Unbreakable Spirit: A Student's Journey From the Streets of Ethiopia to the UA

By:
Alexis Blue , University Communications
The newest members of the UA Men's Wheelchair Basketball Team.

University of Arizona freshman Josh Brewer was told by many of his high school teachers that college might not be an option for him.

After all, he'd never set foot in a classroom until sixth grade, and academics didn't come easily to him.

Then again, nothing about Brewer's life had been easy.

From his days begging for food in his native Ethiopia to the horrific accident that nearly claimed his life, Brewer endured more than his fair share of trauma by the time he was a high school senior, yet his perseverance and drive only continued to grow.

So, when his teachers told him college might not be right for him, he didn't let it discourage him. He applied to the University of Arizona, where he dreamed of playing basketball.

Brewer starts as a freshman and student-athlete at the UA this fall. A triple amputee, he will play on the UA's Men's Wheelchair Basketball team, fulfilling a dream he never could have known he would have when was a young child living on the streets of Ethiopia.

A child on his own  

Brewer was born in Ethiopia and lived with his father until he was 7 years old. His parents weren't married, but when his father passed away, Brewer was sent to live with his mom. The only problem was, she didn't want him, Brewer says.

"I resembled a lot of my dad to her, and he wasn't the best person in the world, I guess," he says.

Brewer spent a little over a year living with his mother and older brother in a home where he says he felt the pain of neglect. When conditions didn't improve, he decided to leave.

At 8 years old, he didn't have any money. He didn't have a plan. He'd never been to school. He hitchhiked on a bus to the Ethiopian city of Metehara, where he slept at bus stops and anywhere else he could find shelter.  

Although he'd left his family, Brewer wasn't entirely alone. On the streets of Ethiopia in 2003, there were many kids like him, he recalls. His is not an uncommon story in a country with one of the world's largest populations of orphans. An estimated 13 percent, or 4.6 million, Ethiopian children are missing one or both parents – some 800,000 of them orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Brewer isn't sure how his father died. "He was just gone one day," he says. 

It was on the streets that Brewer made a new family of kids like him. Kids without homes. Kids without parents. Kids learning how to take care of themselves when no one else would, or could.

"Once you figure out people's stories, you end up building a bond, where you've got each other's backs," Brewer says. "A wolfpack kind of thing happens."

In Brewer's wolfpack, he was one of six kids, ranging in age from about 6 to 14. Together, they begged for food. They carried sacks of grain or washed cars for money. They got the occasional handout of food or shoes from the Mother Teresa Foundation. No one ever offered to take them in, Brewer says.

They found the safest places they could to sleep — in busy areas where police were present. Still, they witnessed things no child should.

"I've seen robberies, I've seen people at gunpoint. I've seen a lot of crazy stuff that the average person shouldn't see, and to me it was normal," Brewer says.

Every few weeks, the townspeople grew tired of seeing the kids around, so they would have to move to a new place. That's when they'd ride the rails.

There were two choices for hitching a ride on a train, Brewer says. If you were lucky, you'd find an empty flatbed where you could lie down for the journey. Otherwise, you'd have a far less comfortable ride, standing in the small space between two train cars.

For a year and a half, this was Brewer's life — searching for food and odd jobs, moving farther and farther down the tracks from what once was home. There's no telling how long things would have continued that way had it not been for the moment that would forever change — and nearly end — Brewer's life.

The accident

Brewer and his wolfpack were traveling from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to a city five hours away. When their train stopped, they hopped off to scavenge for food. But on this day, Brewer's friends were quicker than he was.

"They ended up getting food before I did, so I was still searching," he recalls. "By the time I got back to the train, it was already moving."

With no flatbeds available, Brewer had to find one of those cramped spaces between cars. He raced alongside the moving train and reached up, preparing to jump.

The train accelerated.

Everything went black.

Brewer doesn't know how much time passed before he woke up, alone, alongside the tracks. When he looked down at his small, 10-year-old frame, he saw his right arm, which he describes as looking like "a fresh green banana, broken open."

In shock, he lost consciousness. When he woke a second time, a group of people had gathered around him. He looked down to see that both of his legs were gone.

