He would get up when the sun rose in his small village in southern Ethiopia. There were no clocks and no watches and he didn’t know how to tell time anyway, but he said he knew that if he didn’t run quickly to get to school on time, he would be beaten.
Weyessa “Ace” McAlister was 8 years old. He had to run six miles each way.
There were 100 children in his class. He ran to school for about three years, until the day his grandfather told him that he and his younger sister would have to go to an orphanage in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. There were 11 children living in his grandparents’ house at the time. Weyessa’s father had died when he was 3. His parents had divorced, he said, and he had no contact with his mother.
Around the same time, in western Massachusetts, a couple with four children was raising a small boy, an orphan from Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa. While there were already children in the household, Steve McAlister said he and his wife thought it would be beneficial to have siblings with similar ethnic backgrounds.
“That’s how it began,” he said.
Some friends had adopted children from Ethiopia, so the McAlisters traveled there and found Weyessa and his sister, Masho, in the orphanage. The McAlisters, Steve and Rosemary, adopted both of them.
For Weyessa, everything was new and strange. When he first went to the city in Ethiopia, he saw his first car and his first television set. When he came to the U.S., he took his first airplane ride. It was terrifying. He got carsick when he had to ride in a car. He didn’t speak English. He had no idea where Great Barrington, Mass., was, the town where he would live.
Sports, though, they were the same. He loved soccer. He had never run with shoes, or on a track. But he adapted.
At age 21, Weyessa McAlister — who goes by his nickname “Ace” — is a sophomore at Trinity College and has been nothing but adaptable. He started running cross country during his senior year of high school and is now Trinity’s top runner. He finished 10th at the NESCAC championships Saturday and will run in the Div. III New England regional championships on Nov. 11 in Gorham, Maine.
“He is an ‘ace,’ ” Trinity cross country coach George Suitor said. “He’s got a great personality. He enjoys life. He works really hard.
“He’s exactly the kind of kid that I feel glad when we get a kid like him at Trinity. He’ll take advantage of everything we have here.”
McAlister hasn’t had an easy life, but you would never know it.
“A lot of it is his personality,” Steve McAlister said. “He decided to look on the bright side of things. He’s always had a ready smile, a good sense of humor. He makes people comfortable.”
Last year, Ace said, he was just getting used to college and college competition in cross country.
“It was good,” he said. “It was long distance, but long distance did not matter to me because I ran six miles to school — running barefoot to school, with books in your hand. There’s no backpack or anything. No school bus. No shoes.
“I tend to reflect back and see how far I’ve come. It makes me be grateful.”
He had gone to live with his grandparents in a rural farming village when his father died after drinking water contaminated with bacteria. A year later, his little brother died in the same manner.
He remembered starting school when he was 8.
“The reason we run to school is mainly to avoid the punishment,” he said. “We [would] get whipped by teachers. We don’t know how to tell the time. We didn’t have a watch. We would always look at the sun, the position of the sun. In the morning. The sun rises and we’d wake up. We have 12 hours of light, 12 hours of dark, so we could tell by that. Wake up, try to find food. Go to school.
“I was third grade when I left the area, my town. I moved to the capital city for the orphanage. It was an opportunity, and my grandfather was like, ‘Yeah, you got to go.’ They thought it would be a good idea because most people go to America and get a better life there.’”
That’s how he ended up on a plane at age 14, coming to America. He and his sister were homeschooled initially, and learned English, then Ace went off to Monument Mountain High School in Great Barrington. He played soccer in the fall — he had played the sport in Ethiopia — and ran track in the spring.
“There was still that enjoyment of sports,” he said. “I love to do it. Soccer was still there. Running was still there. But I never competed until I came to the U.S.”
He learned to snowboard at nearby Ski Butternut ski area.
“He was a snowboard instructor,” Steve said. “Maybe the world’s only Ethiopian snowboard instructor.”
He spent a post-graduate year at Northfield-Mount Hermon, a prep school in Massachusetts, where he ran cross country and track. That’s when Trinity became interested in him.
He misses his country sometimes. He’s found some Ethiopian workers in the dining hall and they talk. There is an Ethiopian restaurant not far from the campus where he can get injera, a traditional Ethiopian flatbread, used to scoop up different kinds of stew.
“I went back two summers ago for the first time to my village,” he said. “I did a volunteer job at the orphanage, like a giveback to the community. Then I went to my village for two weeks to visit my family. While I was visiting my family, I brought a bunch of water filters I bought here, just thinking back about how my dad and my brother died, and distributed them to the village I grew up in. Water bacteria is still a problem. People just drink from the river.
“People are happy I ended up in America because they believe that America has greater opportunity. Their perception is quite different: they think America is the richest place and they think money actually flows out of nowhere. A lot of people ask me for money. My grandparents know this. I explained to them, ‘America, not everyone’s rich there.’ Before that, they did not understand.”
The McAlisters learned a lot, too.
“Our family became a little more Ethiopian,” Steve McAlister said. “We listen to the music. Eat the food. It had a nice effect on the family. They’re very proud of their heritage.”
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