Jamal Abdullahi needed a letter to save his life. It would be addressed to his father, exiled somewhere — he did not know where, exactly — in Somalia.
Its message would be: Please come for me. But Jamal did not know how to write. He had never been to school.
He was 18 years old, detained at a military training camp cleared from the jungle in southeastern Ethiopia, being prepared to fight in a war he wanted desperately to escape. Awake at 5 a.m. every day to run, to learn to shoot, to crawl and climb, to run again.
His father was a fighter and a religious leader, greatly respected. If Jamal could contact him, he would surely intercede and free him from captivity.
Jamal had never been in a classroom, but his mother had taught him to be resourceful. For instance, when he was about 12 years old, the army of Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie threatened to kill the children of rebel fighters like Jamal’s father. Every night, she sent him and his brothers to sleep in different houses throughout the village to avoid being found together.
Resourceful. He needed help with the letter. He asked around the camp, quietly: Who could write in Oromo, or Arabic, or Amharic?
He found someone and the letter was written. His father came, pulled him from the ranks and took him across the border into Somalia, to safety. That was in 1976.
Jamal pauses, his long fingers wrapped around the broom handle. School is out for the day at Wilson Magnet High School. The halls are quiet, and teachers clutching stacks of paper step quickly around his dust pile on their way out the door.
The students are mostly gone as well. His daughter, Biiftu Duresso, is one of them. She has already finished her International Baccalaureate tests and has no requirements left before she graduates later this month, the valedictorian of one of the top high schools in Rochester.
Her last period of the day is biology and she left directly for the bus home, missing her father as he arrived for the late shift as assistant custodian.
Some days they see each other in passing but most often they don’t. It doesn’t bother Jamal. He checks in with his daughter’s teachers when he sees them, asking whether she finished her work, whether she’s been attentive in class.
“It’s very hard. But it didn’t stop me. But if you have foundation, your results must be better than me. Must be better.”
Biiftu will be leaving in the fall for Barnard College, a liberal arts school for women in Manhattan, affiliated with Columbia University. Her goal is to become a doctor.
She is the oldest of Jamal’s four children, but if she graduates from college, she will not be the first to do so in the family. That was Jamal, who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2008, 32 years after escaping Ethiopia illiterate and penniless.
Since Biiftu and her siblings were born, he has made his own hard-earned education secondary to theirs. He wanted to be a teacher; instead, he relishes the chance to encourage Wilson students as a mentor and supporter.
Jamal likes his work, humble as it is. He still remembers the date he began: June 10, 1986.
“I tell them, look: I came this hard way through and came out here,” he said. “It’s very hard. But it didn’t stop me. But if you have foundation, your results must be better than me. Must be better.”
Jamal did not go to school as a boy because he had to protect his family’s sugarcane and banana crops from marauding animals: hyenas, the occasional lion, but mostly monkeys. He was not good at his job.
“Monkeys don’t be afraid of me — I was too young,” he said. “They come and fight me and I just get out of the way and they get what they want. I just stand and watch and they get the sugarcane.”
In the area where he lived, there was no school anyway. It was not a peaceful time in Ethiopia.
“My mom said, ‘You’re not going to that school.’ I said, ‘I want to read! I’m going!’”
His father was part of the Bale Peasant Revolt in the mid-1960s, a local uprising that targeted the domination of the Amhara ethnic group from the northern part of the country. It was this activity that drove him into exile, and that forced the rest of the family to move to an even more remote area when Jamal was about 12.
There, the animals died and their crops could not grow in the infertile soil. Jamal and his brothers worked as hired hands and begged when they needed to.
When he was about 14, a school was established among several nearby villages. Jamal had seen people reading newspapers in Italian, Amharic, Somali, and he wanted to be like them.
The school, though, was run by the government against which his father had fought. If he attended, his mother said, he would have his Oromo culture stripped from him.
“My mom said, ‘You’re not going to that school,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘I want to read! I’m going!’ ” But he never went.
Jamal’s education finally began after his father brought him to Mogadishu, Somalia, as a refugee. He worked odd jobs, fixing cars and old sewing machines, and laboriously learned to read and write in Oromo, his own language, from fellow Ethiopians.
There was no library and he had no money, so he borrowed books and newspapers from anyone who had them. He learned to read Somali as well, and some basic algebra.
“It is eye-opening,” he said. “It opens the whole world. I’m agonizing, but I feel I’m making progress.”
