Meet Mawi Asgedom. Mawi was born on September 29, 1976, in Ethiopia at the onset of civil war within the country. Mawi’s father had to leave the country when Mawi was a toddler, leaving him behind with his brother, sister, and mother. Every day, Mawi’s mother cared for her small children amidst war and death. Every night, she looked at her three sleeping children and wondered if they would survive another day.
Mawi’s mother knew what she had to do. Early one morning, she woke up the children and packed what little food and belongings she had. Then she began walking. For days she walked through war-torn Ethiopia toward the border of Sudan, trying to shake off the dust of fear and hunger and death.
Mawi’s mother knew that she might not make it. A mother traveling on foot with three small children is an easy target. Yet she kept walking, determined to reach Sudan, where she hoped she could find her husband.
She did. Reunited, the family spent three years in a refugee camp in Sudan before receiving the news that they would be sponsored by a family in the United States. They were going to America! In 1983, Mawi and his family settled in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton. They were poor. They didn’t speak the language. Mawi started school with virtually no formal education.
Nevertheless, he learned English quickly, and his teachers found him to be a bright student. He joined the basketball team and ran track. Nearing his senior year of high school, Mawi learned that he had earned a huge scholarship to Harvard University.
In 1999, just sixteen years removed from a refugee camp in Sudan, Mawi Asgedom delivered the commencement address to an audience of 30,000 on the campus of Harvard University.
Mawi was transformed by the sacrifice of his mother. Today, he speaks to teenagers all over North America, inspiring them to make the right choices, to never give up. He writes books for educators and has dedicated his life to making a difference in the lives of others. He has told his story on Oprah Winfrey’s show and has written about it in his best-selling book, Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard.
I met Mawi about a month ago. He was speaking to educators in Toronto about his mother’s sacrifice. Why did his mother walk barefoot across Ethiopia? She wanted to save her children and give them a better life. He encouraged us to ask ourselves, “What is our why?” That is, why are we motivated to do what we do as educators?
When I listened to Mawi’s story about his mother, the furthest thing from my mind was answering the question of “why” as an educator. Instead, I was asking myself what my “why” was as a Christian. As I sat taking notes, I found myself writing down other words: Jesus, the cross, my sins. My mind kept wandering across the world to the cross where Jesus was crucified. Enduring pain, humiliation, and rejection, Jesus carried through on his promise to his children. Just before his death, Jesus asked a “why” question himself: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46, NLT).
What was Jesus’ why? To save all people from their sins. This included those who rejected him, spat on him, and laughed at him. This includes those who today do the same.
What about you? You know the sacrifice Jesus made so that you could live. All Jesus asks in return is that you give your life to him and tell others of his wonderful journey: from life on earth, to death, to resurrection, to ascension into heaven. What’s your why? I don’t know about you, but if an average day of mine was put under scrutiny, I don’t think I’d like the answer to the question “what is Ron’s why?” I know what I would have to leave behind: my desire for material things, my need to climb the ladder at work, my dedication in ensuring my kids’ success, and my hours spent obsessing over my favorite sports team.
In Philippians 3:8-11, Paul talks of a life in Christ:
“Everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!” (NLT)
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Ron DeBoer is a writer and educator living near Toronto.