‘It’s heartbreaking’, Former refugee, current college dean Ethiopian Safawo Gullo


RCTC dean of academic affairs for health sciences, Safawo Gullo lived in a refugee camp in Germany.

Former refugee: ‘It’s heartbreaking’

Flight from an unsafe homeland. A refugee camp in Germany. Appeals for asylum. Hopes for a new life.

Those are today’s headlines, as Europe struggles with a major refugee crisis, but for Safawo Gullo, they are part of his life.

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“It makes me emotional at times because I went through the same thing,” said Gullo, dean of academic affairs for health sciences at Rochester Community & Technical College.

Gullo left his strife-torn homeland of Ethiopia in 1978 and went first to Moldova, where he attended university, then to Kharkov, in Ukraine, where he earned his doctor of veterinary medicine degree. Eventually, he made his way to Berlin, hoping to use what was then West Germany as a springboard to the United States.

In Berlin, he lived for two and one-half months in a refugee center. “They look at your case, and some are deported if you don’t have any good reason for asylum,” he said.

Gullo was not deported but was sent instead to another refugee center in Karlsruhe. His application for asylum in the U.S. originally was rejected, and Gullo spent the next three years living in Germany.

His thoughts have wondered back to those years as he watches and reads news reports from Europe, where tens of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and northern Africa are attempting to resettle.

“They are looking for refuge, running away from danger,” Gullo said. “It’s very sad. It’s really heartbreaking, especially when you see people taking their little kids and babies and trying to get out.”

While some European countries are balking at taking large numbers of refugees, or any at all, Germany has thrown its doors open and has said it is willing to accept up to 800,000 refugees.

“I’m not surprised,” Gullo said, reflecting on his own experience as a refugee in Germany. “Germany is a place where refugees have gone for years, even before I went there. They have a history of accepting refugees.”

That doesn’t mean life will be easy for the newcomers. Far-right groups in Germany are demonstrating against their government’s decision to take in so many refugees. That, too, is part of Germany’s history with refugees, Gullo said.

“After I left, the Karlsruhe camp was burned down by neo-Nazis,” he said. “And they have some animosity toward the Turks, who refuse to assimilate.”

Large numbers of Turkish “guest workers” settled in Germany during the so-called economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s.

“But now, I think they are open; they are more understanding,” Gullo said. “And more and more countries, like Sweden, are welcoming.”

European concerns about absorbing the newcomers, including the cost of housing, training and educating them, can seem trifling when looking at the big picture, Gullo said.

“Sometimes we get blinded by the problems of today and forget what these people are running away from,” he said.

Gullo eventually was able to move to the U.S. and has held teaching and administrative positions at educational institutions, primarily in the South. He was appointed to his current position at RCTC last spring.

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