Being in Mogadishu also gave Jamal access to the U.S. Embassy and other levers of international power. He applied for refugee status and arrived in New York — the date glints in his memory — March 28, 1983.
One of the first things Jamal did when he arrived in the United States was to ask the government to send him back.
He spoke no English, and no one else spoke Oromo. Work was hard to find. He did not have a friend.
“I hated this place,” he said. “I go to school, language I don’t understand, I come home and just close the door and sleep every day. Most of the time just thinking negatively: How am I going to survive?”
His mindset changed when he met emigrants from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. They were older than him but working harder and more hopeful for the future. Why not be like them?
He took jobs washing dishes and changing sheets at downtown hotels. After a few years, he heard the school district paid its custodians $5.25 an hour. He was only making $4.25 an hour, so he called the woman who was hiring every day.
“She said, ‘You won’t want to do this job. Ethiopians are well educated,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘Not everyone in Ethiopia is fortunate.’ “
“I was elated. I cry. One thing I remembered was my mom. I wish she knows and my father knows.”
Jamal worked part time for several years before becoming first assistant custodian, a supervisory position. In the meantime, he was slowly continuing his education.
Classes at the Rochester Educational Opportunity Center, then Monroe Community College. He got his GED in 1990.
There was a quarterly English-language magazine focusing on Oromo politics, written by a man in Sweden. He got a subscription and labored over every word of every issue for nine years, dictionary in hand. School in the morning, work in the afternoon.
He went back to MCC and got his associate’s degree: May 29, 2003. He tears up to remember the moment.
“I was elated,” he said. “I cry. One thing I remembered was my mom. I wish she knows and my father knows.”
In 1995, Jamal had returned to Ethiopia to visit his family and to meet his wife, Zubaida Esmail; their marriage was arranged. In the next several years, they had four children, of whom Biiftu is the oldest.
Armed with an associate’s degree, he was fixated on learning. To wrest an education for himself was an accomplishment, but what if he could help others learn? Lay down his janitor’s broom and become a teacher? It was his dream.
He was accepted into the teacher preparation program at The College at Brockport. It would be too demanding to work and study at the same time, so he considered asking for a leave from the district.
But: Jamal was a grown man with a family to support. To go without income would have been a challenge, and to concentrate on his own education would have meant to neglect his children.
He remembered his own mother. How she had sacrificed for him; how she had given him the best education she could, though of a different sort.
“I focus on my education to compensate for my weakness,” he said. “This put pressure on my kids. Don’t spend time with Dad. Don’t help with homework. I said: ‘I’m going to stop right here.’ “
Jamal never became a teacher. He entered a less time-consuming program at Brockport and got a bachelor’s degree in 2008. Other Ethiopians came from across the country to see his moment.
Biiftu was young then, but she remembers being there that day as well.
She grew up like many children of immigrants: respectful of their parents’ stories but eager to write their own. In her case, an adequate student but not an enthusiastic one.
In 2007, Biiftu and Jamal went to Ethiopia for two months. It was her first opportunity to meet her cousins, aunts and uncles and to see the place where her father grew up.
“Education has to be the key. There’s an obstacle always. There’s a problem. But if you choose to fight, you overcome obstacles. There’s no other way. There’s no other way besides succeed.”
She wrote about it in her college admission essay: “Before this visit, my parents told me stories about Africa, yet I never really understood it until I went there. I was a student who did not value my education and take advantage of opportunities that were accessible to me. … (My relatives’) eyes upon my life revealed my privilege.”
Biiftu, still just in middle school, rededicated herself.
“My dad struggled through his education,” she said. “He had a hard time balancing work and the family and school. He went through the struggle, so I have to do what I have to do.”
Here is another date Jamal will not likely forget: June 27, 2015. His eldest daughter will walk across the stage at the Auditorium Theatre, valedictorian of the school he keeps clean. Beneficiary of his journey, heir to his belief in learning.
Biiftu spent the last three years volunteering, then interning, at Rochester General Hospital. She hopes to become a doctor and to open a clinic in Ethiopia, where she knows the help is needed.
If and when she gets there, it will be a remarkable two generations. From poverty to privilege; from fending off monkeys in Ethiopia to the top of a high school class in Rochester, and back to Ethiopia to make things better.
“Education has to be the key,” Jamal said. “There’s an obstacle always. There’s a problem. But if you choose to fight, you overcome obstacles. There’s no other way. There’s no other way besides succeed.”
Article first appeared at DemocratandChronicle.