Touro Public Health Celebrates Founder with Hero Award

Program Fetes Dr. Assefaw Tekeste Ghebrekidan as Global Health Hero

May 29, 2023
The photo shows Dr. Assefaw Tekeste Ghebrekidan and Dr. Gayle Cummings smiling as they look at the Hero Award presented to Dr. Ghebrekidan.
Dr. Assefaw Tekeste Ghebrekidan, left, and Dr. Gayle Cummings smile as they look at the Hero Award presented to Dr. Ghebrekidan.

Dr. Assefaw Tekeste Ghebrekidan is a rebel, a legend in his native land and an icon in the public health community.

And now he’s a hero.

Ghebrekidan was the guest of honor at the Touro University California Public Health program’s 12th Annual Hero Awards celebration March 31 in the ballroom at the Farragut Inn.

The celebration brought together two rebels from a pair of African nations.

Ghebrekidan earned his medical degree at Haile Selassie I University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and worked as a physician and activist in Eritrea. He crafted the national health policy of the transitional government of Eritrea and became minister of the Department of Social Affairs in the provisional government before becoming an exile.

The public health icon, by nature, shies away from the spotlight. He does, however, share his experiences as appropriate with his public health students. And he has occasionally gone on the record with his experiences.

Ghebrekidan authored an essay about his experiences in Eritrea that was included in “The Practice of International Health: A Case-Based Orientation,” published in 2009 by Oxford University press and edited by Daniel Perlman and Ananya Roy.

Ghebrekidan in the essay, titled “Nomads and Nationalists in the Eritrean Sahel,” describes his involvement in efforts to free Eritrea from Ethiopian rule:

  • He became involved in the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front at the age of 19, became a doctor and was subsequently arrested by Ethiopian authorities for providing medicine and medical equipment to the freedom fighters.
  • He was rescued and became a fixture with what he describes as the pastoralists of the remote and rugged region.
  • He helped to build a network of medical teams not only to serve the freedom fighters but also the various clans whose members migrated through the region, following the rains from season to season to maintain their small herds of goats.

Ghebrekidan operated in austere conditions out of an underground hospital, shielded from Ethiopian attack. A photo included with the essay shows a young Ghebrekidan in an underground health center in the mid-1980s, about six years before his country gained its independence in the early 1990s.

He returned to academia in 1994 as the dean of the faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Asmara. Once in exile, he earned a Doctor of Public Health degree from the University of California, Berkeley for his study on corruption and its effect on health in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ghebrekidan joined Touro University California in 2005 as the founding Director of the Public Health program. He became director emeritus of the program in 2016, continuing with Touro as a professor of global health.

Dr. Theogene Rudasingwa, who is originally from Rwanda, flew in from Washington, D.C., to attend the retirement luncheon at Touro. He said he met Ghebrekidan in 2006 or 2007 when both men were in exile in the U.S.

Rudasingwa grew up in refugee camps as Rwanda transitioned from Belgian colonial rule. He became a leader in the fledgling nation, serving as chief of staff to the President after serving as his country’s ambassador to the United States for three years. He has lived in exile in the U.S. since 2004 after a falling out with the Rwandan president.

The two men visited throughout the luncheon and were tablemates.

Rudasingwa refers to Ghebrekidan as “my dear brother” and “a special human being.” He spoke of Ghebrekidan’s work in Eritrea and how fortunate Touro was to add him to the faculty.

“His heart is so large, and he helped transform a nation,” Rudasingwa said.

That drive to help make life better for others through public health helped define Ghebrekidan’s approach to his work at Touro.

“He’s been a rebel. I’ve been a rebel,” Rudasingwa said. “He will always be a rebel.”

He also spoke of Ghebrekidan’s soft-spoken nature. His humility, Rudasingwa said, is key to Ghebrekidan’s nature, along with his calming presence and his ability to weather any crisis.

“Yet behind that calm demeanor he has a very, very iron resilience,” Rudasingwa said.

He said Ghebrekidan’s retirement does not necessarily represent the end of his involvement with Touro University California. He called his friend “an enduring learner, an enduring teacher.”

“That will never end,” Rudasingwa said, and “will continue to be a defining characteristic of his life.”

“He’s permanently an ambassador of the university forever,” Rudasingwa said.

Dr. Gayle Cummings, Assistant Dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences and Program Director of Public Health, describes herself as Ghebrekidan’s “grasshopper for many years,” working alongside him to build the program from its inception. She said Ghebrekidan “really put Touro on the public health map.”

Touro University California CEO and Provost Dr. Sarah Sweitzer spoke of Ghebrekidan’s influence worldwide in the public health community during his almost 20 years at Touro and before his time at Touro. She praised him for the manner in which he built the program as its first director and fused it with other university programs.

“It really is woven within the DNA of all of our college programs,” Sweitzer said of Public Health’s role at the university.

“We would not be in this room today without you,” said Dr. Lisa May Norton, Dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences.

Former Dean Dr. Jim O’Connor called Ghebrekidan “the original hero in public health.” He said they worked together and eventually became friends.

“I soon realized what a warrior he is, what a wonderful man he is,” O’Connor said of his relationship with Ghebrekidan. “He is the voice of Free Eritrea in this country.”

“To know someone with that commitment, with that passion and dedication, is truly an honor,” O’Connor said.

Charles Clements, a colleague of Ghebrekidan at Touro, credits battlefield techniques developed by Ghebrekidan and his medical counterparts during the fight for freedom in Eritrea with informing battlefield techniques employed by doctors and medics during the Vietnam War.

“He’s legendary in Eritrea,” Clements said.

Sweitzer spoke Ghebrekidan’s ability to come into a space, listen, synthesize what’s taking place and “to bring people together.”

Cummings described Ghebrekidan as “a true listener,” someone who “doesn’t have to be the loudest person in the room or the person who talks the most in the room,” but who manages to lead people to successful outcomes.

“He’s such a humble man,” Cummings said.

Ghebrekidan, when it was time for him to take the stage, was, as those who know him would expect, humble and soft-spoken. He said he served under five provosts and three deans and was fortunate to always have what he described as great support from the administration. He gave credit to the university’s staff and his colleagues for the Public Health program’s success, and said he leaves with no regrets.

“I had a wonderful time, for the past almost two decades, with you,” he said.

Ghebrekidan acknowledged then the passing of the torch to Cummings, who he described as “my first colleague.”

“She is my friend and now my replacement,” he said. “She is the leader, the glue, the island, even in the storm.”

“I’m sure the future is bright,” he said.

Watch the tribute video here.