My guest of the month is Lwam Ghebrehariat, who graduated from the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto, but also works as an actor. His parents left Eritrea in the late 1970s as young adults and lived in Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Italy before settling in Edmonton, Canada, where Lwam was born in1982.
In school, Lwam enjoyed academics, sports and drama, and he graduated in 2000 from a public high school in Edmonton that specialized in arts—Victoria High School. Then he moved to Montreal where he studied acting at the National Theatre School of Canada, graduating in 2003. After working as an actor in Toronto, Lwam returned to Edmonton where he received a BA (Honours) in philosophy and French from the University of Alberta in 2007.
But Lwam wanted to learn more. So he moved back to Toronto and graduated in 2011 from the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto. During law school, he worked at Downtown Legal Services and the African Canadian Legal Clinic in criminal, academic, and human rights law. Lwam competed in moot competitions, becoming the second place oralist in the Cassels Brock moot in his first year. According to Lwam the exceptional coaching that he and his team members received helped the team win first place in the national 2011 Wilson Moot. Lwam was also elected to present the valedictorian speech for the 2011 law graduates. He is now articling at a law firm in Toronto. Articling is a ten-month period of supervised work in a legal setting that all those who wish to become lawyers in Ontario and other Canadian provinces must go through. Lwam will become a full-fledged lawyer in 2012.
I interviewed Lwam, who is swiftly climbing the pinnacle of success, to share his experiences with our readers. On behalf of our readers, I would like to thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Enjoy reading!
Meftih:- If I am not mistaken, you are the first black to graduate with high mark and elected as valedictorian in the history of Law School at University of Toronto. What does it feel to be honoured on such prestigious way?
Lwam:- Actually, I am not the first black graduate to be elected valedictorian at my law school. I know of at least one other person of colour who was elected valedictorian in the past, and who is now a professor at another law school. She gave me great advice as I prepared my graduation speech. I did not have the highest mark in my graduating class, but was elected by my fellow students to give a speech on their behalf. It was a tremendous honour and privilege to address my classmates and the distinguished guests, who included former Prime Minister Paul Martin and former Defence Minister Bill Graham. It was also a humbling experience, because it reminded me of how fortunate I have been to have supportive family and friends, excellent teachers, and a caring and compassionate community in Canada. Without these things I couldn’t have come this far. One of my goals was to make people laugh during my speech, and thankfully I got a few good laughs!
Meftih:- What inspires you to pursue on the profession of Law?
Lwam:- The law is an extremely important aspect of our society. In general, entering the legal profession allows one to help others in many ways. It provides unique opportunities to interact with diverse members of the public, to contribute positively to society by advocating for important causes, and to learn how instititutions in our society work (and don’t work), and how they can be improved. As an actor with a zest for connecting with people and engaging with the public, the courtroom is a very awe-inspiring place to be.
Meftih:- How did it look like life in the University of Toronto?
Lwam:- My life at the University of Toronto was rich with experiences. I spent long hours on my exams, assignments, moots, and legal clinical work, but I also had a lot of fun interacting with some of the brightest, interesting, and accomplished people that I have ever met, including my fellow students. I’ve had the chance to interact with top notch professors, lawyers, judges, and politicians. I gained a great deal of practical experience at Downtown Legal Services and the African Canadian Legal Clinic. Toronto has been a great city to study in, because it is rich in opportunities in both law and theatre. I was able to combine my interests in law and acting by acting in a few legal-themed plays in Toronto, and by helping conduct educational theatre workshops for high school students. I most recently performed in Homegrown (Cate Frid, Aluna Theatre), a play at the 2010 Summer works Festival that received national media attention.
Meftih:- You are not only a lawyer, you are also a working actor. How did you get interested in acting at the first place?
Lwam:- I was recruited to act in school plays when I was in elementary school, because I had a loud voice and a good memory. As a child I also acted and gave speeches and presentations at Eritrean-Canadian community festivals. I had a knack for making groups of people laugh when I was on stage, and I loved the thrill of stepping on stage in front of an audience to tell a story. My drama teachers in junior high and high school were very encouraging and gave me many opportunities to act. I decided to go to an arts high school in Edmonton, Victoria High School, that had a great theatre program. There I began to study acting seriously, performing in a one man show, musicals, and playing Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Meftih:- When you planed to enrol in the National Theatre School, what was the reaction of your parents? Were they supportive or against it?
