Stories of exile amid the stacks (Forum)

Maxwell Hayman

We were born 28 days apart in 1986, me in California and he in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He could be another 21-year-old Northwestern student studying nightly, attending lectures and partying in the Greek quad, but instead he serves Northwestern students at the library café.

Benyam Lenda’s older brother was a journalist and editor for an Ethiopian newspaper. As retribution for publishing articles that criticized the ruling party, the Ethiopian government detained Benyam’s brother, mother and father multiple times. At one point, his brother spent six months in a decrepit prison. In Ethiopia, journalists are often charged with treason and face punishments up to life imprisonment or death.

In 2003, Benyam, along with two of his seven siblings, fled to Nairobi, Kenya, leaving the rest of the family behind. In Nairobi, they still feared for their lives because other exiled journalists had been tracked and captured by the Ethiopian government. With almost no income, they hid out in an impoverished urban neighborhood among murderous street gangs.

In 2006, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi granted Benyam and his siblings permission to come to America as political refugees. Heartland, a Chicago non-profit, helped Benyam find his current job with Sodexho. In two weeks, he will have been making drinks at the library café for one year.

Benyam does not think the students he serves realize that he is their age. He says his difficult life has made him look and seem older than he is.

He says that NU students are respectful and friendly, but that he often feels sad because they remind him he may never be a student again.

Benyam excelled in science when he was young, but he hasn’t attended school since he fled Ethiopia in 10th grade. He dreams of studying electrical engineering at a local college, but must first save money and pass a high school equivalency examination.

Although he is far from comfortable, Benyam says his life is finally OK now that he is in the United States. He says that he doesn’t need to constantly worry about his own survival or the lives of his brother and sister all of the time.

At the very least, next time you are in the library café, say hello to the young Ethiopian man behind the counter. He is mildly self-conscious about his broken English, but if you say hello, a broad, warm smile will break his shy demeanor.

At NU we are often too busy studying and teaching to reach out to the familiar yet anonymous individuals who serve our food and clean our buildings. They may not be academic elites, but they still have something to share.

Countless Benyams working among us have the first-hand experience we can and should explore in classes. If we knew their personal stories and gave them a chance to share their insights, they could make valuable contributions to our educational pursuits and intellectual community.

Weinberg junior Maxwell Hayman can be reached at [email protected]