T-bird overcomes exile to become first Eritrean graduate

Even as a child, Fikre Gurja ’12 knew that knowledge was power. He grew up in a small village in the African country of Eritrea, where his parents were one of the few literate families. Villagers would come to Gurja’s home and ask his parents to read letters from their relatives and to help write responses. “People trusted and respected my family and respected the fact that they could read and write,” Gurja said. “That helped me understand the power of education.”

Gurja would walk several miles to school each day and sit on rocks or logs during lessons. He moved away from home at 14 to continue his education — but the challenges he faced never stifled his desire to learn. Now as the first Thunderbird graduate from Eritrea, he hopes to one day return to his home country and use his business knowledge to better his country. “A country needs more than politicians,” Gurja said. “It needs business.”

Politics are what brought Gurja to the United States. He was granted political asylum by the United States in 2008 after Eritrea’s president began imprisoning many of the country’s intellectuals. Gurja was studying in South Africa at the time, but immigration officers from Eritrea traveled to his school and tried to have him deported. So he left the country immediately. “I had to start from scratch,” he said. “I had nobody. I had an uncle in California, but in terms of professional connections, I did not have anybody.”

Gurja heard about Thunderbird at a recruiting event and started reading more about the school. “I could have gone to Stanford or Berkeley to visit,” Gurja said. “But I did not visit those schools, even though they were a couple of miles away from me. I came to Thunderbird to visit.” After he enrolled he quickly made connections as vice chairman of the Thunderbird Honor Council, president of the African Business Club, treasurer of the Private Equity and Venture Capital Club, treasurer of  the Thunder Dance Club and a campus ambassador.

“Eventually I will go back to Eritrea and use the networks I have created here at Thunderbird to help bring change to Eritrea,” he said. “I might be exiled now. I might be in the United States — and I love it here — but eventually I will go back.”

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