

This 1982 photo, taken at a refugee camp in Sudan, shows Tsege Asgedom with her children, Tewolde, Selamawi (Mawi), and Mehret.

The desert, I remember. The shrieking hyenas, I remember. But beyond that, I cannot separate what I remember from what I have heard in stories.

I may or may not remember seeing my mother look at our house in Adi Wahla, Ethiopia, just before we left. Gazing at it as though it were a person whom she loved and cherished. Trance-walking to the house’s white exterior, laying her hands on it for a few moments, feeling its heartbeat—feeling her own heartbeat—then kissing it, knowing that she might never see it again.

I remember playing soccer with rocks, and a strange man telling me and my brother Tewolde that we had to go on a trip, and Tewolde refusing to go. The man took out a piece of gum, and Tewolde happily traded his homeland.

I remember our journey and the woman we met. Despite her fatigue, she walked and walked and walked, trying to limp her way to safety across miles of stones and rocks. She continued to limp, 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.

But still, she kept on limping. For what choice does a refugee have?

We had no choice, either. We—my mother, my five-year-old brother, my baby sister, and I—kept walking, hoping that we would make it to Sudan and find my father. He had fled our war-ravaged home a year earlier, driven away by the advancing Ethiopian army.

Even stories fail me as I try to recall the rest of our journey. I know only that the wilderness took its toll, that our young bodies gave way, and that we entered a more barren and deadly internal wilderness.

We crossed the Sudanese border and arrived at a city called Awad. A sign should have been posted at the city limits: Awad, home of the exiled. Home of the hopeless. Home of the diseased. A simple sign that would warn and welcome us all.

Welcome, all you refugees. All you psychologically tormented. All you physically malnourished. All you uprooted. Rest your burdens here, for you can rest them nowhere else. Rest your hopes here, for no other place will accept them.

But do not hope too much. For too much hope can lead to insanity.

Beware. We can ill treat your ailments. We have few pills here and little life. We have no guarantees that medicine, not flour, fills the pills. But you have no choice, and neither do we. For we give only that which we have.

Beware our fishermen. Where’s the water, you ask? There is no water. They fish strangers, vagabonds, foreigners, refugees. They look for you even now; if they find you, they will drag you with their iron nets to a wilderness hell.

Please do not blame us. What would you do if chaos approached you on the tortured feet of a million refugees? Could you handle so many?

‘Remember Us’

I don’t remember avoiding the iron nets or finding my father. But I do remember seeking safety in a Sudanese refugee camp. My family spent three years there.

But the camp had its own problems. Disease took its toll, famine always threatened, and warfare plagued Sudan.

Although the fighting never reached our camp, the Sudanese armies were always looking for new soldiers. And they didn’t hesitate to draft refugees.

My parents wondered: What kind of future do we have here? What kind of future do our kids have?

They started hearing more and more about a distant land, a paradise where everyone had a future.

And then, one day, they decided that they’d had enough. War at home. War in Sudan. They wanted peace, and they were ready to go. The village elders watched them prepare and offered a few words of wisdom.

Heading to America, are you? They say that everyone there drives big cars and lives in big houses. Money flows through streets of glimmering gold. And everyone lives long, easy lives.

You will undoubtedly be happy there. Go well, live long, and please, do not forget us.

But as you gather your belongings, please permit us a few words of caution. We may be the poorest and least educated of folks, Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees living in Nowhere, Sudan, but even we have heard things that may interest you.

America seems sweet on top, like fresh honey straight from the comb. But what’s sweet on the surface is often rotten underneath. So beware.

Beware your skins. Blacks are treated like adgi in America, like packhorses. Beware, too, of thieves. Yes, thieves who steal much more than money—thieves who can loot minds, cultures, and even bodies.

Most of all, please remember your country and remember us. Remember your people.

A New Life

We spent our first two weeks in America in a two-room, two-bed motel room in Chicago, my parents on one bed, and on the other, all of us children. Then we moved for seven weeks to a motel in suburban Wheaton.

