Professor grapples with uncertainty of family's fate

February 04, 2021
soldiers walking away with guns over shoulders
Since November of 2020, Ethiopia has been embroiled in an ugly war pitting the government against its own people. Photo by Adobe Stock

The world is full of people who are weary. And lonely. And scared.

And for good reason: A global pandemic has completely shifted the way we operate. A single microscopic virus – invisible to the naked eye yet looming so massively large on our minds – has completely upended our daily lives, putting physical and emotional distance between us. And while few can imagine anything worse than the inconvenience of relentless cancellations, the monotony of Zoom meetings and the possibility of forced lockdowns, for some, those fears are much larger. 

Since this past November, in a small corner of the world, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions more have been forced from their homes. Towns and villages have been demolished by artillery shelling, health and educational facilities looted and destroyed. And yet in the United States – in large part due to our daily headlines being dominated by contentious political issues and new coronavirus variant strains – most of us know nothing about what is happening in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

This is a place that knows fear.

Food. Water. Medicine. All gone. A region of more than 5 million people finds the vast majority of its citizens without shelter, order, hope. And they are scared to death.

So while some of us want nothing more than to hug our parents for a few precious seconds, for these people, it’s an altogether different story – hugs are a luxury; they just pray their loved ones live through the day. 

American dream, Ethiopian nightmare

headshot of dr. g 
Mulugeta Gebregziabher, Ph.D.

For the past 20 years, Mulugeta Gebregziabher, Ph.D., has spent his professional life focusing on research using data, statistics and models in the hopes of improving the world through health care. Each day, he wakes up solely focused on making the lives of others better. Whether through ensuring veterans are getting adequate health services or addressing health disparities like diabetes, HIV and lung cancer, Gebregziabher’s goal is to tackle the tough global health issues facing our world. 

But today, the Medical University of South Carolina biostatistician is doing something he wishes he never had to: asking the world to return the favor.

Nearly two decades ago, Gebregziabher, his wife and then 1-year-old son made the leap of faith and left their hometown of Adwa, Ethiopia, to come to the United States in the hopes of a better life and education. It was a gamble that paid off, with the family eventually settling in Charleston. Today, the husband and wife duo both work at MUSC, his wife in the role of research associate and he as a professor and departmental vice chair. Along the way they added another child, and that little 1-year-old graduates from college next year.

landscape photo of Tigray region with mountains in background 
The Tigray region is a picturesque landscape surrounded by mountains. Photo by Adobe Stock

Though he is proud of what he and his family have accomplished in America, a part of Gebregziabher’s heart has always remained 8,000 miles away in the remote northern mountains of the Tigray region of Ethiopia. His mother, brother, three sisters and his wife’s family still call the area home. And, normally, he checks in with them, via phone, every two weeks. It’s a tradition that began two decades ago as a way to stay connected with an indelible part of what makes him who he is. Unfortunately, it’s been almost four months – 96 days to be exact – since he last heard his 79-year-old mother’s voice. 

“I honestly don’t know if she’s even alive,” he says. “It’s hard to talk about without getting emotional.”

This terrible question, “Is my family alive?” is something no human should ever have to ask. Yet it has been gnawing at Gebregziabher ever since the Tigray War began on November 4 of 2020. At the heart of this battle is a conflict between Ethiopia’s prime minister – a man who, according to the media, allied himself with the neighboring country of Eritrea – and the government of the Tigray region, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The spark that lit the fuse was Tigray holding local elections in defiance of the prime minister’s postponement of all such elections nationwide. The result is a complicated, tangled mess that has embroiled the entire country in a deadly war, the epicenter of which just so happens to be where Gebregziabher’s family lives. 

"I honestly don't know if she's even alive."


Mulugeta Gebregziabher, Ph.D.

This has been developing for the past year or so,” he says. “But even still, you never actually think it’s going to lead to war. It’s really hard to wrap my mind around what’s going on. What I tell people here, people who might not fully understand what is going on in Ethiopia, I tell them to imagine the U.S. government teaming up with Cuba to attack Florida. That’s what this is like.”

Understandably, Gebregziabher just wants people to pay attention. And if it means sharing his pain publicly, then that’s a price he’s willing to pay.

Thinking big

Gebregziabher knew that if he wanted to reach a larger audience – get more people involved – he had to become bigger in his thinking, get more creative. And that’s when he thought of a way to open the world’s eyes to a problem that not only has affected his people but people all over the world. 