Lwam:- My parents were very supportive. Initially they were worried about me moving to another city right after high school, and were worried about my job prospects as an actor. However my parents knew that I was serious about acting and getting the best education that I could and once I convinced them that the National Theatre School was a once in a lifetime opportunity they were very supportive.
Meftih:- How challenging or refreshing was your childhood era? If there were some challenges, how did you overcome them?
Lwam:- I have been very fortunate to have caring parents and to grow up in a stable household. I got a great education from my parents and teachers in a strong public education system. Because I grew up in a safe and supportive environment, I had the luxury of spending my childhood exploring many interests. Although I didn’t have any extended family in Edmonton we had many close family friends, including many people from the Eritrean Canadian community. I will always be grateful to my parents for introducing me to the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, for taking me to meet our relatives in the USA, and for taking my siblings and I too visit our relatives in Eritrea. Our family trips to Eritrea were very special.
Meftih:- Can you tell me about the Eritrean archive website you have created? What is the idea behind? How did you come with the idea?
Lwam:- I had just finished my first year at the University of Alberta, and was looking for a summer job. I came upon a project by Professor Gary Kelly, who was a Canada Research Chair in Literature and Language in Society. He had a high tech studio of digital equipment and skilled designers and programmers who were devoted to helping researchers create attractive and interesting online databases of their work. My family and their friends had a lot of literature and artifacts from Eritrea, and I had an interest in exploring them, so I contacted Professor Kelly about creating an Eritrean website and he hired me. My favourite part of the project was interviewing Eritrean Canadians and recording and translating folk tales from Tigrinya and French to English.
Meftih:- How do you evaluate the progress of Eritrean Canadian community in general? What are the areas we should improve and the area we should strength so as to succeed in Canadian society?
Lwam:- Eritrean Canadians have worked incredibly hard and have come a long way in the last few decades, and we have much to be proud of. It is now time for people of my generation to take leadership in their communities, and to do what they can to focus some attention on the Eritrean community and other immigrant, refugee, and migrant worker communities in order to promote and strengthen equality in Canada. Eritrean Canadians should also work to foster greater solidarity with other African Canadian and immigrant communities, including those from Ethiopia, Sudan (North AND South), Djibouti and Somalia. This would be a great benefit because Eritrean Canadians have a lot to learn from other communities in Canada, and vice versa. Those in our community who achieve success should help those who may be struggling. Eritrean Canadians should also look outward, to Canadian society as a whole and to the challenges that Canada and the world faces. None of us in the Eritrean Canadian community can truly succeed unless the country and planet that we live in is in good health — environmentally, socially, economically, and politically. To this end, Eritrean Canadians should continue to get involved in the diverse public interest groups that exist in Canada.
Meftih:- What do you consider the secret of your success?
Lwam:- I wish I had a secret, but I don’t! I’ve learned the value of discipline and hard work from my parents, who got up every morning to give their children a better life. I’ve learned the value of developing and maintaining good relationships, and of reaching out to others when life gets difficult. I’ve become aware that life is very short, and that the time we have is therefore very precious and should be used well.
Meftih:- What is your future plan?
Lwam:- My immediate plan is to learn and get as much experience as I can during the articling period at my law firm. After that, I hope to continue working in Toronto and to make more connections in the Eritrean Canadian community and other immigrant, refugee, and working class communities in order to find ways to help in whatever way I can. I have some specific dreams about what I’d like to be doing in 10 or 20 years, but since life can be unpredictable it’s good to be flexible. In general I hope to continue using whatever talents I have to make a positive contribution to society. On a personal level, I’d like to learn music, keep working on my proficient Tigrinya and French, and my beginner Spanish (and maybe pick up another language if I can!)
Meftih:- What advise would you like to give to our youth?
Lwam:- The advice I would give is this: You are blessed with many talents, whether you know it or not. Spend time discovering your talents and interests, whatever they may be, and find ways to use them to make the world a better place. Reach out to others, everyone has experience and wisdom to share with you. You are lucky to have Eritrean and African roots. Try to learn as much as possible about your family’s history and culture, and also learn as much as you can about the history and culture of others in Canada. Be kind to yourself and others, and take good care of yourself and others. Have fun doing good work!
Thank you again!