"I remember hearing two people arguing about my life," he says. "One was saying, 'Let him die. He's almost dead.' The other person was arguing, saying, "No, you have to give him a chance.'"

The next thing Brewer remembers was like a scene in the movie, he says — a flash of bright hospital lights overhead.

He remembers nothing after that until the day he woke from his coma. He's not sure how long he was asleep but suspects it was a week or two, because when he opened his eyes, his aunt, who lived in a faraway village and would have been difficult to locate, was there.

Two members of Josh's wolfpack would also later find him at the hospital somehow, but Brewer says his mother, who had arrived as well, chased the boys away.

Brewer lost both of his legs when he was hit by the train. His right arm was amputated at the elbow at the hospital.

He says his mother told the doctors she didn't know what she would do with him.

A new wolfpack

Life was about to start over again for Brewer for the third time in his young existence, and the future was as uncertain as it had ever been.

His surgeon, Barry Hicks, an Australian doctor who did work in Ethiopia, took Brewer into his care and eventually flew him to Australia — Brewer's first time on an airplane. Hicks and his wife tried to adopt Josh but were unable because of legal limitations that set a maximum age limit for adoptive parents.

The couple made it their mission to find the young boy a family. That's where the Brewers come in.

Matthew and Laura Brewer lived in Spokane, Washington with their six children — two adopted, two biological and two from Laura's previous marriage. When Laura heard the boy's story, she knew that she was meant to be his mother.

"She felt like God told her that I'm the kid for her," Brewer says.

And so Brewer's second trip on an airplane crossed the Atlantic to live with a family he'd never met, whose language he didn't speak.

Suddenly, he found himself part of a new wolfpack — the middle child and final addition to this family of nine. It wasn't easy, he recalls.

"I was going through a lot of trust issues, so I had a lot of trouble trusting people and opening myself up," says Brewer, who was 11 years old when he met his adoptive family for the first time. "It was a struggle for the first three years, being part of the family, but over time I felt like it was home. My siblings loved me and cared for me, and my parents supported me in everything that I did, so it broke down my walls."

As if adjusting to a new family, home and culture wasn't enough, Brewer also started school for the first time, as a sixth grader. Not only did he not speak the same language as his classmates at Bowdish Middle School, he also was one of few black students, and he was a triple amputee in a wheelchair.

"It was the toughest thing I've ever been through," Brewer says. "Public school is no joke."

Since no one spoke Brewer's native language of Amharic, he had to learn English through immersion, which made school especially difficult. And though he had picked up some basic addition and subtraction to get by on the streets, he lagged behind his peers academically.

"I didn't understand what school meant at the time. I didn't know the value of it," he says.

Yet, he embraced the challenge.

"It motivated me to do my best — to be able to speak clearly, to be able to make friends, to be surrounded by people without feeling like I'm just the kid missing three limbs," he says. "Kids didn't know how to approach me, they didn't know what to say, but once I got a grip on how to at least say my name and say hello, that helped me make friends."

As Brewer adjusted to his new home and school, something else unexpected was about to enter his life and set him on the path to where he is today.

Finding home on the court

While undergoing physical therapy at Spokane's Shriner's Hospital for Children, Brewer was approached by Teresa Skinner, an occupational therapist and executive director of the Spokane-based adaptive athletics organization ParaSport. She suggested Brewer think about playing basketball as a way to stay active.

In Ethiopia, soccer and track are far more popular. Brewer didn't know anything about basketball. He couldn't imagine how he'd be any good at the sport, but with Skinner's persistent encouragement, he decided to try.

"I went out there and pushed a little bit," Brewer recalls. "I was getting beat by everybody, and it motivated me. I continued to go to practice more often, and from there on, it became, in a way, like a meditation for me. If I felt stressed out or had too much going on in my life, I could silence it all by being in the gym by myself with my headphones on."

Over time, Brewer fell in love with the sport. He spent six years playing junior division wheelchair basketball while continuing to push himself in school.

In 2015, his dedication to his schoolwork paid off when he graduated from high school alongside some of his best friends to this day — the kids he met at Bowdish Middle School.

That same year, Brewer's athletic abilities also paid off in a big way. He earned an invitation to play with the men's U.S. Wheelchair Rugby Team. Though he'd never played rugby, he picked it up quickly and found himself competing at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. Team USA took home a silver medal, losing to Australia by 1 point in double overtime.

