Ephrata M. Siyum recalls one night in 2012 when Nancy, the “head girl” of her Kenyan boarding school, Le Pic High School, approached her dormitory and addressed the group of girls.
“She said, ‘I feel like there’s something bad gonna happen. We need to pray,’” Siyum said, recounting the moment.
“And we actually did pray,” she said. “All of us put our hands together, and we prayed so heavy.”
Half an hour after going to bed, Siyum and her roommates heard screaming from the boys next door. The girls awoke and fled as windows began to break and their building erupted in flames.
“God warned us, he gave us a heads-up,” Siyum said.
The fire took the lives of five students, two of which Siyum had taken classes with.
Though the school alerted authorities, none came to help stop the fire that was started by six of the school’s students.
“The neighborhood by our school saw the fire and helped us put it off,” Siyum said. “We used our school bus to take the people to the hospital.”
Siyum says that all the people who were hospitalized died, and if they had arrived at the hospital earlier, they could have been saved.
“We put it out, but it was all gone,” she said, adding that her destroyed school had helped her grow more connected to her new home, Kenya.
Now, Siyum, known as “Ephie” on campus, is a first-year undecided major with plans to transition into the sciences at Seattle Pacific University and plans to pursue a career in science and technology.
Siyum’s path to SPU took her through the countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and the process of obtaining her green card before immigrating to America in 2014.
Originally, she, her mother and her sister were to move to Canada with her uncle so he could help provide for them, but this plan quickly changed due to the lengthy immigration process.
Through all the struggles she has faced in her life, Siyum stays grounded by two things: her pursuit of an education and her relationship with God. She says that God had planned a different path for her altogether, one that would eventually lead her to studying at SPU.
Her journey to Seattle was long and winding, but she often credits the opportunities she’s been given to both her mother’s push to get her an education and God’s own intervention.
Life began for Siyum thousands of miles away in February of 1997 in Ethiopia. Siyum’s parents were both from Eritrea, another African country that borders the southern end of the Red Sea.
At the age of two, Siyum and her family were deported along with all Eritreans in Ethiopia.
One year after moving to the new country, Siyum’s father passed away. She cannot recall the cause of his death, but she can vividly remember the day she was informed of his passing.
“I remember seeing him one day, and then the next day I went to visit ,and I thought I was visiting [him], but he had actually passed away,” she said. “It wasn’t in our culture to come make someone sit down and tell them ‘hey, your dad is dead’ and whatever. It’s kind of like, you learn as you grow up that your dad passed away.”
Siyum praises her widowed mother, Saba, for working so hard to raise her and her sister.
“She kind of acted like a dad and a mom at the same time,” she said. “Growing up, I didn’t feel bad that I didn’t have a dad; I just grew up knowing that God was my dad.”
Siyum says her mother is to thank for her relationship with God.
“She made my relationship with God. She kind of built it, you know?” Siyum said.
Siyum feels that, by being her heavenly Father, God had filled the space her dad left when he passed away. And it was her strong Christian roots that prepared her for the struggles to come.
In 2002, the country of Eritrea was locked into a dictatorship. Residents did not have permission to flee the country, high school juniors had to start military training, and Christians experienced persecution.
At one point, Siyum’s mother was persecuted by the Eritrean government for practicing her faith through a Bible study in a private home. She was then detained for 24 hours by the government. After this, her family knew it was time to leave.
At the time of the family’s departure, the Eritrean government was allowing people to flee the country if they were at a disadvantage. Siyum says that due to her mother being widowed, the move was made possible for them.
A 10-year-old Siyum and her family then started a new life in Kenya.
Siyum’s family felt that Kenya was the right place to immigrate to since the United Nations Refugee Agency could help and support their move.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is an organization committed to helping refugees by providing care and resources.
Siyum’s family was influenced to leave because they knew their wish to immigrate to America would never be fulfilled in Eritrea. The dictatorship did not want aid for the country and removed the embassy with the United States’ consent.
Siyum said that Kenya was predominantly Christian, so she and her sister, Saron, had the opportunity to pursue their education through a boarding school there.
Due to the Christian state of the country, Siyum said her faith in God played a major role in receiving her education, as every school had religious classes. But Siyum’s family struggled to collect the money needed for their education.