Knowing that we could get lost in the maze of streets and homes, we rarely left the motel, unless we were accompanied by World Relief, the organization that had brought my family.

One day, though, my father decided that we should brave the new country on our own. TEWOLDE AND SELAMAWI, GET YOUR SHOES ON, he announced. WE NEED TO LET THE OUTSIDE AIR BEAT ON US.

Sporting fully-picked afros and sun-broiled, Sudanese skin, clad in mismatched second hand clothes and low-budget Sudanese shoes, we trekked along the shoulder of Route 38. Needless to say, we drew plenty of looks.

We walked until our new shoes tore into the soles of our feet. Night approached, and thousands of headlights, more lights than we had ever seen in our lives, streamed past our eyes.

We watched in wonder, unable to believe that one road could hold so many cars. My father’s voice assumed an uncharacteristic hush.

THEY WERE RIGHT, he told us in amazement. I DON’T KNOW HOW THEY KNEW, BUT THEY WERE RIGHT. NO SMALL CARS HERE. EVERYONE DRIVES BIG CARS. AND NIGHT HAS NO POWER OVER THEM.

If he could have read his future, my father might have feared the headlights. He might have seen the destructive power behind them, power that would one day take his life. But he could hardly read his new country’s language, much less his future, so he remained amazed all the way home.

The other times we left our motel were with our World Relief friends. They came almost daily and took us around Chicago—to parks, to skyscrapers, to the grocery store, showing us what life would be like in America.

Even with their constant support, though, we still felt the deepest homesickness. We yearned for a piece of injera bread or a bowl of sebhi stew. For a neighbor who spoke our language. For our people.

That’s when they appeared. Out of nowhere, two angels at our door. It was two of our people: habesha women. And they came bearing gifts: injera bread and sebhi stew.

My mother burst into tears upon seeing them. “How did you find us?” she asked.

“We heard from someone that there was a habesha family that had just arrived, and that they were pent up in a motel and knew no one. We remember our first days in America, so we came.”

They showed my mother how to make injera and sebhi using American utensils, and they left us with enough food for a few days.

Seventeen years later, they still hold a special place in our hearts.

On some days, neither our sponsors nor our angels came. We still feared our new country, so we would stay inside and entertain ourselves by telling stories. Other times, we kids would play catch with little pebbles.

It never took long before a stone went somewhere it shouldn’t have, like my father’s ear.

GO AHEAD, YOU SONS OF WOMAN! BREAK SOMETHING AND GET US THROWN INTO THE HOUSE OF IMPRISONMENT.

SIRAHKHA KEREKHA IYE—I WILL SHOW YOU YOUR WORK.

As we searched for safer things, we discovered the great mouthpiece of America, the television.

My siblings and I had seen a fuzzy black-and-white television once in the big Sudanese city of Gedariff. We had heard about it from our friends, and we squirmed through the crowd of Sudanese natives and habesha refugees to reach the rich man’s small, dirt-floor room. Once there, we bunched in among 30 spellbound viewers and watched tiny dots struggle to form the outlines of boxers on the screen.

Now, as we turned on the television in our motel room, we noticed immediately that American dots were much stronger than the ones in Sudan. They did not struggle to form the images on the screen. In fact, sometimes you couldn’t see the dots at all, only perfect color images.

Although we saw what the images did, we could not understand what they said. The only one who could was my father, who was considered an educated man among our people and could half-speak an Ethiopian/British dialect of English.

He was appalled by what the television told him.

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?

My mother turned her face toward the heavens and lifted her quivering hands, as if to draw in God’s angels around her. We kept watching as the television displayed more footage of the girlfriend and her family.

THEY WARNED US OF THIS WICKEDNESS CALLED BOYFRIEND AND GIRLFRIEND BACK IN ADI. DOING WHAT YOU WANT, LIVING OUTSIDE THE RULE, AND THE NEXT THING YOU KNOW, YOU HAVE A STRANGE SICKNESS OR THEY KILL YOUR FAMILY.

We changed the channel. The dots formed a white child, getting ready to go to school. His mother hunched over and scanned his face for dirt, wiping white filaments from under his eyebrows and dirt from off his face. The lesson was not lost on my mother.

