By Judith Van Dongen

With one hand clutching a grenade, Faye Mezengie dashed across the border of his war-torn home country of Eritrea into Sudan. It was a dangerous undertaking, and the young soldier hadn’t known for sure whether he would make it. But he had decided that he’d rather die trying than be forced back into the senseless and deadly border conflict with Ethiopia.

Mezengie made it, and he has come far since then. Last Friday at the WSU Spokane Commencement ceremony he received his bachelor of science in nursing degree and served as the student speaker, sharing his story with fellow graduates and their families.

When Mezengie was about 16 years old, his father suddenly passed away. Devastated and depressed, he decided to join the military, who were recruiting in his hometown. He lied about his age and soon found himself on his way to a training camp hundreds of miles from home.

After arriving there, Mezengie realized he wasn’t ready to be a soldier. The hunger, sleep deprivation, and rigorous military training were wearing on him, both physically and emotionally. He told army leaders that he had lied about his age and asked to go home.

“They said, ‘No—once you get in, there is no way back,'” Mezengie said.

He went through nine months of intensive military training, endured a month-long foot march through the entire country, and spent another year training new recruits. Then, in 1998, the Eritrean-Ethiopian War broke out and Mezengie was put on the frontline. Though far outnumbered by the enemy, Eritrean soldiers fought with determination. Many lives were lost, including those of some of Mezengie’s closest friends. After he completed a paramedic course with top marks, he was moved behind the frontline, where he led 12 other paramedics in a role that suited him well: healing.

Freedom through poetry

In 2001, a UN peacekeeping mission moved in, and both armies temporarily laid down their weapons. The Eritrean Army held a poetry contest for soldiers, and Mezengie wrote a poem about the emotional turmoil he had experienced. He compared his life to a rag he’d seen being blown around by the wind, getting caught and ripped on the thorny trees before continuing its journey, leaving behind pieces of itself on the trees. The poem included the names of fellow soldiers whose lives had been lost. He read the poem at a large celebration attended by thousands of soldiers.

“All the soldiers were crying, the boss, everybody,” Mezengie said.

He won the contest and as a reward got three weeks off to visit his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in four years. Once home he made his plans to flee to Sudan and make a better life for himself.

From Sudan, Mezengie went to Sweden, where he lived with family and continued his education. Next, he decided he would go to the United States to get a medical degree. When he found out his Swedish AS degree didn’t transfer, he decided on nursing instead. Family in the Seattle area took him in, and Mezengie spent two years at North Seattle Community College getting his prerequisites in place while learning English, a language he did not speak prior to arriving in the U.S.

At home at WSU

When he arrived at the WSU College of Nursing two years ago, it immediately felt like home to him. Although he was still struggling with his English and found his first semester to be especially challenging, he found himself surrounded by help.

“Everybody was like, ‘You’re here, and you’re going to be a nurse,'” said Mezengie. “They were dragging my hands forward, with the students behind me…because of the students and the instructors, I made it through.”

In his free time, Mezengie became an advocate for diversity, driven by a desire to have people with different backgrounds open up, tell others about who they are, and be accepted. He was a leader in the Student Diversity Club and occasionally speaks in front of groups about his background and journey.

Now that he has graduated, Mezengie is moving back to the Seattle area, where he plans to work as a nurse for a few years. After that, he hopes to join the Red Cross as a volunteer to help out on humanitarian missions around the world.

“I would like to do that for a couple of years so I can feel that I’ve done something for the soldiers that I lost.”