When Mawi Asgedom was 4 years old, he slept with the covers pulled tightly over his head, just as his mother had instructed all of her five children to do if they didn’t want to sleep with snakes.
Each night for three years he slept in a tent under the stars of Sudan, surrounded by the cries of babies and guns slapping against the legs of U.N. peace keepers guarding the refugee camp.
On Tuesday, Asgedom recounted to Lakeview Academy middle and high school students the events that followed his life as a refugee.
Asgedom told students how someone checked off his family’s name on a clipboard, and miraculously, the north Ethiopian family was able to flee the violent civil war that consumed their country from 1961 to 1991.
Chicago became his new home and later, Harvard University became his alma mater.
As a member of the class of 1999, Asgedom delivered the graduation speech at Harvard University to an audience of 30,000 people. Just two years later, he published his first book, "Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard." That same year following the Sept. 11 attacks, he appeared live on the Oprah Winfrey Show with other authors who detailed why they came to America.
Lakeview Academy has now joined the ranks of more than 1,000 schools across the United States at which Asgedom, 31, has spoken. At schools in the South Side of Chicago, Asgedom relates messages of hope and perseverance to his young audiences, many of whom are already pregnant and are on track to never grasping that high school diploma. But at schools such as Lakeview Academy, Asgedom delivers a different message.
"There are kids around the world right now who are experiencing a vastly different reality than we are right now sitting here in this air-conditioned gym," he said to students. "You could have easily been born into a different situation than you are now, and I’ll let you make of that what you will."
All of the middle and high school students at the private school were required to read Asgedom’s book over the summer, and they listened attentively as the author told stories that didn’t make it into his book.
He told students about what it was like being the funny kid in his class who tried to deflect names like "black donkey" that his first-grade peers hurled at him. He recalled not being invited to birthday parties because he couldn’t speak the language and sported shabby clothes. Finally, at the end of the school year, he was invited to Matt Poole’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s.
"I still remember that," he said. "Of all the things that was most difficult about coming to the United States, it was basic human kindness that was the hardest thing to get, and it seems like it shouldn’t be that difficult or expensive.
"Leaders lead with kindness. People follow leaders when they know they’ll lead with kindness," he said. "Develop your mind, your leadership skills and your academic skills. ... You’ve been given a gift. Make the most of it."
Sharon Schaefer, president of the Lakeview Parents’ Association, said the association asked Asgedom to speak to students as part of its "Discover Series," which aims to bring new experiences to those in and out of the Lakeview Academy community. Asgedom also hosted a open lecture at the school Tuesday evening.
"A lot of Lakeview kids might be privileged ... and we think it’s important for them to understand not everyone has had the privilege they have," Schaefer said.
Asgedom fielded questions from students after his speech. Only one temporarily stumped him. A boy asked Asgedom if he had ever done anything worse than steal a parking meter, which he confessed to in his book. Asgedom thought for a moment before saying, "Probably."
Lisa Coles, a sophomore at Lakeview Academy, said she was shocked by the stark contrast between her childhood and the childhood Asgedom related in his book.
"I think their life would be really hard," she said. "What I got from it is that you should be kind to people no matter what. You may have an effect on their life by how you treat them."
Asgedom, who was Illinois’ author of the year in 2001, said his new book, "The Third Harmony," is presently in the works.
A student also asked Asgedom if he still sleeps with his blankets tucked over his head.
"Old habits are hard to break," Asgedom said. "I still sleep with the covers over my head unless I’m somewhere where it’s insanely, insanely hot."