Do you see this? Tewolde, Selamawi, Mehret. Take note. If you do not wash your face and comb your hair, if you have even one speck on your face, they will chase you away from the school.

Waiting

We would have come to the States one year earlier, in 1982. We had already passed the infamous immigration tests, sold our six goats, and begun to say goodbye to our fellow villagers. But in the final days, right before we were to leave our village forever, my half-sister Mulu came from another region of Sudan, surprising us.

Although we were scheduled to depart in a matter of days, my father and mother refused to leave without her. They begged the immigration officials. YOU HAVE CHILDREN, DON’T YOU? WOULD YOU GO TO AMERICA AND LEAVE YOUR DAUGHTER ALONE IN THIS REFUGEE CAMP?

“Look,” they told us, “World Relief agreed to work with a family of five, not a family of six. They agreed to bring you now, not later, and it’s impossible for her to come with you now. She has no paperwork.”

World Relief was a U.S.-based Christian organization that sought refugees from all over the world and helped them to resettle in the United States.

Millions of my people had become refugees during the 30-year bloodbath between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Most had fled to Sudan. Seeing their plight, World Relief had mediated an agreement between the United States and Sudan to resettle some of the refugees.

As part of the resettling process, World Relief would have to identify American sponsors who would find the refugees housing, furniture, jobs, medical treatment, and schools—everything that they would need to get on their feet.

But before a family could qualify for resettlement, it had to pass the infamous tests. No one knew which answers were right and which were wrong.

“Why do you want to go to America? What will you do when you get there? Do you want to come back to your country some day? Do you plan to work in America?”

Many clever interviewees had failed despite giving the same answers as those who had passed. Others had passed after giving the same answers as those who had failed.

My father made one thing clear as we headed into our interview: He would speak for all of us. DON’T ANY OF YOU SAY A WORD OR I WILL MAKE YOU LOST. LET ME DO ALL THE TALKING.

Apparently, he told the officials what they wanted to hear, and they told us what we wanted to hear: “You are going to America! To a city called Chicago.”

The officials insisted that we had to leave Mulu behind because she had not applied with the rest of us. But my parents refused to leave her. Returning day after day, sometimes three times a day, my father wore down the officials until they finally caved in. She could come if we waited one year.

We waited, the year passed, and six of us started on our way: my father, Haileab, in his late forties; my mother, Tsege, in her mid-twenties; my half-sister, Mulu, in her late teens; my older brother, Tewolde, nine; my younger sister, Mehret, five; and I, Selamawi, almost seven years old.

‘The Deepest Pain’

After World Relief met us at the airport, they paid for us to stay in a motel in Chicago. Meanwhile, they searched for a church that would sponsor us.

They could not find a sponsor in the city of Chicago, so after two weeks they moved us to another motel in the suburbs, on Route 38. A World Relief caseworker named Beth Raney had agreed to find us a sponsoring church in the area.

The first time we saw Beth, we wondered how such a small woman could exude so much energy.

The first time Beth saw us, she saw trouble. My father lay shivering under a blanket, his head aflame in fever, and Beth, a nurse, realized instantly that he had malaria.

We did not have access to medical care, so she went to a physician friend to obtain the medication that my father needed.

She also met with the pastors of area churches and asked if their congregation would sponsor a refugee family of six.

While she searched for a sponsor, she visited several times a week, talking with my father in his broken English, trying to communicate with my mother through words, but succeeding more through hugs and smiles.

“I still remember looking at Haileab’s and Tsege’s eyes and seeing the deepest pain,” Beth recalls. “The pain of people who have been torn away from their loved ones, from their culture, from their place in society, from everything that has ever given their life coherence and dignity. I tried to help them, talking often with Haileab, trying to get him to talk about his life in his homeland.

“I tried to talk with Tsege, but it was hard because she knew so little English and because she would always retreat to the other room with the children when I came. Her culture had taught her that only men could speak with important visitors. She did not realize that I considered her to be just as important as Haileab and myself.”

