Of Beetles and Angels: a Boy’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard

Of Beetles and Angels: a Boy’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard – Book Review

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

by Mawi Asgedom Little, Brown, September 2002 $9.95, ISBN 0-316-82620-0

“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.” Thus begins the slim volume in which Mawi Asgedom recalls his triumphant passage through war torn Ethiopia to a perilous refuge in the Sudan, and finally to his new American home. A refugee of the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict, who descends from both sides of that horrific civil war, Asgedom animates the plight made so painfully generic by years of news coverage of warfare and famine.

Taking its title from his father’s advice to “treat all people–even the most unsightly beetles–as if they were angels sent from heaven,” this remembrance often takes the contours of a fable with its idealized heroes who meet tragic deaths (his father Heilab and brother Tewolde), angelic and sketchily rendered female characters (relief workers, volunteers, as well as his mother and sisters).

Asgedom employs elegant, uncluttered prose to tell of his struggle, surviving both the daily battles of the Sudanese camps, and the more insidious battles during his acculturation into the lily-white Chicago suburbs where he lands upon his arrival.

He emerges from African warfare and American welfare to graduate from Harvard University–his 1999 commencement address serves as the book’s epilogue. Asgedom never wallows in self-pity. Instead, the story is endlessly optimistic, so much so that the 25-year-old now uses his story to inspire others, working as a motivational speaker who fittingly has been featured on Oprah.

—Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is a freelance writer and art critic living in Harlem.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Cox, Matthews & Associates

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group