Robel Dersuma: “I had to get comfortable being uncomfortable”
Written by Paul Fraumeni
Robel Dersuma’s job on June 6, 2020 was to clean the windows of his family’s fourth floor apartment in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
He was 15 and enjoyed a happy life with his mom, stepdad, and brothers and sisters, and playing soccer and hanging out with his friends.
That day, he stood on the ledge, washing the windows with soapy water. “I had always done this and nothing ever happened and I never figured anything bad would happen.”
But the soap and water trickled down from the window. Robel slipped on the wet ledge and fell past all those four stories of the building, landing on his back. He sustained a severe spinal cord injury. He would never walk again.
He was in excruciating pain and had 20 surgeries. He laid on his back for weeks in the hospital. When he was sent home, a pressure sore became infected and threatened his life. “I was about to die,” says Robel.
And then a positive turn began to happen.
Dr. Frances Marinic-Jaffer, a lawyer in Toronto who specializes in student and family advocacy in the area of disability, minority rights and education, arranged for Robel to receive medical treatment and funding at the Shriners Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. He received treatment for his wounds and intense rehabilitation at the hospital.
All of that was good, but Robel’s spirit still sank low.
“I was discouraged because when I first moved to America, I thought I was going to start walking again. But the hospital team’s goal was to make me as independent as possible in a wheelchair.”
He also missed his family. But he couldn’t return to Ethiopia, where life would have been too hard for a young man in a wheelchair. Thanks to a great aunt in Toronto sponsoring him for entry into Canada and the continued support of Marinic-Jaffer, Robel eventually got himself settled in his own apartment and as a student at Marshall McLuhan Catholic Secondary School.
And that’s when Robel showed everyone what he could do.
He joined the school’s Peer Ministry Program, lending his voice to social justice advocacy and participating in a charitable campaign to educate and collect funds for homeless Indigenous men served by Na-Me-Res, the a native men’s residence in Toronto. He worked with students with disabilities at McLuhan and volunteered at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital on a multitude of projects. And he’s been having some fun playing wheelchair basketball at the hospital and Variety Village.
“Robel does not let his disability limit his dreams and is an inspirational example of what determination looks like for all who are blessed to interact with him,” says Linda Izzo, coordinator of chaplaincy services at McLuhan.
How has he made this positive turn, from that difficult, almost bleak period after his accident?
Robel’s deep sense of spirituality has certainly helped to anchor him. He followed the Ethiopian Orthodox faith when he was growing up. Since coming to Toronto, Catholicism has attracted him.
“I always put God first in my life, in order to have a good work ethic and remain dedicated to helping others. I remind myself that God would want me to stay positive, when I’m discouraged. That works for me.”
And through all of his tough experiences, he’s learned one big thing.
“I realized I had to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I used to be so uncomfortable having people stare at me when I would be out in public. But what really matters is what I think about myself.”
Now that Robel has overcome the darkness of his accident, he’s passionate about his future.
“Life hasn’t always been easy for me, but I continue to move forward and adjust to what comes my way.”
And he’s doing a pretty good job with ‘adjusting.’ For a guy living thousands of miles away from his home country and family, on his own, and at the age of only 21, he has a remarkable way of focusing and moving forward in a mature way.
“When my accident happened, I was really unsure of my future. That made me sad and depressed. I had always dreamed of becoming a cardiac surgeon. But I realized that wouldn’t be possible because I would be in a wheelchair.”
Then a quote from Albert Einstein came to him: to keep your balance, you must move forward.
So he did some self-exploration.
He focused on the fact that he’d always been good at math and that he liked to experiment and try new things. Then he considered the benefits of these two talents.
“With many school subjects, it just memorization and knowledge of terminology. But with math, you need to be able to apply the formulas. I observed that I was proficient at applying my knowledge to solve mathematical problems and that I liked creativity and could use math to solve other problems.”
Then he thought of his future in an even more realistic way. “I will always be in a wheelchair. I want to make a good salary. I’m good at math and using it to solve problems. What could I do with that?”
He did some research. “And the first career that popped up was actuarial science. I had never heard of it. I learned one needs strong skill in math, excellent communication abilities, creativity and a high level of thinking ability. I have all that.”
So he applied to universities. He was accepted to the University of Toronto and in September 2023 started his first year in the Physical and Mathematical Sciences program, with an eventual goal to become an actuary.
And in addition to becoming an actuary, he has an even bigger goal.
“I want to prove that, despite the hardships we face, it is possible to rise above them. I want to serve as a beacon of hope for disabled and able-bodied individuals and to prove that with determination and hard work, almost anything is possible.”
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