By Libby Smith
DENVER (CBS4) – Shambel Zeru reached a huge milestone this spring. He graduated high school. On June, 8 2017, he participated in the Celebration of Educational Excellence ceremony, where teens living in foster care celebrate their graduations.
“I feel happy and I’m so excited that I finished high school,” Zeru told CBS4.
The walk across the stage was the latest leg in a journey that started more than 8,000 miles away. When Zeru was 12-years-old, he fled his home in Eritrea, Africa.
“People are just farming. There is no development, no technology,” Zeru said of his home country.
He was facing pervasive poverty, a one-party government accused of humanitarian abuses, and a president who requires conscription from all men.
“At the age of 16, you go to the place where they train you to be a soldier,” Zeru explained.
The United Nations estimates that 5,000 young people leave Eritrea every month; up to 400,000 Eritreans have fled in recent years. Zeru ended up in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
“We had food, but I don’t think it was completely clean,” he said. “We had a lack of water, and it wasn’t clean.”
He describes the camp as both good and bad. He said he was young when he was there, and not in full control of his destiny. He did attend church and school while in the camp. He excelled at biology and showed CBS4 a biology textbook he used in the camp.
“I want to pursue my education. I want to go to college. I had that mentality, even when I was in the camp,” he explained.
Zeru went through a thorough vetting process; and, he was chosen to come to Colorado. He’s lived in the foster care system ever since. He found his community in an Eritrean church in Denver. He serves as deacon, now. But he also struggled with English as a second language, and with some misconceptions he had about the U.S.
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“The adults, they told us, ‘America is somehow Heaven. It’s very nice there. You get whatever you want to get. Once you arrive there, everyone is nice to you. They will give you anything you ask, just free,’” Zeru explained. “Here in America you don’t get whatever you want to get. You earn it. You work for it, and you get based on your effort.”
With time, he’s embraced the American ethic. He’s accepted every opportunity he’s been given, and now he thrives.
“I am the first person in my whole generation, especially from my village, that I am going to college,” he said.
Zeru is prepared to go to University of Colorado Denver. He’ll study biology, chemistry, and pre-calculus. The next leg of his journey to get an education.
“I will go back to where I was and remember how I felt when I was in the camp. How I had the opportunity to pursue my dreams,” Zeru said of how he would feel walking across the stage. “But now that I see myself getting diploma and finished high school with a lot of people. I think I will feel like I have a great future. I will be thankful for the people who supported me and also, I will look forward to doing other things in the future.”
The following are helpful resources for people who are aging out of foster care and for the people who care for them.
Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Public Awareness Campaign
Child Abuse & Neglect Hotline
Learn more about foster care and adoption in Colorado.
United Way Bridging the Gap
helping teens live on their own after foster care
Dream Makers Project
making dreams come true for former foster care youth
life skills program provided through human services dept. of each county
CBS4 Wednesday’s Child Section
The Adoption Exchange
promoting adoption for foster care youth
Adoption Exchange’s Birthday Wishes Program
Office of the Lt. Governor
SOAR! Youth & Adult Choir
soaryouthandadultchoir.org 720-218-1433 (Youth)
Libby Smith is a Special Projects Producer at CBS4. If you have a story you’d like to tell CBS4 about, call 303-863-TIPS (8477) or visit the News Tips section.