Girmay Guangul: Rich at Heart

Sept. 2, 2003

by Debbie Rosenfeld-Caparaz

BERKELEY, Calif. - Girmay Guangul grew up wealthy in Ethiopia.

Of course, wealth is somewhat relative. Guangul's family didn't have a fancy car, live in a big house or have a television.

In fact, they didn't even own a car, and the only bedroom in the house was reserved for his grandmother. Everyone else, including his younger sister, Amarech (pronounced Ah-MAR-etch), slept on beds in the living room.

But Girmay (full name pronounced GUR-my GWAN-gool), a redshirt junior on the California track and field and cross country teams, was blessed with something more important to someone raised in a third world country.

'When I say we were rich, I mean we were able to eat three times a day,' said Girmay. 'If you can have three meals a day, you're doing pretty well.'

Life is a lot different for Girmay and his sister since their father, Getachew (Geh-ta-CHOW), brought them to the United States in 1996 to pursue a better life. Getachew, who was a teacher in Ethiopia and now works for a computer company in Silicon Valley, sought salvation in America in 1991 after fleeing the Red Terror, a movement by Ethiopia's communist government to kill its educated people.

At the ages of 15 and 13, respectively, Girmay and Amarech left their grandparents' home in Addisheho in the Tigray region in the northern part of Ethiopia in search of the American dream. However, things weren't easy for them when they joined their father in Santa Clara.

Neither spoke English, although Girmay was a quick learner in his English as a second language classes at Santa Clara High School and was proficient in his new tongue within two years. He was fortunate to receive help from several Ethiopian students who spoke his native language of Tigrinia.

One of the individuals who assisted Girmay was on his high school's track and field team, which prompted Guangul to join the squad as a freshman. After growing up playing soccer on the streets of Tigray, Guangul was not immediately hooked on track despite quick success.

Guangul won the Central Coast Section cross country title as a senior, earning all-league and all-CCS recognition. Many colleges coveted Guangul's talents, but Cal easily triumphed over the University of Portland.

'Cal was close to my family in San Jose (current hometown) and was diverse,' he said. 'The education was the most important thing since my dad is big on education. There's a large Ethiopian population in the East Bay, and after moving from Ethiopia, I didn't want to move again.'

Another card in Cal's favor was that Bolota Asmerom, who was born in Eritrea, just north of Ethiopia, was a senior on the Golden Bears' track and cross country teams.Other runners of East African decent have since followed Asmerom and Guangul to Cal. The 2003-04 Cal roster also features sophomores Giliat Ghebray, whose family hails from Eritrea, and Abadir Barre, who was partly raised in Somalia.

'Cal has a natural advantage,' said Tony Sandoval, the Bears' head men's and women's cross country coach. 'You drive up and down Telegraph Avenue, and there are about five Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants between campus and McArthur Boulevard. I don't know if you can say that about any other college campus across the United States.'

Sandoval has coached other runners of East African descent at Cal and as the women's head coach at the University of New Mexico. In the 1990s, Tesfaye Beyene from Ethiopia and Bolota's brother, Yonathan, competed for Sandoval in Berkeley.

'I'm comfortable understanding and relating to the East African situation,' said Sandoval, who has coached at Cal for 21 years and previously worked on a Ph.D. in sports psychology at New Mexico. 'People from other countries and their belief systems have always interested me.'

Guangul is among a select group of Cal athletes who have qualified for both the NCAA Cross Country Championships and the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. As a freshman in 2000, he capped a successful season with a trip to the NCAA cross country meet in Iowa.

Leg and ankle injuries plagued Guangul over the next couple of years, and it wasn't until the 2003 track and field season that he began to live up to his potential. In his first-ever collegiate race at 10,000 meters, Guangul broke Rich McCann's 21-year-old school record (29:24.3), finishing with a time of 29:17.78 at the Stanford Invitational.

That school-record mark earned Guangul a spot at the 2003 NCAA championships in Sacramento in the 10,000 meters, but a freak toe injury several days before nationals caused him not to finish the race.

After redshirting the 2002 cross country season, Guangul enters this fall as a senior academically, but with two seasons of hopefully injury-free eligibility remaining.

'I have high goals,' said Guangul. 'The injuries have slowed me down, but I'm getting back to where I want to be. I wanted to be an All-American in track and cross country as a sophomore. Because of the injuries, that didn't happen. Hopefully, it will this year.'

In the classroom, Guangul also has high expectations. The integrative biology major aspires to become a doctor and return to Ethiopia to provide much-needed medical aid. While it will be awhile before Guangul fulfills his medical dreams, he's already helping his native country as president of the Bay Area group Tyai, which fundraises to send money, food and books back to Tigray.

Before moving to the United States, Guangul never desired to be a doctor because school wasn't geared towards his future plans.

'School's main goal (in Ethiopia) was to teach us how to read and write,' said Guangul, who missed five years of classes in his country due to a civil war. 'It wasn't about trying to succeed in college or anything. You hoped that some day you'd go to college, but the chances were slim.'

Education in the United States is different from what Guangul experienced in Ethiopia, where one textbook was assigned to five children, and there wasn't access to novels, libraries or the Internet. Guangul often did his homework by candlelight as the city's generator provided power for only about four hours a day.

'I compare my background with other Cal students,' said Guangul. 'It's not even close. I'm proud of what I've accomplished.'

Life is clearly better for Guangul in America and will gain even more meaning in the near future when he becomes a U.S. citizen. Yet despite his recent accomplishments, he often misses his homeland.

'When you're in Ethiopia, there's no worries,' said Guangul. 'Everyone is friendly and living for today. They don't worry about tomorrow. They're just happy with what they have. Here, everyone has plans and schedules to follow. There, they're poor, but they're happy. Here, everyone is trying to get ahead and get that extra degree.'

No matter what the United States has to offer, Guangul will never forget that it doesn't take much to feel rich.

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