Eritrean refugee in Utah graduates high school

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MIDVALE, Utah (AP) — Abel Hagos walks the halls of Hillcrest High School with an ease that belies his remarkable life journey.

On June 5 He graduated from high school, one of about 500 seniors in Hillcrest's Class of 2019.

He readily admits that he's nervous about what comes next, which in his case is enrolling in college. In that respect, he's not all that different from his classmates. He also likes to wear jeans and hoodies, eat fast food and play soccer.

But unlike his fellow seniors, Hagos' road to graduation started 8,000 miles away in Eritrea, a small, repressive and impoverished country of the Horn of Africa.

Even as a 12-year-old, Hagos recognized the limits of his circumstances. His father was killed when he was a baby. His mother did her best to raise him and his older sister, who has been ill since she was 3 years old.

To help his family, Hagos decided to leave Eritrea to attempt to resettle in Europe, Australia, Canada or the United States. Staying with his family would mean he would be pressed into military service, which is mandatory for young Eritrean men and women and often open-ended.

"It's forever," Hagos explained.

Many young Eritreans elect to leave their country, which the BBC describes as a "repressive one-party state and a highly militarized society." In recent years, more people fled to Europe from this secretive nation of about 4 million than any African country, according to press reports.

Approximately 500 Eritreans have resettled in Utah, according to Utah's Refugee Services Office in the Department of Workforce Services.

Few Eritrean youths know how to navigate a legal immigration process, nor can they pay for it. They embark on journeys elsewhere unsure how they will pay their way, where they will end up or whether they will die trying.

For Hagos, it was unclear if he would even survive the first leg of his travels. Getting to Ethiopia would require crossing a crocodile-infested river.

Hagos and three friends asked a shepherd the best place to cross the river.

"He said to find the smallest crossing because the crocodiles would catch us if we had to swim too far," Hagos wrote in a school assignment.

The boys stood at the river's edge and Hagos' friend, Robel, cried because he was afraid.

"We were all afraid. We told Robel he could go back, that he did not need to cross," Hagos wrote. Eventually, Robel decided join his friends.

Hagos and David got in the water and Robel and Aman followed them.

"It was so hard to get in the water. We walked until the water was up to our necks. Then we started to swim," Hagos wrote.

Hagos said the boys used only their arms to paddle across the river because kicking their legs would likely attract crocodiles.

"No crocodiles came. When I reached the shore, I laid down in the grass. My chest was burning because I was so tired and so scared," he wrote.

He and David looked for Aman and Robel.

"A crocodile was following Robel. We threw rocks to stop the crocodile and Robel made it to the shore. Robel had nightmares about crocodiles for weeks," he wrote.

Upon reaching a small refugee camp in Ethiopia, Hagos had no immigration papers so he remained in the camp until he was moved into a larger camp.

He lived in refugee camps for five years before he was resettled in the United States by a humanitarian organization.

His first home was Tooele, where he lived with a foster family and attended Tooele High School. He has since moved to Midvale, where he lives with another family and enrolled in Hillcrest High.

When he's not at school, Hagos works 28 hours a week for Walmart stocking shelves. He routinely sends $100 to $200 a month home to his family.

While he knows he needs more education to qualify for better-paying jobs in the future, he works hard to help support his sister and his mother. His mom frequently sacrificed for him and his sister, making sure they had enough to eat while she went hungry. She made sure they had clothes and shoes before buying anything for herself.

"I know sometimes she cooks for me but there's not enough like for me, my sister and her," he said.

"When I ask her, 'Oh do you have food?' she would say 'No I don't need it.' Because she's a mother, that's why. She gives me everything I have. That's why I change her life and her future."

Hagos will attend Salt Lake Community College under its Promise program, which covers the costs of tuition and general student fees where federal financial aid falls short. The program is for low-income students who take full academic loads.

At a recent Hillcrest award ceremony, Hagos was presented $1,500 to cover the costs of books and a laptop computer, courtesy of America First Credit Union's Pay it Forward initiative.

"I think it's important to know that Abel did four years of high school in 2 ½ years and will graduate on time and he's doing 28 credits not 24," said Kim Walters, Hagos' high school counselor.

Before starting college, Hagos will continue to take classes to improve his command of English. His primary language is Tigrinya, a Semitic language spoken by people of Eritrea and Ethiopia.

In less than three years, he learned a great deal of English from interacting with classmates but also from watching Ellen DeGeneres on television.

"Ellen! I love her games," he said.

Adjusting to American life has been challenging at times but he said he particularly cherishes his "freedom" and "safety."

"I still miss her (his mother) but I don't want to go back to my country. It's not safety," he said.

As for the future, Hagos said his immediate goal is to sharpen his English skills and then study hard in college. His favorite subject in high school was math.

"I know that school is good for me and (I need) to learn like everything" because his future depends on it, he said.

Five years from now, Hagos said he'd "like to get married and have a child."

For the time being, Hagos is enjoying his sense of accomplishment and he is excited about the opportunities ahead that are literally a world apart from the life he left.

"When I was 14 or so, it was like so hard a life in Ethiopia. Right now, I have everything. Everything."

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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