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A Refugee’s Journey to the Tennessee Air National Guard

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jordan Harwood,
  • 118th Wing, Public Affairs, Tennessee Air National Guard

Senior Airman John Gebremariam, a services specialist with the 118th Force Support Squadron, is living a life he couldn’t imagine as a young man: going to school to become an aviation mechanic and serving in the Air National Guard.

Born in Eritrea, he fled as a refugee to neighboring Ethiopia at a young age. Gebremariam and his family stayed in an overcrowded refugee camp for years. The constant struggle to access even necessities was difficult. Just finding water during the dry season was a challenge.

“We had plenty of water from the river and drilled wells during the rainy season,” said Gebremariam. “But during the summer, we would have to get up at 3 a.m., grab our water bucket, and stand in line for several hours just for a little water. If the river had water, we could go down there and take a shower, but sometimes it would dry up.”

The difficulties didn’t end there. Gebremariam and his family were dependent on humanitarian aid to survive. Since they had little documentation, they were not allowed to work. If they needed something the humanitarian agencies couldn’t provide, they simply couldn’t get it.

After four years in the camp, an opportunity presented itself. A nongovernment organization offered Gebremariam and his family the option to move to the United States. They were excited to leave the refugee camp and jumped at the opportunity. However, coming to the United States was a big culture shock.

Their U.S. resettlement agency only provided six months of aid, meaning Gebremariam and his family had to quickly learn English, get jobs, and become self-sufficient. At 16 years old, Gebremariam now had to deal with the struggles of being a new immigrant.

“It was difficult coming from Ethiopia and then to a high school in Las Vegas, Nevada,” said Gebremariam. “You know how kids can be. Sometimes they pick on you.”

Gebremariam was able to overcome several challenges, graduate high school and begin college in Iowa. With dreams of becoming an aircraft mechanic, he looked into joining the Tennessee Air National Guard. The aviation mechanic school he wanted to attend was in Nashville. Joining the Tennessee ANG would allow him to serve his new country and grant him a path to U.S. citizenship, all while still attending school. It was the perfect fit for him.

“My family was happy for me and proud that I joined,” said Gebremariam. “America has given so much to me. I wanted to give back.”

April 22 marked another big day in Gebremariam’s journey. He raised his right hand again, not to enlist but to become an American citizen.

“It’s a great feeling to be a citizen now. It was a really good day,” said Gebremariam.