Beth found a sponsoring church, the Bethel Presbyterian Church. Like the rest of Wheaton, the church was almost all white, and from our standpoint, all haftamat, or crazy-rich. Bethel went to work immediately on finding us an affordable home—no small task in Wheaton.

We lived in the second motel for seven weeks. Then, one day, our sponsors at Bethel told us we had a home.

We had no idea what to expect. We had spent the previous three years living in a one-room adobe, and even then, we were grateful that we had the one room.

So when we saw our two-story house with its huge yard, we could not believe our eyes. ARE THEY RIGHT? IS IT FOR REAL? THIS WHOLE STRETCH OF HOUSE AND YARD OURS? IT’S TOO MUCH.

We could not afford the rent, even when my father had his job, so we rented out the entire upstairs. And then, a few months into our new home, our lives changed forever.

My parents went to the hospital. Our sponsors took us kids to their home. Two days later, my mother returned with a most precious gift. Conceived in Sudan but born in the States, he was a child of both the old and new worlds.

HIS NAME SHALL BE HNTSA-EYESUS, BUT HE WILL ALSO BE KNOWN AS TEMESGEN, OR “THANK YOU.” FOR WE ARE THANKFUL TO HAVE MADE IT HERE SAFELY, AND THANKFUL FOR OUR NEW LIFE IN THIS LAND.

‘You Are Poor and Black’

From our very first days in America, my mother and father hammered into our minds the importance of excelling in school.

RIGHT NOW, WE ARE AMONG THE POOREST IN THE LAND. NEITHER YOUR MOTHER NOR I WILL FIND GOOD WORK BECAUSE WE LACK SCHOOLING. WE WILL HAVE TO WORK BACK-BREAKING JOBS, WE WILL NEVER FULLY UNDERSTAND OUR RIGHTS, AND OTHERS WILL TAKE ADVANTAGE OF US.

BUT IF YOU, OUR CHILDREN, WORK HARD AT SCHOOL AND FINISH THE UNIVERSITY, MAYBE SOMEDAY YOU CAN HELP YOURSELVES AND HELP YOUR FAMILY, TOO.

My parents may not have known much about this country, but they knew that the university cost more money than they had.

They had a solution, though. They told us that if we were among the best students in the land, we could earn scholarships and attend the university for free—in spite of our race and background.

YOU ARE POOR AND BLACK AND WE CANNOT BUY YOU THE RESOURCES THAT OTHER PARENTS CAN. BUT IF YOU HAVE ENOUGH DESIRE TO OUTWORK ALL THE OTHER STUDENTS AND YOU NEVER GIVE UP, YOU WILL WIN THE RACE ONE DAY.

What’s both beautiful and scary about young children is that they will believe most anything that their parents tell them. If our parents had told us that black refugees growing up on welfare in an affluent white community couldn’t excel, we probably would have believed them.

But they told us that we could do anything if we worked hard and treated others with respect. And we believed them.

Lessons

Sometimes, though, faith was not enough. No one taught us that lesson quite like our classmates at Longfellow Elementary School.

They had never seen anything like us, with our thick, perfectly combed afros, our perfectly mismatched clothing, and our spanking-new XJ-900s, bought from Payless Shoe Source for under $7 a pair.

My brother Tewolde and I patrolled the same playground for the hour-long lunch recess. Kindergarten met for just a half-day, so my sister Mehret went home before recess.

Most of our classmates treated us nicely, others ignored us, and the rest—well, we could only wish that they would ignore us. We may not have understood their words, but we always understood the meaning behind their laughter.

“African Boodie Scratcher! Scratch that Boodie!”

“Black Donkey! You’re so ugly!”

“Why don’t you go back to Africa where you came from?”

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.

So it was usually no contest, especially when the two of us double-teamed them, as we had done so many times in Sudan.

Sometimes, though, our classmates found us alone. One time, a brown-haired, overweight third grader named Sam cornered me along the north fence of the playground.

All about the school, kids played soccer, kickball, and foursquare. We had but one supervisor to monitor the hundreds.

