Of Beetles and Angels Summary and Study Guide

Mawi Asgedom

Of Beetles and Angels

  • 37-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 14 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with a background in literature
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Of Beetles and Angels Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 37-page guide for “Of Beetles and Angels” by Mawi Asgedom includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 14 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Appearances as Deceiving and The Refugee Experience, and Prejudice in America.

Plot Summary

Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard is the memoir of Selamawi “Mawi” Asgedom. Mawi recounts overcoming numerous disadvantages as an African refugee and ascending to the highest reaches of American society, ultimately graduating from Harvard University with top honors in 1999. Through Mawi’s story, the book explores the experiences of refugees in America.

Born in September 1979, in Adi Wahla, Ethiopia, Mawi and his family flee Ethiopia due to civil war. From Ethiopia, the family moves to a refugee camp in Sudan. Three years later, with the help of a U.S.-based Christian non-profit organization called World Relief, Mawi’s family is eventually given the life-changing news that they will be relocated from the Sudanese refugee camp to a permanent home in America.

Mawi’s family is placed in Wheaton, a wealthy suburb of Chicago. Mawi’s father, Haileab, was a respected physician in Ethiopia, but in America he can only find work as a janitor. In Wheaton, other exiled members of the Ethiopian/Eritrean community, referred to as habesha, help Mawi’s family adjust to life in America by bringing them injera bread and other foods from habesha culture.

The Asgedom family grows when Mawi’s mother has a son, who she names Hntsa, soon after arriving in America. With this new addition, there are four children in the immediate family: Tewolde, Mawi, Mehret, and Hntsa.  Though the family has little money, Haileab shows the children that charity and kindness are important values.  To demonstrate this point, Haileab brings a homeless man into the family home, telling the children they must show compassion to all of God’s creatures for sometimes “angels are disguised as beetles,” and God is testing their character when he sends these “beetles” to them for help (29).

Life in the United States is vastly different from life in East Africa, and Chapter 3 through Chapter 7 detail the different ways the family must adjust. Tewolde and Mawi, being close in age, attend elementary school together, where they are bullied and berated by their white classmates. Having grown up in a Sudanese refugee camp where violence was commonplace, Tewolde and Mawi initially fight back. However, realizing that the fighting may jeopardize their entire academic future, Haileab forbids them from sparring at school–they must accept the beatings that the other children afflict upon them. Other notable moments from Tewolde and Mawi’s childhood include their experiences on Halloween, which is their favorite American holiday.

In Chapter 8, we learn more about Tewolde, Mawi’s eldest brother and a central figure in this story. As the children grow to teens, Tewolde goes through libee migbar, which is a habesha phrase that means “developing a heart,” and proves Tewolde has gained emotional maturity. For example, Tewolde as a mere high school student, shows a precocious industriousness when he begins his own cleaning-service company to help the family earn money.  Tewolde also shows an unusually high degree of compassion, befriending and caring for a local homeless man, among other good deeds. Tragedy strikes, however, when Tewolde, still a senior in high school, is struck and killed by a drunk driver. Losing his brother has a profound effect on Mawi, who is midway through high school at this point.  Though stricken with grief, Haileab has always emphasized to Mawi the importance of education, so Mawi pushes through his sadness with hard academic work, devoting himself totally to his studies and extracurriculars. The perseverance pays off, and Mawi earns a full scholarship to one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world: Harvard University.

Haileab, as we learn in Chapters 9 through 13, is another major influence in Mawi’s life, and Mawi’s graduation from Harvard is in part a testimony to his father’s encouragement. Mawi loses his father before graduating from college; like Tewolde, Haileab is also killed by a drunk driver.

Originally published in 2001, the 15th anniversary edition of Of Beetles and Angels was released in June 2016. The anniversary edition includes a new introduction and afterword, as well as bonus content featuring a selection of habesha recipes, an interview with the author, a reading group guide, and a poem by Mawi dedicated…

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