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Dreams to Destiny: Ethiopian boy becomes American Airman

Second Lt. Ashenafi Asega, 22nd Medical Support Squadron TRICARE operations and patient administration flight commander, center, visits his father and mother January 2013 in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia after spending eight years in the United States. Asega’s father was a logistics officer in the Ethiopian Army and was a major inspiration behind Asega’s desire to join the military. (Courtesy photo)

Second Lt. Ashenafi Asega, 22nd Medical Support Squadron TRICARE operations and patient administration flight commander, center, visits his father and mother January 2013 in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia after spending eight years in the United States. Asega’s father was a logistics officer in the Ethiopian Army and was a major inspiration behind Asega’s desire to join the military. (Courtesy photo)

Second Lt. Ashenafi Asega, 22nd Medical Support Squadron TRICARE operations and patient administration flight commander sits at his desk, Nov. 4, 2016, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. Asega left Ethiopia to come to the United States when he was 22 years old to pursue an education and later joined the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tara Fadenrecht)

Second Lt. Ashenafi Asega, 22nd Medical Support Squadron TRICARE operations and patient administration flight commander sits at his desk, Nov. 4, 2016, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. Asega left Ethiopia to come to the United States when he was 22 years old to pursue an education and later joined the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tara Fadenrecht)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- As a young boy living in Ethiopia, his mother often asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and his reply was always the same-- “I want to be a soldier.”

She responded with, “No, you should say you want to be a doctor.” His father, a logistics officer in the Ethiopian Army, jumped to his defense, “Hey, leave him alone, he wants to follow his dad.”

It was his father’s dedication and professionalism that impressed him. He admired how his father woke up early every morning to shave and iron his uniform.

“In Ethiopia life is hard,” said 2nd Lt. Ashenafi Asega, 22nd Medical Support Squadron TRICARE operations and patient administration flight commander. “It’s not easy for everybody, but [my father] made it easy for us. He sacrificed a lot.”

At the age of 22, Asega put his boyhood dreams of joining the military aside and decided to pursue an education in the United States. He arrived in Michigan in the middle of winter with only $110 in his pocket.

“I didn’t have the right clothing,” he said. “I didn’t have enough gloves or shoes. I mean, I had shoes, but not for winter. I wasn’t ready, but the winter wasn’t the challenging part.”

Asega originally made the decision to come to America under the impression that he would receive a full scholarship. Not long after he arrived, he found out he was only getting a partial scholarship and he would be required to pay $4,000 on his own, he said.

He didn’t have the money to stay enrolled in classes and was desperate for help, when he learned about an Ethiopian community in Georgia. For $79, he bought a one-way, Greyhound bus ticket and headed south.

While other travelers bought fast food and snacks at every pit stop on the long trip, Asega said he had little money to spend on such luxuries.

“Now, I cannot stand Honeybuns,” he said. “I was eating Honeybuns the whole way. Eighteen hours I was eating Honeybuns to save money.”

When he arrived, Asega said he could see Ethiopian restaurants and shops from the bus window and asked the driver to drop him off there.

“I see one guy cleaning the parking lot,” he said. “I get close to him and start speaking my language and was like, ‘are you Ethiopian?’”

Asega said the man was indeed part of the Ethiopian community and was generous enough to find him a place to stay and a job.

After a few months of saving money, Asega hopped on another Greyhound and traveled to Washington D.C. to change his status from student to legal resident and apply for a work permit. As soon as he was approved, he signed up for classes at Baltimore Community College and got a job working at a convenience store.

For two years, the Ethiopia native spent his days working and attending classes full time.

“I worked from 11 p.m to 7 a.m., and I would have my Nivea cream and my toothbrush in my bag,” he said. “I’d catch the bus to go to school, then go to the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face.”

Asega’s hard work earned him a scholarship to the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where he studied laboratory technology and took a job working in the lab. He went on to earn his master’s degree but still didn’t feel fulfilled.

“America gave me everything, my first car, my marriage, my daughter. I was like, ‘yeah I don’t mind challenging myself, what else can I do?’ My heart was always set on joining the military, so I started googling ways I could use my degrees,” he said.

His research landed him in the recruiter’s office, and before long, he was using his degree in health service management as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. Asega arrived to McConnell in June 2015 and said he loves helping customers, mentoring young Airmen in his flight and facing new challenges every day.

“Lt. Asega impacts the mission with his drive to ensure processes work effectively to coordinate the administrative side of patient care,” said Lt. Col. Lee Nenortas, 22nd MDSS commander. “His tenaciousness to seek issues to resolution is a stand-out quality.”

Although it was a tough journey, Asega said it was all worth it.

“I’m living the dream,” he said. “Honestly, it’s challenging sometimes, learning new things, a new culture. It’s not easy, but the support is there, the mentorship is there. I wouldn’t change anything I went through to get here.”