A place to belong

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Russ Scalf
  • 308th Air Expeditionary Wing
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Staff Sgt. Ruta Shibeshi is an Airman in the U.S. Air Force, and what sounds like a job title to most, to Shibeshi has meant family, friends and a place to belong.

In July 1986, a more than decade-long civil war continued to rage in Ethiopia. By its conclusion in 1991, the fighting would claim upward of 1.4 million lives. In addition to those lost to the violence, it’s been estimated that nearly an additional 7 million perished in severe droughts and famine that gripped the region during the 1980s.

It was in the midst of this strife that Shibeshi was born in Eritrea, East Africa. She didn’t know her father; he was a soldier who was fighting in the war. When she was 3 years old her mother, Misgana, joined the hundreds of thousands of East Africans who were fleeing the fighting and seeking asylum in neighboring Sudan.

“We left for fear that we might become casualties of the war,” Shibeshi said. “My mother and I traveled during the night and slept during the days. It was extremely dangerous crossing the border from Eritrea. Once we reached Sudan, we joined a refugee camp with fellow Africans who also escaped the war. We lived in Sudan as residents of the camp for almost five years. While we were there, my mother gave birth to my younger sister.”

Joining the family on their journey was an uncle, her mother’s brother, Okbazgi. After spending half a decade as residents of the camp, he helped the family secure passage to the U.S. through a sponsorship program. Although they had fled Eritrea, the group did not manage to escape the war.

“I remember leaving,” Shibeshi said. “It was night time, they got us on this helicopter and they told us we could only take a certain amount of stuff. I remember my uncle telling us to ‘Go, here’s your sponsorship paperwork, keep it close to you.’ He was the one who got us out. He was supposed to go with us, but he stayed back so it wouldn’t look so suspicious. He gave his life. I remember my mom looking at me saying ‘You have to just go.’ He said ‘I’ll be there, just listen to your mother, stay close and take care of your sister.’ They took him back to Eritrea and he was drafted. We never saw him again.”

In 1993, Shibeshi, her mother, stepfather and sister immigrated to Seattle. The group stayed with her step father’s family while adjusting to their new surroundings. Ruta was enrolled in an English second language course designed to help prepare her and others in the sponsorship program with their transition to America. When she finally began grade school, she found herself isolated. Many of the friends she had made in the transition began moving away. Their families migrated elsewhere looking for work.

“A lot of the Africans were very close,” Shibeshi said. “Their families migrated together from Africa and then to America and so they were close. All the girls and boys, we all grew up together.”

Despite this closeness, Shibeshi struggled to find acceptance with her peers throughout her adolescence and school.

“I would go home I was torn by my culture, but I wanted to be Americanized,” she continued. “The only way I could adapt was to watch MTV and things like that. How did they dress, what did they talk about? I couldn’t talk to my mother and my cousins were in it with me. TV and entertainment was my biggest outlet. I would take whatever my mom gave me and change it so I wouldn’t be as bullied, talked about or I wouldn’t stick out.”

Her struggles eventually led to rebellious behavior. As she progressed to high school her struggle began to impact her education.

“I didn’t realize how fortunate I was,” Shibeshi said. “I was just so caught up with everything else. My freshman year was pretty much down the drain, I had like a 1.2 grade point average.”

On the verge of not being able to graduate, Shibeshi said she knew it was time to start taking her academics and opportunities seriously. So she took night courses to make up for ones she failed. She would eventually go on to graduate with a 4.0 GPA.

Her newfound dedication to academics enabled Shibeshi to not only graduate, but move on to college as well to pursue a career in health care.

In 2008, Shibeshi was still not satisfied with where her life was. She visited a local Army recruiter to see what kinds of options were available to her and eventually decided to join the Air Force Reserve and is currently stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.

“I joined the Air Force in May 2009,” she said. “The military has taught me how to be more confident, physically and mentally stronger, resilient, disciplined and how to be an effective (NCO). Obtaining my bachelor’s degree while serving in today’s military is something that further gave me purpose, direction and has contributed to my career.”

Shibeshi is now serving on her second deployment. She credits her service with helping pave a clear path for her in life. It provided her with the resources that have allowed her to find a sense of security and a diverse community to which to belong.

“Moving to America was a rough transition for my family and me,” Shibeshi said. “We went from living in poverty to project low-income housing, to apartment complexes. But with resiliency, hard work and dedication of my mother and I, we now own our own home. There were several times where I could have died attempting to get to this point I am in my life, but with all that I have been through it has made me who I am today. I do not take anything for granted. I am a product of my past but knowledgeable enough to not be a prisoner of it. I’ve always wanted to be successful because my family deserves it, especially my mother. Through the grace of God, I’m doing just that.”