The author, Bezawit Abebe, second from left with her parents and sister in Ethiopia. Used with permission of the author.

From Small Town Ethiopia to Big City Law Student

How parents' courage inspired a life of service for one Ethiopian Jew

My mother was just 16, when I was born. Even in the United States, that often means the end of education and opportunity and all the more so for girls in rural Ethiopia, where my parents lived and I was born. But my parents have never been limited by gender or social expectations. Their model of sacrifice and persistence set me on a path from the tiny town of Yabello with its one small school to my current life as a doctoral student in law in cosmopolitan San Francisco.

My parents are the most determined people I know. Growing up in northern Ethiopia, my father was a gifted student who was promoted academically and finished college at a young age before he was sent south to Yabello to teach school. My mother, too, showed promise from a young age. Unlike most Ethiopian parents, her parents wanted their daughter not to stay home and raise children but to study and have a career. This was their main objection when the young couple decided to wed.

Despite having stopped her studies because of my birth, my mother sat for the national college entrance exams and passed with flying colors. In the end, she went to study in Addis Ababa and I stayed with my father and grandparents.

A few years later, the government wanted my father to use his position of influence at the school to help recruit child soldiers. After refusing, he had to leave Yebello and chose to take me with him when he went to Hawassa to teach college. When she completed her studies in the capital my mother joined us in Hawassa where they live until this day.

Each of my parents taught me important lessons that make it possible for me to be on my own path today.

My dad is a person who advocates for justice, even when it costs him a lot. Not only was he forced to flee from Yabello but he was jailed for months because he stood for what he believed in. In the early 1990s, he was one of the earliest members of The Ethiopian Human Rights Council, at a time when membership often meant prison and torture.  

In contrast to the gender norms with which he grew up, he did not expect me to comply with the expectations of our traditional society. He never told me  ’girls don’t do that’ or you are supposed to act in a certain way simply because this is what society requires from a woman. Instead, he showed me the value of my intelligence. Our education -mine and my sisters- was so important to my father that he invested more than half of his salary so we were able to attend to a private elementary and high school. Once I asked him if it was fair to him to send me to such an expensive school, and he replied that my education was his best investment and the only thing he wanted to pass to me. It is a gift that I will appreciate for the rest of my life.

My mom, who is an independent, outspoken, strong and intelligent woman, didn’t give in to a traditional demanding chauvinist surrounding. She is a tremendous inspiration on my legal journey. Even though she had me when she was too young, she didn’t give up her dreams or professional goals. Regardless of the challenges of access to education and the societal pressure to be a stay-at-home mom, she decided to relocate and invest in her own education. Although a radical choice, it allowed her economic independence and the ability to follow up on my education. Even in the Western world, where women are more supported in their educational and professional careers, many struggle to fully emancipate and to detach from gendered traditions.

I look up to my mom on many levels. She was not only a teacher and a parent, she also brought her younger siblings to Hawassa, for better access to education. Despite the social challenges in Ethiopia, my mother continued to work and study and achieved her master’s degree with outstanding honors.

This summer I moved across the world, to a city where I knew no one, to study law at the highest level. It is not a simple thing to do. But the examples my parents set prepared me well. My dad’s sense of justice and my mom’s strength and commitment to education inspired me to invest in education and justice. Like him, I am professionally committed to children’s education and women’s rights and empowerment, having worked for the rights of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Like my mother, I am committed to my own dreams of achieving the highest levels of education so that I can give back to my community and women and children in poverty all over the world. And I hope their model will help me inspire and help others.

Bezawit Abebe in San Francisco, California


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