Dr G sitting with his mother 
Gebregziabher and his mother during a visit to Ethiopia in 2019. Photo provided

The American Public Health Association (APHA) is a globally recognized and respected leader in the field of public health. Each year, they publish a list of the 35 most pressing public health issues facing the world – things like chronic disease, prescription drug overdose and climate change, just to name a few. This year’s list even has COVID-19, suicide and gun violence on it. But glaringly absent, Gebregziabher says, is war. 

“I was looking at the list and noticed it wasn’t included. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘How can this be?’ I mean, if you think about it, war is at the core of almost every single one of the current 35. Ignoring it seems to be unreasonable.”

And now he has his reason to get others to care as much as he does. Recently, he wrote an essay on the subject and shared it with the university community, as well as some leaders in the APHA, with the intention of writing a more in-depth paper and presenting it in October at the association’s annual conference. It’s at this conference where discussions are held and decisions made as to what makes the next year’s list. The reason being included on this list is important, Gebregziabher says, is that the APHA priority list is internationally respected and followed when it comes to funding, policy and long-term action. In other words – this list would provide much-needed awareness. 

“Like any public health issue, war is preventable,” he says. “I have hope that they will take this idea seriously. Racism was included last year, and it just seems like a logical step to include war on the list.”

a collage showing devastation of war on hospital 
The devastation from the war has not not spared schools or even hospitals in Ethiopia, like the one seen here that Gebregziabher visited annually as a part of an MUSC collaboration with the Tigray region. Photos provided

According to Gebregziabher, most people in Tigray have not been able to communicate with the outside world since the war began. In fact, the only information he receives comes from the media. He recently read a story that talked about a multi-million-dollar factory that was bombed and destroyed by drones. That factory was only two miles from his mother’s house. He’s seen images from the Adwa region –images that show rubble where health clinics and hospitals once stood. Recently, he got word that some of his mother’s neighbors – people he knows personally – were killed in front of their home. As of January, it is believed that more than 60,000 Ethiopians have fled the country out of fear and desperation. But even with all this new information, Gebregziabher still hasn’t heard a word from or about his own family.

“I was helping one of my collaborators at the VA a few weeks ago, and she had heard about the situation in Ethiopia, so she asked how my family was,” he says. He started to explain, but after just a few words, he had to step away.

“I just broke down. I couldn’t control it. That’s just not like me,” he says. “I think that just tells you the magnitude of the situation.”

Giving back

A little over 10 years ago, Gebregziabher started making annual trips back to Ethiopia. At first, they were rudimentary and informal: He’d share medical tips with any locals who would listen. But eventually, it became something larger, and at some point, it flipped on its head, with the locals in the health care community actually seeking him out. 

comparison of a textile factory before and after the war. the bombing has left it a shell of its former structure 
This series of before and after images is of a textile factory that is only a few miles from where Gebregzabher's mom lives. Photos provided 

In 2014, he led an effort to sign a memorandum of understanding between MUSC and several Ethiopian universities, medical colleges and hospitals. From that agreement came an annual workshop, linking MUSC and the young and vibrant health care community in Ethiopia. Over the years, the partnership has seen lots of progress, helping the Ethiopian people bolster their health care system through new hospitals as well as centralizing and improving health records. Gebregziabher is especially proud of the partnerships he and his team – which includes fellow MUSC researcher John Vena, Ph.D. – built with three medical colleges located in Tigray in the area of translational research, a critical intersection of science and health care, which moves research out of the laboratory and ultimately to the patient’s bedside. Even as recently as the middle of 2020, he coordinated efforts with MUSC and Clemson University along with four Ethiopian universities, including two from Tigray, on a proposal for a five-year transformational health information systems project titled “See-Ethiopia-Win.” 

Then came the war in 2020. Since that fateful day in November, he has been unable to communicate with the faculty and staff that had been part of the collaboration. As a result, his current global health project funded by the MUSC Center for Global Health is on hold indefinitely – because of war. 

“It breaks my heart to see all that hard work undone – and for nothing,” he says. “This is a repeat of a Rwanda-type genocide.”

Gebregziabher hopes that in the future others won’t have to suffer like he or his family. Recently, he took some time off to do some humanitarian work for the region, mainly in the area of fundraising. To raise funds, he is using, a 501(c)(3) organization that he founded with four other professors in the U.S. to help with the rehabilitation efforts of the war-torn Tigray and its people. It helped a little bit, he says, just doing something. “I can’t just sit here while this is happening and not speak out.”

“War isn’t just about Tigray,” he says. “War happens everywhere. Nobody is immune unless we work to prevent it. Tigray needs immediate help – and maybe what I’m doing won’t help them – but if people start to take this seriously, we might be able to stop future wars from happening.”