I don’t remember what I had done to infuriate Sam; maybe it was something that Tewolde had done, and I was going to pay for it. Whatever the answer, Sam wanted to teach me a lesson.

He bellowed at me, getting louder with every word, until his face blossomed red. He bumped me against the fence and gripped the railing with his thick, chunky hands, sandwiching me in between.

I pushed against him desperately and tried to wiggle out, but he kept squeezing harder and harder, until the metal fence began to tear into my back, leaving me unable to breathe.

I searched for the supervisor but could not spot her. Nor could I see my brother. Fearing that Sam meant to squeeze all the life out of me, I started to cry for help. He squeezed even harder.

I think one of my brother’s friends must have told him that Sam was suffocating me, because through the tears, I saw Tewolde exploding toward us. He came charging from the other side of the playground with all the fury of an angry bull.

Tewolde was half of Sam’s size but he showed no hesitation. Without slowing, Tewolde leaped up, cocked his hand back and smashed it against the side of Sam’s thick head.

Sam slumped to the asphalt and started to cry. But my brother had only started. He clenched his teeth and pounced on Sam’s outstretched body, battering his face with punch after punch until Sam started to bleed.

I saw the supervisor coming toward our side of the playground, so I grabbed Tewolde and pulled him off. Come on! Nahanigh, Tewolde! We have to go! Come on, before the supervisor sees us!

African Brothers

Many battles later, my brother graduated to the fourth- and fifth-grade playground and left me to fend for myself. My younger sister Mehret was still on my playground, but she was small, too small to fight.

Mehret was so small that one day the strong wind picked her up and slammed her into the fence. My father berated the school administrators for not doing more to help her. But what could they do? She was small, and the wind was strong.

With time, I started to make friends through the soccer games at recess. Although my parents could not afford to put me on a team, Sudan had taught me well, with its days spent playing kiesoh igre, or “ball of foot.”

My brother met a good-natured white kid named Brian Willmer who lived right up the street from us. Brian became my brother’s best friend and a great friend to everyone in our family. He came over to our house often, always telling us that we should send pictures of Hntsa to baby modeling agencies because Hntsa was so cute.

We made other friends, too, and started to fit in better. But the old enemies did not disappear. They had new ammunition, too. Every day, the TV news would broadcast explicit footage of famine-stricken Ethiopians.

“Hey, Salami! You look so skinny. Let me know if you need more food. You want another sandwich? How about some extra milk? I don’t want you to starve.”

It was even worse for my sister Mulu, who had to brave high school by herself. Her classmates drew skeletons on her locker and even serenaded her with the popular famine fundraising song, “We Are the World.” She fought back until Wheaton North suspended her.

Tewolde and I even had confrontations with the only other Africans at our school: big, puffy-cheeked Frank and small, silent Mbago, a pair of brothers from Nigeria.

Both were in second grade with me, even though Frank was three years older than the rest of our class. How could that be?

None of us knew for sure, but we knew that he wasn’t too bright. He used to pay other second graders to do simple math problems for him—five minus three, eight minus four, six plus seven—all for 2 cents a problem.

Even though we were from different countries, we still should have been brothers, defending and helping each other. But like our brothers in Africa, we were making war when we should have been making peace.

I tried to avoid them by playing on the opposite side of the playground.

But Mbago always provoked me. I think that he disliked me because I was poor and looked it, and he was ashamed to be African with me. When Frank was there, I had no choice but to let Mbago call me any names that he wanted. But whenever I found Mbago alone, and Mbago said anything mean to me, I always pounced on him and made him cry.

Invariably, he would return with Frank. They would corner me far away from the supervisor, when I least expected it, and beat on me until I had escaped or they had had enough.

They lived just down the street from us, less than one block away, so one day my bro and I hid in some bushes and waited for them with long, lean sticks in our hands. We would show them, Sudanese-style.

We sprang on them. Slash. Scream. Slash. They ran desperately.

But we were faster and cut them off. And Tewolde let out his anger. Don’t you ever touch my little brother again or you’ll get it even worse!

