In 1985, Ethiopia was in the middle of civil war and famine. Meddy Tekle’s family had enough money to keep from starving because some of her eight brothers and sisters had escaped to the United States and were sending money home.
But Tekle’s mother wanted something better for her.
She urged the 17-year old to flee for America by first walking hundreds of miles out of the country with $200 sewn in her clothing. And she did it.
But before she reached this country, she lost contact with her family for more than three years, suffered from malaria and lost all her money in a fire.
Tekle is now the 47-year-old owner of a 7-Eleven franchise in Georgetown. She has been operating the business for four years and lives in Round Rock with her daughter. She recently hosted several Georgetown police officers who gathered at her store to have coffee and chat with customers.
“Meddy is absolutely a shining example of a model citizen,” said police Capt. Evelyn McLean. “She loves this country, she works hard, and she is such a giving person. I’m blessed to know her.”
When talking about her journey out of Ethiopia, Tekle said that anyone facing her circumstances would have done the same thing. “You do what you have to do to make it,” she said. “I don’t see what I did as a success.”
Before she began her journey out of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, she said she wasn’t sure she would survive. “I said to my mother, ‘What if I die?’” said Tekle, who stands barely 5 feet tall.
“My mother said, ‘I will pray for you.’”
Tekle said she had to leave because her grades weren’t good enough to get into college, and without that education, she could not get a job. She also could not leave legally because she couldn’t get a passport. The government didn’t want young people leaving the country, she said.
Her sister Elsa had previously fled to the United States because she was a rebel whose life was in danger.
Now it was Meddy’s turn. She paid two guides $20 to walk with her and a couple of men. Their journey took them through wheat fields and mountain ranges. They walked at night and hid during the day to avoid getting caught. Their drinking water came from streams and they begged villagers for bread.
They had walked about 500 miles in a few months when a friendly anti-government group picked them up and eventually dropped them off a few miles from the Sudanese border. Tekle said she asked for asylum when she reached Sudan.
But she caught malaria in a Sudanese refugee camp, where she lost her money and identification papers in a fire started after someone knocked over a kerosene lamp, she said.
Penniless, Tekle was stranded in Sudan for a few years working as a maid, with no way to contact her family. But one of her brothers – sent by her mother – found her in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, in 1988, she said.
Her sister Elsa, who was living in the United States, managed to get her and her brother on a plane to Washington, D.C., in 1989.
Tekle said she couldn’t speak a word of English when she arrived.
She lived with siblings in Maryland and got a job at a 7-Eleven. After a year, she came to Austin to live with an Ethiopian boyfriend, she said.
She said she learned to speak English and became a U.S. citizen in 1994. Tekle said she worked her way up at 7-Eleven and became a franchise owner in 2011.
“Georgetown is a great area,” she said. “It’s friendly, and it’s safe.”
Along the way she got married to another Ethiopian man, had a daughter and got divorced. She doesn’t dwell much on her path to America, she said.
“My focus is never about the past,” she said. “It’s not a trauma. It’s not something that gives me nightmares. It was a lesson. What an experience.”