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Even as a child, Fikre Gurja knew that knowledge was power. He grew up in a small village in the African country of Eritrea, where there was no electricity or running water, and where his parents were among the few who were literate.
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.”
The desire to be educated burned within Gurja, which is why his family let him attend school instead of working like most other children in the village. He would walk several miles to school each day and sit on rocks or logs in the classroom. He had to move away from home at 14 to continue his education — but the challenges he faced never stifled his desire to learn. Now, graduating from Thunderbird School of Global Management with an MBA, he hopes to one day return home and use his business knowledge to better his country.
“A country does not only need a politician, it needs business,” Gurja said. “There is this mindset in Eritrea of military isolation, the world against us, and the significance of politics and military is big. That’s not a permanent, sustainable solution. Exchanging ideas, resources, goods and services is the solution.”
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 had been chosen as part of an elite group of students to attend university in South Africa on a World Bank scholarship to study banking.
“The students were to learn the banking system in South Africa, practice for some time, then go back to Eritrea, where some people would teach and some would join the banking sector and restructure the financial system.”
Gurja said the president at that time came to South Africa and had a meeting with the Eritrean students. Some students raised concerns about the political situation in Eritrea, where there were two differing opinions about how the country should move forward after war.
“He did not expect that from his own people,” Gurja said. “His response was, ‘I don’t care what you do, you are nothing. If you go to the West, you can’t do anything but drive cabs.’”
It did not end there. Some students had their scholarships canceled, some were deported to Eritrea, and some were sent to military detention.
“My scholarship was cancelled and I was left without any support in this foreign country,” Gurja said. “But the school I was studying at supported me, and I started working as a teaching assistant and the next year I became a full lecturer.”
During that time, Gurja said immigration officers were sent to his school and the Eritrean government wanted 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.”
When Gurja saw a conference advertised for the Golden Key International Honour Society, which he had been a member of in South Africa, he decided to attend.
“I had never heard of Thunderbird at the time,” he said. “I had heard of the big schools like Harvard, Stanford, Columbia. All of them were there and I said, ‘school of global management’ sounds interesting because I have this passion, this interest in international relations, international business, and global affairs in general. Starting from that day, Thunderbird kept coming back to my mind.”
As Gurja started reading more about Thunderbird, he became fascinated by the people that study at Thunderbird, the culture and the bond between students.
“I could have gone to Stanford, to Berkley to visit,” Gurja said. “I did not visit those schools even though they were a couple of miles away from me. I came to Thunderbird to visit.”
As vice chair of the 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, Gurja has made many connections.
“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 because there are a lot of things I could do there.”