Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ethiopian Yonas Seifu who was shot in the head 6 years ago works to become whole


Meeting new people is always a little tricky for Yonas Seifu, and it starts with his handshake. He uses his left hand because the bullet that remains lodged in his brain severed
many of the neural pathways controlling the right side of his body.

If he reveals he was shot, he can tell from the reaction that people immediately think, "I'm a gangster or something," said Seifu, 32. "It's kind of awkward. I'm still trying to figure out the best way to do it."

It's been six years since Seifu was critically injured when someone walked or drove by a house in Lake City and fired a single gunshot through a window early on April 23, 2006. The bullet penetrated a wall and struck Seifu, then 26, who was sitting on a couch as a party hosted by a couple of University of Washington fraternity brothers was winding down.

Seattle homicide detectives investigated the shooting, but with no known motive their case went cold. No one was ever arrested for the seemingly random shooting that has forever changed Seifu's life.

He's had dark days when he wondered if it would have been better had he not survived. Friends who surrounded and supported him during his two-month stay at Harborview Medical Center have gradually faded away and moved on with their lives, while Seifu struggles to rebuild his own.

He and his girlfriend, whom he had hoped to marry and have children with, broke up a year after he was shot, and he hasn't dated since.

But Seifu, an exceptionally bright, articulate man who exudes a gentle calm, strives to find meaning and leave a positive mark on the world, despite his continuing pain and uncertainty for the future.

"It's a struggle, and he's reminded of it every day. Yonas looks different, he walks different, he talks different. It's not something he can put behind him," said Dr. Kathleen Bell, medical director of the brain-injury rehabilitation program at the University of Washington, who has treated Seifu since his release from Harborview.



"He's a terrific guy — brave, smart — but he's still struggling with what happened to him. It's so unfair."

Ethiopia native

Seifu was born in famine-stricken Ethiopia as a years-long civil war raged on. His father, a political prisoner, escaped to Kenya and was later granted asylum in the U.S. Seifu, his mother and younger brother Natnaal eventually joined him here.

Yonas Seifu uses yoga to help with his recovery. In 2006 he was shot in the back of the head by someone who randomly fired through a window at a house in Lake City where Seifu and a group of friends had gathered. Below, he is shown at the gathering. No one was ever arrested.
The family settled in Santa Clara, Calif., where Seifu's youngest brother, Mark, was born. After his parents divorced when he was 13, his mother, Tsige, moved with her sons to Seattle, which has one of the largest Ethiopian communities in the country.

Raising her children alone was difficult, and the family stayed with friends before moving into emergency housing, then later into public housing in the Central District, Seifu said.

Seifu graduated from Garfield High School with a 3.8 GPA in 1998 and earned a number of college scholarships and grants. He interned at Microsoft during the summers and worked a variety of jobs while pursuing his degrees.

In 2002, while still a student at the UW, Seifu — an online entrepreneur who by then had his real-estate license — purchased a tiny, three-bedroom house in South Seattle, where he lived with his mother and brothers. A member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, he also founded the UW's African Student Association.

After he graduated in 2004 with degrees in electrical engineering and economics, Seifu worked in information technology for Accenture, in the IT consulting firm's Seattle office.

Hours before he was shot, Seifu had spent the evening at the UW, where he performed traditional Ethiopian dances during the school's annual Afro-Caribbean night.

After the performance, he went to a Lake City rental house where his friends were hosting a party.

"I went to the party with the fellas and I was having a good time," he recalled. "My phone died so I stayed longer than I thought."

At 4:32 a.m., Seattle police responded to a call of shots fired in the 14300 block of 20th Avenue Northeast, where they found a critically injured Seifu, said police spokesman Mark Jamieson.

Jamieson said detectives interviewed everybody who attended the party, but "there was unfortunately no good description of the shooter." The case remains open and Jamieson encouraged anyone with information about the shooting to contact the homicide unit at 206-684-5550 or the unit's tip line, 206-233-5000.

Seifu's shooting came during what then-police Chief Gil Kerlikowske called a "rash of gun violence" in Seattle, similar to what the city is experiencing now, including the apparently random, fatal shooting of 21-year-old Nicole Westbrook as she walked home early Sunday in Pioneer Square.

"I was so into succeeding. I was the man of the house," said Seifu. After the shooting, "it was like a rug was slipped out from under me and I was falling."

Full rehab regimen

After his release from Harborview, Seifu threw himself into rehab — he's gone through physical, cognitive, occupational, speech and psychiatric therapy — but he said his healing is "like a climb."

"When you go through rehab, in the first couple of years there's a spike in healing and after that, it gradually slows down," said Seifu, who now lives with his family in Shoreline to be closer to Mark's high school.

"I had to relearn pretty much the majority of things," including walking and talking, Seifu said. He also battled depression as he mourned the life he lost, though he's working his way toward acceptance.

"I was just very angry in all aspects of life. I was like, 'Why me?' " he said. "... I was waiting for that moment" when things would return to normal, but "six years later, that still hasn't happened."

Born right-handed, he had to learn to write with his left hand. His speech is slower and he walks with a limp. He will be on medication for the rest of his life to keep seizures under control.

Until a couple of years ago, when he underwent reconstructive surgery, Seifu's skull was badly deformed — which added to his social and emotional challenges, said Dr. Arti Chandra, his family physician.

"He's so pure and he's so authentic in his being. Even when he was an injured soul and deformed, he had this authenticity through it all," said Chandra.

She bumped into him recently at a Starbucks "and I literally had tears in my eyes — he was fluid in his speech, he was happy and confident and he had this air of gratitude for everything that's got him to where he is now."

While his intellect remains intact, Seifu continues to have problems with motor functions, along with some of his thinking skills, said Bell, the UW neurologist.

"People think of a traumatic brain injury as a single incident, but it's more a chronic problem ... that they deal with for the rest of their lives," Bell said of her patients. Seifu deals with a lot of pain in his back, arms, shoulders and legs and "just like a diabetic needs to take insulin every day, Yonas has to exercise every day. It's not a one-time affair that ends."

Seifu has found both a physical and spiritual outlet in yoga, which he regularly practices at a 24-Hour Fitness club in Shoreline.

"Yoga's been my lifeline," he said. "I used to play basketball. It was my therapy in life, but yoga has replaced it."

Unable to work, Seifu receives disability payments through Social Security. He volunteers at the Ethiopian Community Center on Rainier Avenue South and helps his mother run a small nonprofit for Ethiopian orphans who have lost their parents to AIDS.

He's also involved with a professional network concerned with the "brain drain" from Ethiopia and another group working to create volunteer opportunities for people who visit Ethiopia.

Seifu recently began an accounting class at Shoreline Community College and dreams of returning to school to get his MBA.

"I took a couple tests to measure my capabilities, and I have some deficiencies," he said. "I'm a little fearful of finding out what I can't do."

He's still trying to make his mark on the world and find meaning in what's happened to him.

"Maybe this has a purpose and I'm being used to show something. How I handle it is another challenge in life, another test," Seifu said. "... I feel like I still have a lot of knowledge to give out to the world."

Still, he'd like to see someone held accountable for firing that bullet.

"I think there are people who know, who saw the news," Seifu said. "I wonder how they can remain silent."
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