Fox Valley Labor News
Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015
CHICAGO — Berhane Hailemichael has played myriad roles throughout his life. Freedom fighter. Refugee. Husband. Father. Student. Teamster. And in every role, he said one thing he always carries with him is hope.
“HOPE stands for Honest, Optimistic, Patient, Energetic. That is my anthem,” said Hailemichael, 53. “If you have hope, then you can do anything.”
Hailemichael was born in the African nation of Eritrea. At 16, he joined the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front as a freedom fighter and spent 14 years fighting for his country’s independence from Ethiopian rule.
“Nobody forced me to join. I wanted my country to be free,” he said. “I didn’t see my family for 14 years. After 14 years, my mother didn’t recognize me. I left a boy and came back a man.”
In 2000, Hailemichael came to North America as a journalist and diplomat, touring the United States and Canada. A year later, he sought asylum and brought his wife and two children to the U.S., where they have lived ever since.
Hailemichael and his family settled in Chicago. He found work with Standard Parking and joined Teamsters Local 727. At that time, Hailemichael said he was working “nine days a week” — five shifts as a garage attendant with Standard Parking and then two double shifts at a nursing home on the weekends — because his dream was to buy a house for his family.
He realized it when he bought a home in Evanston years later. But he wasn’t done dreaming.
Hailemichael next turned his attention to education for his children and for himself. His daughter and son are attending college. Hailemichael said he has tried to instill his work ethic in his children.
“I tell my kids, ‘You have no excuse to get low grades. School is your only job,’” he said. “If you have confidence, work hard, study and use time management, it’s no big secret.”
In 2010, Hailemichael attended Northeastern University. His Standard Parking supervisor, Local 727 member Debra Bolden, worked with him to arrange his schedule to accommodate classes and exams.
“I understand the value of education. I told Berhane, ‘You have a dream, and I want to help you,’” Bolden said.
Hailemichael continued working full-time at 311 S. Wacker Dr., where he is the assistant facilities manager, while working toward his degree. In 2014, he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor of arts in Justice Studies and a 3.85 GPA.
He said none of this would have been possible without the Teamsters Union and Local 727’s Educational Assistance benefit, which provides up to $10,000 in tuition reimbursement per year for each plan participant’s dependents.
“The union supports us. It’s been a blessing and has helped secure our lives,” Hailemichael said. “Without the educational assistance, we couldn’t do this. The union gave me and my children the ability to concentrate on school.”
Hailemichael isn’t done dreaming. He next wants to earn a master’s degree.
“If it takes me until I retire to finish my master’s, I don’t care,” Hailemichael said. “Education is something no one can take away from me. The knowledge is mine. With education, you can be successful. Without knowledge, everything is dark.”
He recently applied for and received a grant from United Nations University, and he currently is taking five online classes related to justice studies, human rights and human trafficking. He said it’s time for him to do his part to make the world a better place.
“Being in a union has allowed me to work to improve life for myself and my community. I am able to continue my education because of the union,” Hailemichael said. “Now, I have to do something to give back and contribute to my community.”
Hailemichael said time management, a strong work ethic and hope are what allow him to succeed in all facets of his life. He’s an exemplary Standard Parking employee, never misses monthly union membership meetings and excels in the classroom, where he often is the oldest student. But his past struggles also put things in perspective as he pursues his dreams.
“Compared with the past, any problem I face is nothing,” Hailemichael said. “When I was a freedom fighter, I would live four days without food. I was separated from my family. I did what I had to do to survive. So now, everything I face is easy because I’ve already been through the hardest things one can imagine.”
“I always say impossible is possible. Strong will, hard work, strong discipline. If you do this, impossible is possible.”
—Teamsters Joint Council 25