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LifeLong Medical Care Employee Profile

Blog Contribution: Elaine Herscher, Senior Editor, LifeLong Medical Care

The images we see of Ukrainians fleeing for their lives as Russia wages war on their country have deep personal meaning for LifeLong Medical Care’s Melkamu Yirgu.

Melkamu and his daughter

A survivor of three years in refugee camps in East Africa, Melkamu suffered unbearably harsh conditions and eventually came to America — the land he presumed was “like a heaven” — only to become homeless here.

“When I see this exodus now, people running away and crossing the border, that’s how I crossed the border, just running for my life,” says Melkamu who is Program Manager for Homeless Services at LifeLong. “I don’t know if it makes any sense, but you know there is something in me that just triggers some trauma when I see people fleeing their home involuntarily.”

Federally Qualified Health Centers often collaborate with resettlement agencies to serve refugee communities, and it is to a health center’s advantage to be able to hire former refugees like Melkamu who are representative of the communities we serve.

Everything you have, your personal property, will be snatched from you – Melkamu

It is no wonder that watching the horror unfold in Ukraine touches off strong emotions for Melkamu. His story is a harrowing one. Toward the end of the 1980s the military overthrew the government in his native Ethiopia, and like many young people, he joined the opposition. When young protestors began getting jailed and killed, he fled south across the border to Kenya. A trip that would normally take eight hours took him 30 days. He was jailed once for two weeks and had to bribe his way out. He surrendered to the Kenyan government, which took all his meager belongings.

“Everything you have, your personal property, will be snatched from you,” he says. “So when I get to the refugee camp, the only thing I have is the shoes on my feet and my pants, my jacket. I don’t even have a dime in my pocket to eat.”

Melkamu stayed in a refugee camp in Kenya for a year, where he met a woman from his country with whom he had a baby daughter. Conditions got worse when the family was transferred to a refugee camp that bordered Somalia, where they suffered 120-degree desert heat and were on constant alert for rapists and bandits, who tried to steal whatever they had.

“Life is so hard. You have to stand in line two or three days to get beans and rice. If you have to sleep, I have to sit and watch you. So we have to sleep in shifts. A lot of young people I know died from getting bitten by scorpions or snakes.”

Melkamu began working as a translator for the Red Cross and eventually negotiated asylum for his family in the U.S. In Oakland, their sponsorship fell apart and the family ended up sleeping in a dank church in Berkeley with a leaky roof. Finally entering transitional housing, Melkamu began doing odd jobs, then working for BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency) and at a homeless shelter in Berkeley.

His partner returned permanently to Ethiopia, and Melkamu became a single parent to their young daughter. He went to community college and got a counseling certificate, then a B.A. in psychology and started working as a case manager and housing advocate. At one point he held down three jobs, getting three hours of sleep a night.

Four years ago, Melkamu came to work for LifeLong’s East Bay Community Recovery Project (EBCRP), helping to provide services for people transitioning from the criminal justice system. His daughter Gesita, born in the refugee camp, is 30 years old now and a Ph.D. candidate at Mills College, and his son Thomas, 21, attends Grand Canyon University in Arizona. Today at EBCRP he is a program manager and outreach coordinator for homeless services.

Despite, or perhaps because of, everything he went through, Melkamu describes himself as “a hopeful guy.”

“I encourage my hopes, rather than my fears,” he says, adding that his work with homeless people is his calling.

“I take this as the reason why I got brought to this country. I went to accounting school back home, and I thought I would be continuing my education and be working at a firm somewhere,” he says. “But my heart is here.”

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