University of North Texas freshman Tiblets Abreha was just 11 years old when she packed her school backpack with everything that would fit and started a trek from Eritrea to the Ethiopian border.

Abreha walked for hours with a group of about 10 children through mountains, where hyenas lurked, until they made it to the border.

As Ethiopian soldiers drove them another three days to Endabaguna, Abreha kept her eyes on a very particular prize: education. At Abreha’s home in Eritrea, girls and women don’t get to go to school. When she sneaked away in the middle of the night, Abreha was a few years away from the age girls in her community marry. They take on the role of mature women as young teenagers to help their families.

“They have a baby when they are a baby, so it’s really sad,” Abreha said.

Today, Abreha runs for the Mean Green cross country team. She’s still not totally sure what her academic focus will be, but in the meantime, she’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep her eye on the next finish line.

Her journey to college took her from living in a refugee camp, then traveling to Fort Worth, where a foster family started the work of getting her settled and started in school. The foster family worked with Catholic Charities of Fort Worth. One of eight children, Abreha has two siblings in the United States, another in Holland, two in Israel, and one who was still in a refugee camp, and who might have returned to Eritrea.

“I got here when I was 13 or 14,” Abreha said. “My brother had come to the U.S. through Catholic Charities of Fort Worth. He processed me in, and I lived with him for a month. Then I stayed with that foster family for another two years.”

Abreha said her home in Eritrea was a hardscrabble life, where families sometimes have to choose between watering their crops and having water to drink for their families.

“There was sometimes no food. No water. No electricity,” Abreha said. “Life was hard.”

Fort Worth was a culture shock. She went to school, but understood and spoke no English.

“I didn’t understand my courses until the last year,” she said.

She said she made friends who helped her immeasurably. She joined the school choir, where she sang for five years, and she also joined the cross country team. Abreha moved around a bit, living in a group home for a time until she moved in with Ricardo Roberto and his wife in Grapevine.

Roberto said he and his wife were moved to foster international youths after they learned more about the work through the Catholic Charities. The Robertos are devoted Catholics with their own children, and they now have three foster daughters who stay in touch with them even as they’ve aged out of the system.

Ricardo Roberto saw Abreha’s drive and work ethic when she joined her high school cross country team, where runners try to complete a 6K course as quickly as possible.

“Her junior year, she ran a 5K in 37:47 minutes,” Roberto said. “That was her first year of running. The other students laughed. In her senior year, she was running it in 21:19. They weren’t laughing then.”

During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Roberto and Abreha would hit the road together, logging 35 to 40 miles a week and lifting weights.

“I like the long run,” Abreha said. “I enjoy the 8-mile day. And I like running with the team. When you run with people, you learn about them.”

Abreha joined the Mean Green women’s cross country team. Running has become meditation in motion, and a connection to the university through the team. It also charges her batteries for the other demands of college life, she said.

“It gives me energy for the whole day,” she said. “And your team is like your family.”

Abreha just finished her first semester of college. Right now, she’s considering a degree in kinesiology, but when she thinks beyond college, she imagines a career related to kinesiology and an avocation that will connect her with young refugees.

Abreha joined the UNT PUSH program for students who have been in foster care. Her peers in the program elected her the group’s vice president.

“I wanted to go to UNT partly because of PUSH,” she said. “And I wanted to go to a college that had a cross country team.”

Brenda Sweeten, PUSH program adviser and UNT foster care liaison officer, said Abreha was a natural for leadership in the program.

“Tiblets made an immediate impact on PUSH staff and her peers because of her positive outlook and ability to persevere through challenging circumstances,” Sweeten said.

Sweeten said a positive leader can show students who are eligible for the program that they deserve the benefits PUSH can bring to their college careers.

“For a lot of students who have spent time in foster care, it’s something they’re ashamed of,” Sweeten said. “Especially domestic students who have been in foster care. PUSH is strength-based and empowerment-based for the students who are eligible. There are a lot of students who have spent some time in foster care who don’t know there is help available for them in college. We want these students to know there is help, and it’s for them.”

Sweeten said there are almost 300 UNT students who have lived in foster care at some point in their lives — a tiny number out of 42,000 students.

“A lot of those students don’t know that PUSH exists,” Sweeten said. “I want other students like Tiblets to know we’re actually here for you. I do think education can break cycles — cycles of poverty, domestic violence, addiction. We can get students connected with benefits that exist for them.”

Roberto said PUSH could open a lot of doors for students who have aged out of the foster care system.

“So many fosters kids don’t know what their options are,” he said. “For kids who don’t get parental support, a lot of them don’t even know PUSH is even an option.”

Abreha said being involved in UNT’s PUSH program is a way for her to put her own experiences to work for other students who have been in the system.

“It has been a challenge to move from place to place, make friends, get used to new family and school, but I am a survivor,” Abreha said. “I want to travel. I want to see my family. I want to go back home. I also want to travel to refugee camps, to see the kids and help them if I can. That’s my first goal.”

Roberto, who said Abreha texts him and his wife every day, will accomplish anything she sets out to do.

“She’s very intelligent,” he said. “And she works so hard. And she’s very competitive. She played tennis with us, and in 20 minutes, she wanted to start beating us. She wants to do everything well. She’s special to us. She’s shown us that facing adversity makes you able to face more adversity. She’s a good one. She’ll be in our lives for a long time.”

LUCINDA BREEDING-GONZALES can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.

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