Flight to Freedom
When Michael Yimesgen was 11 years old, government police dragged his father away to prison in the middle of the night in his native Ethiopia. Yimesgen wouldn’t see his father again for four long years. The experience would profoundly affect the direction of his career in years to come.
“It was a scare tactic by the government, an ‘enemy within’ type of thing,” said Yimesgen, a member of the Class of 2004. “My father was from Atria, a region in the north at war with the government. They put my father in prison because of his descent. It was a propaganda move the government employed to make people afraid.”
The imprisonments also enabled the government to confiscate homes, businesses and other properties to finance the war — something they attempted with the Yimesgen family.
Yimesgen’s father had done fairly well in the import/export business, making him a prime target. The government assumed that Yimesgen’s mother, a woman with little formal education, would be an easy target. They figured wrong. “They wanted to ease us out of our property, but my mother didn’t let that happen,” he said. “She’s a very strong woman. She got a lawyer who was a friend of the family and beat the government to the punch at every turn.”
Four years later, the government suddenly released Yimesgen’s father. Without apology or redress, he was released, along with hundreds of other political prisoners. Unfortunately, there was no time for young Yimesgen to become reacquainted with his father. To avoid military service, Yimesgen was sent to the United States, where he stayed with a family in Santa Barbara.
Although he missed his parents, Yimesgen thrived, earning top grades in his American high school. He went on to enroll in the University of California–Davis and graduated with a degree in international relations.
Yimesgen took the LSAT before leaving college and applied to a number of law schools, including Willamette. He was accepted at several. “On the same day, I got two acceptance letters: a generic form letter from San Diego and one from Willamette,” he said. “The Willamette letter, which was personally signed by Dean Symeonides, offered me a scholarship. It was easy to choose Willamette.”
That decision has continued to please him and make his mother proud. As a first-year student, he co-authored a paper with one of his international law professors that was published in the Michigan Law Review. In his second year, he interned with Bullivant Houser Bailey PC in the firm’s Portland office. During his third year, after a successful clerkship, the firm offered him a job when he graduated. At graduation, Yimesgen honored his mother, who was unable to attend, by wearing a traditional Ethiopian robe she had made for him.
“On the same day, I got two acceptance letters: a generic form letter from San Diego and one from Willamette, which was personally signed by the dean. It was easy to choose Willamette.”