From refugee camp to college graduate and national champion, meet Afewerki Zeru

ALLENDALE, MI – MAY 28: Afewerki Zeru of UC-Colorado Springs reacts after a first place finish in the Men’s 5000m final during the Division II Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track & Field Championships held at GVSU Track & Field Stadium on May 28, 2022.

The below article was written by Corbin McGuire with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

When Afewerki Zeru left his home country of Eritrea in East Africa at 12 years old, he assumed he was going back in a few weeks. It’s never happened. 

Zeru, whose home country was engulfed in civil war at the time, ended up spending four years in a refugee camp before being sponsored by a refugee resettlement service in the U.S., setting off a series of life-changing dominoes. 

He’s now a college graduate who recently finished a standout running career for Colorado-Colorado Springs that included two national championships in track and field (one indoor and one outdoor) and double-digit All-America honors between cross country and track and field (indoor and outdoor). 

In 2022, Zeru received Colorado-Colorado Springs’ Thomas F. McLaughlin Award, presented annually to the top student-athletes who have excelled in their sport, achieved in the classroom, been a leader on their team and served their communities. He also earned his U.S. citizenship while at Colorado-Colorado Springs. 

Last month, he finished his impressive and improbable collegiate career at the Division II outdoor track and field championships in Pueblo, Colorado, with a fifth-place finish in the 5K. He did it with a community of people around him, people who he couldn’t communicate with 10 years ago, people who’ve helped him navigate every challenge he’s faced since then. 

“It’s what I needed. It’s something that was needed to happen for me to be able to graduate high school and go to college,” he said of his family, teammates and coaches. “Coming to the U.S. and applying to UCCS and finding that group that was already built … it’s something that was so positive in my life that it got me to this point.”

Growing up in Eritrea, a small country of about 3.5 million people on the northeast coast of Africa, meant hearing “bombs go off and gunshots” regularly for Zeru. While Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1993, following a 30-year war, its difficulties continued in the form of civil unrest and tense border relations through Zeru’s childhood. 

As more neighbors and friends fled the country, Zeru remembers wondering, “Where is everybody going?” Soon after one of his brothers, Shambel, left the country, Zeru and a group of friends followed suit. They made a plan and, without telling their families, took off on what they considered an adventure — the border was about a 45-minute walk — that Zeru assumed would end with them back in their homes a few weeks later. 

Instead, Ethiopian soldiers caught them. From there, the situation spiraled until, after several bus rides and months without a permanent place to stay, Zeru landed in a refugee camp with his brother. 

Their situation seemed hopeless at times. Zeru recalled a meeting with an adult at the camp who said they held slim chances of being accepted into another country due to their lack of formal education or skills. 

So a few days later, when Zeru saw their faces on a poster to apply for such opportunities, he said, “we didn’t take that to heart and just thought they were messing with us.” 

Still, they applied. To their surprise, it worked. Within eight months, they were on a plane to the United States. On Dec. 17, 2013, they landed in Colorado to their first-ever sight of snow.

“We didn’t even know what snow was,” he said. “We were like just like mind blown by this whole thing.”

That included the dramatic cultural adjustment they were about to navigate. Everything was different, from the language to the food to the education system. Zeru and his brother’s foster parents, Donnie and Lisa Thomassen, helped them as much as possible. One of the first things they did was buy each a computer and a Rosetta Stone membership, serving as their introduction to English.

The Thomassens’ love and support set the tone for what Zeru would find more broadly in Colorado Springs. Zeru would need it in many moments in this new country, especially after his brother died suddenly in March 2021.  

“My foster parents,” Zeru said, “they literally saved my life.” 

Sports, in so many ways, changed the trajectory of Zeru’s life. 

“Sports are what got me into college,” he said. 

Zeru’s introduction to sports occurred at the refugee camp. Children played soccer from dawn until dusk to pass the time. Zeru fell in love with it.  

Soon after arriving in Colorado, his foster parents got him into a soccer program. Friendships started to form, including with a few who also ran cross country and track and field. Competitive running was foreign to Zeru until he watched his friends run at an indoor meet. The experience sparked an interest to try it out as a junior in high school, but only as a way to keep in shape for soccer.

“The main focus was still soccer,” he said.

That changed in time. The more Zeru ran competitively, the more others saw serious potential. As a senior, he picked up cross country, finishing 18th in the Class 5A state meet. His rapid success as a runner piqued the attention of college coaches, including one right down the road in Colorado-Colorado Springs cross country head coach Mark Misch. When Misch connected Zeru to some of the Mountain Lion cross country runners at the time, it changed everything. 

“At that point I was, like, ‘This might be the group I’m looking for,'” Zeru said. 

Fast forward to now, and Zeru said the impact of his teammates goes beyond anything he can say in an interview.

“I could write a book about this,” he said. 

One chapter Zeru could write about is when he started working toward earning status as a U.S. citizen, it was his teammates who made sure to test him at meets, practices and outside of classes. Zeru passed his citizenship exam and became a U.S. citizen in March 2021. This example captures what’s made the sport special to Zeru. It’s had less to do with his natural talent as a runner and the academic opportunities the sport offered because of it, and more about the people it brought into his life. 

Sep 3, 2022; Colorado Springs, CO, USA; The UCCS Mountain Lions hosted the XC Rust-Buster at Monument Valley Park. Credit: Isaiah J. Downing

“It wasn’t just because I enjoyed the sport, it was because I enjoyed the sport with the people that I was with and the people I was doing it with,” Zeru said of embracing running. “You’re doing it for your friends. You’re doing it for your school. It’s much bigger than just yourself. If it wasn’t for my friends and my teammates, it would be incredibly hard to get to this point.”

This point also includes earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in criminal justice in December 2022It’s an achievement Zeru said means “everything” because of the lack of such opportunities in Eritrea, where most of his family still lives. 

“The fact that I was able to do something like my parents, my biological parents, and a lot of my siblings didn’t have the opportunity to do … I’m so thankful and grateful that I’m at this point in my life,” said Zeru, who has an interest in social work as a career and is currently pursuing a master’s in communication at Colorado-Colorado Springs.

Sports have been the catalyst to taking Zeru to these places he never dreamed of. They were his escape in the refugee camp, his instant connection to new friends to United States and his path to higher education at Colorado-Colorado Springs.  

“I never thought of graduating high school, let alone college. I graduated high school and I was like, ‘I guess college it is.’ Mainly I still wanted to be able to participate in sports,” he said. “If it wasn’t for sports, I wouldn’t be doing school because I have to do well in school to be able to participate in sports and activities that I love. So they kind of work with each other. That’s what motivated me to be able to get to this point.”