The scars she bears from her horrific childhood in Ethiopia in the 1970s do not show visibly. Instead, those who encounter her see only her poised, grace-filled presence.
The losses — her biological parents at age five from war; her missionary parents from political tumult; her faith in God temporarily; her siblings; and eventually her innocence as she was raped after fleeing a Kenyan refugee camp at night, pregnant and vulnerable — go deep, reemerging only as haunting reminders.
Shegitu was a teenager when her world fell apart the second time.
“At harvest time, the government came and took everything from the farmers. People lost their business, homes, cars, everything,” she says. “With socialism, you are promised everything will be equal, but what we got was completely the opposite.”
She didn’t even have time to grab her younger brothers; she ran with whomever was near.
And in a country which boasts being the first Christian nation, God vanished, too.
Now, she holds tightly to her faith, along with her two grown children — a son and daughter — and a love for the country that welcomed her and gave her hope.
But Shegitu says she worries that what she nearly gave her life to flee might have followed her to America — that our country’s precious freedoms are at risk of erosion.
She still recalls the shock of arriving in Fargo in November 1989, with only a suitcase and her young son, age 3, facing an unfamiliar world of frozen white.
Warning a friend back in Kenya about coming to such a place, she’d written, “It’s not just the people that are white but the land, too!”
But in time, the green, fruitful spring came — a metaphor for her earlier spiritual reawakening.
While a refugee-in-waiting, Shegitu was reintroduced to God by friends who’d been attending church services.
Noticing something different on the faces of those frequenting the chapel, one day, when the others left for worship, she became determined to learn their secret. Finding a quiet space, she knelt and poured out to God everything she’d been through.
“I said, ‘God, okay, those are the reasons I’m so bitter and angry, but I promise if you take this pain off my heart and shoulders, I will serve you the rest of my life, and I’m willing to forgive my wrongdoers, and myself,” she says.
The next day, she says, she noticed a more brilliant sun and color hues she hadn’t seen before.
“The God of the universe came into that room and heard the little voice of a 17-year-old,” she says, tears forming. “I dusted off the dust, wiped away my tears, and from that moment on, I’ve never had pity for myself.”
She knew God had a purpose for her life, and she became determined to spread joy. “I knew I had an anchor where I could go to get my strength back,” she says.
After a year in Fargo, Shegitu moved to the Twin Cities, where she opened a restaurant, raised her children and became a U.S. citizen.
She also began writing about her life experiences. Her latest book, “Appeal to Heaven for a Great Nation,” includes excerpts from our country’s founding documents, which she finds greatly inspiring.
“I believe that one of the reasons I’ve survived such horrible things is to remind people to not go in the same path,” she says. “I want to share my story to save our country from a lie.”
Claiming no political affiliation and friends from every persuasion, Shegitu says she’s not ashamed to share that she voted for the presidential candidate she sees as most hopeful. “I voted for Mr. Trump, and I’m very proud of it.”
Her son, Menase Ghebremedhin, 29, used to mock his mother’s beliefs in the past, he says, but now, as an adult, he agrees with her on faith and politics.
“She’s the only reason I’m still here,” he says, noting that before his conversion, he was living a “reckless, crazy college lifestyle.”
“She prayed a lot for me, and later, the Lord showed me that it was her prayers that led me to him,” he says.
Her goodness has always been evident, he says, recalling as a little boy watching her working several jobs and subsisting on little sleep.
“One thing that has always stood out is her character, and the fact that she really lived out her convictions,” he says. “She wanted to live like Daniel or Joseph, to be someone with discipline who could leave a testimony.”
Menase says in his work travels, he’s seen goodness in the hard-working folks he meets. “God loves this country. It has done so many good things for people of the world,” he says.
These days, Shegitu makes her home in Fergus Falls, where she met her friend Deb Anderson.
“She’s very bright,” Deb says of Shegitu. “She’s also beautiful, both inside and out, and she doesn’t have a hypocritical bone in her body.”
Shegitu is a praying woman, and it shows. “You feel that calmness about her,” Deb says. “She’s always asking what she should be doing when she sees times of danger.”
Among her pursuits, Shegitu founded a non-profit ministry, Women at the Well International, through which she helps build schools in refugee camps in Ethiopia, providing life skills and cultural assistance to refugees.
Concerning the message she wishes to spread here and now, Shegitu says the current political divide isn’t about color.
“It’s a heart issue,” she says. “That’s why we need God in our lives…because when God comes into our hearts, the joy of respecting other human beings comes with it.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Nov. 24, 2016.]