We strutted back home, victorious, even laughing as we recounted the incident.

But then we thought of whom they might tell, and our laughter stopped in a hurry. We retreated into our house, afraid of what we had done.

When we heard the frenzied knocking on our door, we knew that our time was up.

Their parents stood outside, guarding bruised and teary-eyed children. My parents yelled out in anger for us to appear. DID YOU DO THIS? DON’T YOU DARE LIE OR I WILL MAKE YOU LOST RIGHT THIS MOMENT!

Lifting us by our ears, my parents screamed at us and threatened us until the Nigerian parents had been appeased. Then the parents began talking about Africa, immigration, and all of the things they had in common.

“Would you like some injera? How about something to drink? That’s all you are going to eat? How about some tea? Please. Visit us anytime you want. Of course not! Do not call first. You know that our people do not believe in appointments; come over whenever you want!”

It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

‘Do Not Ever Fight Back’

As Tewolde and I got older, the violence at school continued. So we kept defending ourselves—until the school administrators had no choice:

“This notice is to inform you that your children are fighting almost every day. Especially Tewolde. If they continue to fight with their classmates, we will have to consider expelling them from Longfellow Elementary School.” Signed, Ms. Cobb, the principal.

My father sat, saying nothing, as he was known to do in moments of great crisis. Then he proclaimed his iron verdict.

YIIIIIEEEEEE. ALL THIS COMING FROM ADI FOR THE SAKE OF SCHOOL AND EDUCATION, ALL FOR NOTHING.

LISTEN TO ME, MY CHILDREN. I AM YOUR FATHER, RIGHT? THEN LISTEN. I KNOW THAT IN SUDAN, YOU HAD TO FIGHT OR THEY WOULD KEEP BEATING YOU DAY AFTER DAY. WE ARE NOT IN SUDAN ANYMORE.

HERE IN AMERICA, THEY TAKE A SIMPLE THING LIKE A BRUISE AND KICK YOU OUT OF SCHOOL AND EVEN THROW YOU INTO THE HOUSE OF IMPRISONMENT. SO FROM NOW ON, LET THEM HIT YOU. COME HOME BEATEN AND BRUISED. DO NOT EVER FIGHT BACK.

My brother and I were dumbfounded. At best, we had expected screaming; at worst, the leather belt. But we had never imagined a betrayal of this magnitude. Our father, better than anyone, knew the importance of standing up for yourself.

We begged. We pleaded. We reasoned. What if they knock our teeth out? What if they make us bleed? What if they break our bones? If we let one kid beat us up, they’re all going to beat us up.

DO YOU THINK THAT I WISH HARM ON MY CHILDREN? WE HAVE NO CHOICE. WE ARE POOR.

IF YOU GET EXPELLED, WHO WILL DRIVE YOU TO YOUR NEW SCHOOL? IF YOU GET EXPELLED, WHO WILL GIVE YOU A SCHOLARSHIP? DO YOU THINK THAT THEY GIVE SCHOLARSHIPS TO STUDENTS WHO GET EXPELLED FROM SCHOOL?

REMEMBER THAT THIS COUNTRY RUNS ON COMPUTERS. ONCE YOU COMMIT THE SMALLEST CRIME, YOUR NAME WILL BE STAINED FOREVER.

SO I’M TELLING YOU: IF THEY COME AFTER YOU, RUN. IF I EVER HEAR THAT YOU HAVE BEEN IN A FIGHT, FEAR FOR YOUR BEINGS. I WILL MAKE YOU LOST.

We feared my father more than anything in the world, so as painful as it was to stop fighting, we stopped fighting.

We learned to take taunting and small beatings. There were a few isolated incidents, though, where we had no choice but to defend ourselves.

There was the time that I was in fourth grade and my brother had graduated to middle school. Our neighbors, the Panther family, gave my sister Mehret rides because they had one extra seat in their station wagon. That left me to make the one-mile walk home by myself.

One day, two of my classmates, a light-skinned black kid named Dennis and a skinny white kid named Marc, jumped me on the way home. They would have given me a black eye and maybe more, worse than anything that awaited me at home. So I tightened my face into an angry scowl.

