Kim & Aga: Across continents, common ground

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2012 - 3:25 PM

A friendship that spanned continents and nationalities survived risk.

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On a recent trip to the skating rink with Kim Deprenger, right, Aga Ayana helps 6-year-old friend Feanan put on his skates before they take a spin.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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That Kim Deprenger, 56, taught English to Aga Ayana, 27, in his native Ethiopia doesn't make this story special. That Aga risked his life to be friends with Kim certainly does.

Kim met Aga in 2007, while she was teaching at Adama University. The American woman quickly made an impression on the Oromo students -- one in particular.

"Her Oromo was ... not perfect," Aga says with a laugh. "She needed a grade-one book."

Aga found her that book. They began meeting for coffee and discovered they had much in common, from movies to theater to biking.

During one school break, teacher and student spent a week riding through the western region to Aga's family home.

Kim soon realized that her relationship with Aga could be perilous. Aga told Kim that he had been jailed several times for participating in protests and refusing to join the government party. Suddenly, Kim was suspect, too, and followed everywhere.

"People wondered, 'Why would you quit a good job and come teach in a poor country?' The Ethiopian government thought I might be some kind of CIA agent or a spy for the Oromo Liberation Front."

With children Aga's age, Kim grew deeply protective of him and his family. When her one-year teaching contract ended in 2008, Kim returned to St. Paul to teach ESL at Dugsi Academy. Aga, forced to flee his country, ended up in Nairobi, Kenya. Kim sent him money every month for two years and visited him twice.

"I felt that part of the reason he had to leave Ethiopia was because of his association with me," says Kim, who began studying the refugee and resettlement process to help his case.

Persistence paid off. Aga arrived in Minnesota in September 2010 as a political refugee and now studies nursing at St. Paul College.

Almost every weekend, he and Kim get together to usher at local theaters, ride their bikes or take members of the Twin Cities East African community to the roller rink, sledding hill, park or movie theater. Although he sprained his leg the first time he skated, ending up on crutches, Aga now rolls with confidence.

Because of Kim, he said, "I have my happiness, the one I had when I grew up with my family."

Kim feels equally lucky. "You think you know your future," Kim says, "but there are always surprises along the way."

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