Gebregziabher Gebre is an alumnus of Harvard University. He grew up within SOS Children’s Village in Mekelle after his parents were killed by the drought of 1984. His grandfather, when he was just five months old, transferred him to SOS Children’s Village, in the words of Gebregziabher himself, because he was “too sick and too poor” to raise him and his younger brother. Here, he reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on his experience growing up in what he describes “an alternative, family-based environment” during an era that killed over one million people during the Derg regime, on being nominated for a prestigious award, on finding his footing at Harvard and finally on becoming a father. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You are shortlisted for a prestigious prize with SOS. Congratulations and tell me about that?
I was nominated by SOS Ethiopia for the Hermann Gmeiner Award 2020. It is an award given every two years. Out of the more than 300 nominees, the Board of Directors of the Hermann Gmeiner Academy selected eight finalists – four women and four men. I was selected to be one of the finalists and I was very excited when I was made aware of it.
The purpose of the award is to select an inspiring SOS alumni who, despite facing difficulties in life, have gone on to become role models, are outstanding in their field (whether social, cultural, athletic or professional) and have given back to society by contributing to the well-being of others and the greater good of their community.
I was selected for my professional achievements and my work as president of the Leul Girmay Memorial foundation that has built over three computer, Library and educational centers across three African countries – Ghana, Ethiopia and The Gambia. As a way to pay it forward – I am also a proud SOS sponsor of two children at SOS Mekelle.
You grew up in SOS. How did that come about and share with me the highlights of your biography?
I was born in a small rural area about an hour drive from Mekelle in 1984. As many of you know – it was a year of the famous famine that claimed the lives of thousands of people. Both of my parents died due to the famine and my family unable to care for me placed me at SOS Children’s Village Mekelle. I was barely five months when I joined the SOS family. At SOS I was put under the care of a wonderful woman – my mum – Medhin Mehari. I grew up as the youngest child of a family house consisting of 16 children. All 16 children grew up as siblings.
From the start, I was quite a gifted student academically. At the age of 12 I was given an opportunity to go to Ghana to attend an SOS international high school. The school brought together the top students from all SOS children’s villages across Africa. It was a difficult transition at first especially given I hardly spoke English. But with time I was able to excel there academically, finishing on top of my class, during my senior high school year.
How did you end up at Harvard?
I was one of the top students in my high school in Ghana. Given my academic achievements – I applied to number schools in the US. About eight universities gave me full scholarships to attend their school. I chose Harvard given its strong reputation and resources. At Harvard, I studied Applied Mathematics and graduated with honors in 2008.
What were the highlights of your experience at SOS?
My experience at SOS was really wonderful. I grew up among so many children. At that time – there were over 300 children at the SOS village in Mekelle. I was surrounded with so much love and energy. Summer times were always amazing – we would play soccer on the old day. I miss those days!
At SOS I was really lucky to have a wonderful mum. For me, SOS gave me an amazing family and for that I will be forever grateful.
What does your latest recognition mean to you?
It has been quite a month, quite a journey. When I was informed I would be a finalist for the SOS Herman Gmeiner Award 2020, I was extremely honored. My initial expectation was I would get a few hundred votes from friends and family. However, this has turned out to be so much bigger than me. Despite the internet shutdown back home in Ethiopia, over 145 thousand votes were cast for Team Gebre! I am grateful to all those who voted and supported me. It is a privilege to have earned your votes. I know these votes are not just for me personally but for my story and the story of many others who have gone through the SOS family and have become model citizens. I hope our stories continue to inspire the next generation.
I note this is a competition. How are you preparing for it?
At the beginning of this competition – I had three objectives. Winning the race was secondary. First, I wanted to share my story and journey in the hope this would inspire others. No matter what circumstances you are born into – with little help, luck, resilience, and others’ generosity – anything is possible. Second – I wanted to highlight the amazing work SOS Children’s village continues to do in helping the most underprivileged children across the globe. To date – SOS has raised over 87,000 children – that is an amazing fate. I couldn’t say enough about how proud I am to be a member of this great family.
Third – I wanted to share some of the work I have been involved with in trying to give back to my community to pay it forward. Through the Leul Girmay Memorial Fund, we have done a number of excellent projects. I will continue to lead and be actively involved in building resources to help the less privileged children have access to quality education. Having achieved all three of my objectives, it is evident that this past month has been successful.
You have recently become a father. What is fatherhood like?
Yes – my wife and I welcomed our second baby girl about a month ago. Our first son is about to turn two in two weeks. Fatherhood has been amazing and a blessing. It has given me a new perspective on life.