Feigning toward Dennis, I kicked Marc, hard as I could, XJ-900 right in his groin. Marc hunched over and whimpered to the ground. Dennis tried to run, but I caught him. I made sure that there would be no next time.

Dennis and Marc were easy pickings, but a year later, my brother met a more serious challenge: Jake Evans. Tough, mean, unstable, Jake was the deadliest kid at Franklin Middle School.

He was the school’s head burnout, one of those heavy-metal white kids who did drugs and didn’t care about anything. He struck fear in the entire student body. And he hated my brother.

Jake started telling everyone in the school that my brother’s days were numbered. I rarely saw my brother tremble, but he trembled when he heard Jake’s threat. He was right to tremble. Jake had about eighty pounds and a foot on him.

But what terrified us wasn’t Jake’s size. It was his illegal-length switchblade. We knew Jake had it because we had seen him practice with it, setting up targets in the grass near Triangle Park, hitting dead center almost every time.

Even if my brother could have taken Jake, Jake had seven or eight burnout lackeys who followed him around. My bro couldn’t possibly survive all of them and their knives.

Eventually, the day came, as in one of those movies where the whole school knows that a student is going to get whooped.

My brother fidgeted all day long, trying to figure out an escape route. But there was no escape route. Too many people were watching him, talking about the fight. By the end of the day, everyone followed him home, including Jake.

Jake and his friends surrounded Tewolde about a block away from the school. My brother had a few friends around, but not nearly enough to save him. So he made a desperate prayer: Dear God, please save me. Dear God, please save me. Dear God, just don’t let them use their knives.

I guess that God must have heard my brother because He sent some friends down to help him. A van pulled up, carrying four tall black guys. They looked like high-school students, maybe older. They strutted toward us with dangerous confidence.

“What’s going on here? Does someone have a problem with our brother?”

No answer. Confronted with someone larger than himself, the school bully became the school coward.

“Why are you so quiet now, you little punk? Yeah, you. Don’t look around like I’m talking to somebody else. I’m talking to you. If you touch this kid today or any other day, you’re dead meat. You got that? Good. Now get the heck outta here.”

Jake and his friends slunk away, never to be heard from again. They understood violence and they understood threats.

Those four rescuers? They were the older brothers of Tewolde’s friend, Kawaun. Kawaun had told his brothers that all the white burnouts were getting together to gang up on his black friend, and his brothers had come down to help the black kid out.

The Five Chinese Brothers

At night, when we were still in elementary school, my brother told me the most hilarious stories. They usually starred these five Chinese brothers who had moved to the United States. Each brother had his head shaved in the front and long hair in the back, sometimes braided. All five brothers lived together.

Tewolde spun his stories from the top bunk and I heard them from the bottom. They always featured the same plot: the five Chinese brothers craved peace and usually tried to mind their own business. But some ill-willed Americans would always mistreat them.

Like all Chinese people, the Chinese brothers had mastered kung fu, karate, and every other martial art. My brother and I knew this about Chinese people because of a TV show called Samurai Sunday that came on right after church. All the Chinese people in that show could really fight.

Tewolde’s Chinese brothers would be doing something innocent, such as watering their garden, and then, out of nowhere, their neighbors would insult them or hurl a rock through their window. Having no choice, the Chinese brothers would use their kung fu to beat up the Americans.

Eventually, it got so bad that the brothers had to whoop the whole town—every last citizen, five citizens at a time. It was a lot of work, but the brothers had no choice.

Sometimes I wonder why my brother and I loved the Chinese brother stories. I used to think it was because they were funny.

Lately, though, I have come to believe that the brothers were more than stories. They were our kid way of dealing with our unfriendly world.

Even if we couldn’t beat up all of the cruel kids at school, the five Chinese brothers could. They could whoop the kids, they could whoop their parents, they could whoop the entire town.

This article was originally published in two parts, on April 9, 2001, and May 7, 2001. It is an excerpt of Asgedom’s memoir of the same name.

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