“My sister and I both went to private schools, but God provided every single term.”
While Siyum often praises God for providing for her as father figure, watching over her as she left the dictatorship in Eritrea and giving her the funds she needed for her education, she experienced struggles with her faith as well.
“People would talk about how ‘God told me this, God talked to me about this,’ and I’m like, ‘well you know what, I’m his child too. Why is he not talking to me?’” Siyum said. “So I started praying about this, saying things like, ‘Hey God, why are you not talking to me?’”
Siyum said God then answered her prayers.
“I remember this dream, about this one person who was a pastor,” she said. “He was drunk and very sad and in anguish … He’s a pastor, so I wouldn’t expect it from him. That felt like a red flag to me.”
The next time she saw the pastor, Siyum approached him about her dream: “He said he had just been going through hard times,” she said. “For me it was a confirmation that it was actually God giving me this dream.”
It was around this time when the fire incident in her boarding school occurred as well, further solidifying her knowledge that God was truly a part of her life.
Siyum praises her school for the education it gave her. Each student was required to take 13 classes in a single day: biology, chemistry, physics, math, english, swahili, french, aviation, business, history, geography, computer and religious education.
“You wake up at 4:30 [a.m.], be in class at 5 [a.m.], and be done with class at 4 [p.m.],” Siyum said.
Following the fire, Siyum traveled by bus to be back with her mother. Although her school had been destroyed, Siyum’s mother continued being her biggest encourager when it came to her education.
At the end of 2013, Siyum’s mother was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer.
“My mom thought very strong about going to school. She’d never let me stay home to take care of her because I would miss school.”
After her mother’s illness took a mental toll on her, Siyum performed the worst she had ever done in school, despite her love for learning.
“She wanted us to get a better future, a better life and a better freedom for religion,” she said.
Siyum notes the moment before her mother’s death, saying, “She was walking around, but then she couldn’t breath anymore.”
When she rushed to the cab waiting outside her Kenyan house, Siyum held her mother in her arms and prayed.
“In my mind I was like, ‘God, if she dies you’re gonna bring her up from the dead ‘cause she’s not going anywhere,’” she said.
The two sisters and family friends helped their mother into the taxi, but little did they know she had already died while in Siyum’s arms, leaving Siyum and her sister parentless.
Though grieving her mother’s loss, Siyum knew she couldn’t give up on education and her family’s dream of moving to America.
In 2014, while in Kenya, Siyum and her sister finished the immigration process they had started years before with the U.S. Embassy there, and were then placed into the foster care system in Seattle.
After departing from her first foster care family, Siyum was placed where she knew God wanted her — in the arms of Seattle’s Brian Matthews and Kylie Kypreos, where she was later joined by her sister.
“God has plans that you’d never imagine, and he’s been providing all this way. His planning was amazing,” Siyum said. “I feel so close and feel loved and supported. It’s been a great experience.”
Siyum’s foster parents would often drive by SPU while she was in the car, but it wasn’t until she was a senior in high school and applying for colleges that she really learned about the university.
“This awesome family came into my life, and the lady went to SPU: she was an SPU alumni,” Siyum said. “My foster mom would always be like, ‘You know, I went to SPU, and it’s a really great school.’”
“I wanted a Christian school. I wanted to be close to home, and I wanted to be in a small school.”
Siyum says SPU met all of the criteria, but it was the feeling she had when visiting that persuaded her to finally commit to the university.
“I chose here because it felt right. It just felt so right,” she said.
Siyum now considers SPU a home, and she lives in Ashton Hall. She also plays soccer, the sport she grew up with, in her free time.
When asked if she will ever return to Kenya, Siyum says that it depends on the government and whether it is still standing.
“I am definitely going to be here to finish my degree and my masters,” she says of SPU.
Because of the obstacles Siyum has overcome, she has gained a passion for helping others.
“One area I am specialized in is the life of a teen that doesn’t have a family by their side,” she says. “I want to help cause I know how it feels to be in their shoes.”
Siyum vows to be a “source of support” wherever her life takes her after her studies at SPU.
Where will she end up after this chapter of her life? Siyum says, “Time will tell.”