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Malaria survivor strives to help others

Published: January 14th, 2010

Category: Spotlights

Dawit Woldu

Dawit Woldu

Doctoral Student
Medical Anthropology

Growing up in the African country of Eritrea, plagued by more than 30 years of war, made chaos a driving force in Dawit Woldu’s life.

His only anchor: His commitment to an education and the better life it would bring.

“I always wanted to go to school because I didn’t like the life that people were experiencing every day,” he said. “The only thing I knew was war, and my parents were telling me that at 4 years old, I was telling them that I wanted to go to school.”

Desperate to escape his parents’ poverty, he ran away at age 8 and lived in a military camp while attending public school. Later the camp was attacked. He escaped with only his books. At 14, Woldu contracted malaria during a trip to take a national high school entrance exam held in a city with a large number of infections.

“I was very sick. My fever was high. I couldn’t eat and there wasn’t enough medication,” he said. “A couple of my friends died. Luckily, I survived it.”

Woldu’s high school years were a series of ups and downs. His mother died of cancer and his brothers left to join the army. He struggled with poverty and feared for his family’s safety. Yet he maintained straight As.

“I had lost everything. I lost my mom, and I didn’t know where my brothers were, but I never gave up.”

Because of his academic excellence, Woldu was accepted into the University of Asmara in Eritrea. The country’s sole university, it admits only about 450 students each year, less than 5 percent of country’s high school population.

After graduating and working as a teaching assistant for three years, he received a fellowship to attend the University of Florida.

“I was very happy to be here,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been working for my whole life.”

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