Brewer was among the Olympic and Paralympic athletes invited to the White House to meet the president and first lady after the games. He shook Barack Obama's hand; Michelle gave him a hug.

He'd come a long way from riding the rails.

During Brewer's foray into rugby, he continued in basketball, playing for two seasons for the Rogue Valley Scorpions, a Division 1 wheelchair basketball team in Medford, Oregon. At the time, he was on the young side to qualify for the highly competitive men's Paralympic basketball team, but he's determined to play for Team USA in the future.

"I will be there," he says. "That's been one of my goals since I fell in love with this sport, and I know I will be there."

From wolfpack to Wildcat

When Brewer was playing basketball in the junior division, he traveled to Phoenix for tournaments, and that's when he first saw the UA Wheelchair Basketball Team and coach Derek Brown in action.

"I remember seeing Coach Derek Brown and the way he coached, and I liked that aspect of the U of A," he said.

In 2016, when he was 19, Brewer decided to visit the UA. He knew right away he wanted to be a Wildcat.

"I fell in love with the campus and the people I met. The weather was great, the people were smiling, and from then on it's been a destination for me to get to," he says.

The UA's Disability Resource Center, which is home to the UA's Adaptive Athletics Program, was a major part of what drew Brewer to the university.

"It's a great facility for wheelchair basketball and for academics," Brewer says.

Brewer was so determined to attend the UA that he moved to Tucson to establish Arizona residency a year before he knew whether or not he would be accepted.

"I felt like if I was given the opportunity, I would work as hard as the next person, and that's all I've ever asked for is just opportunities. From there, it's up to me," he says.

When Brewer got the phone call in June that he'd been accepted to the UA, he was at a basketball tournament in Houston.

"I screamed, I really did," he says. "I was next to one of my teammates, and he was like, 'Are you OK?' I'm like, 'Yeah, this is the best thing I've heard all year.' There were a lot of emotions."

Brown, who has been at the UA since 1997, says he looks forward to having Brewer join his roster of 14 players.

"He looks very promising as far as what he's going to be able to contribute to the team's success this season," Brown says. "He's got great work ethic, he's got a lot of speed, and he's going to add some additional and welcome depth to our team."

A better life

Brewer, now 22, lives in an off-campus apartment he shares with a fellow incoming freshman teammate from Salt Lake City.

He is as serious about academics as he is about basketball. When he's not training at the Student Recreation Center, he's hitting the books at the UA and Pima Community College libraries. He hasn't chosen a major yet, but is trying to soak up as much general knowledge as he can.

"I continue to work hard, and I spend my time trying to basically educate myself in all the subjects I think I'm lacking in," he says.

Brewer is the first of his six adoptive siblings to attend college. He remains close to his brothers and sisters and their children (he has six nieces and nephews) and he's also close to his proud parents in Spokane. His mother, Laura, is a stay-at-home mom. His father, Matthew, in an ironic twist of fate that gets an eye roll and good-natured laugh from Brewer, works in railroad maintenance.

Brewer has heard from his biological mother, too. She found him on Facebook, and although Brewer no longer speaks his native language, he's used Google Translate to communicate with her and his sister in Ethiopia. He doesn't hold a grudge. In fact, he hopes to visit Ethiopia again one day, and says he'd like to see his family there.

"The older and more mature I've gotten, the more open-minded I am," he says. "I'm glad that my mom had me. She didn't make the best of decisions with me, but that happens in life, and I'm willing to move on and build a stronger relationship between us."

Brewer acknowledges that his life hasn't been easy, but says he wouldn't change it.

"It's been a tough journey, but at the same time it's been one that I will never regret or replace. I'm very thankful for everything I've gone through," he says.

And while there were plenty of moments when he could have just quit, that's simply not Brewer's style. In his words: "I feel like life is about growth, in every way, so if I'm not trying, why I am I here?"

Brewer is excited for the next part of his journey, at the UA and in life, and hopes he can one day help others who've come from challenging circumstances.

"I want better things in life for myself," he says. "I've had the worst of the worst, and that's one of the reasons that if I ever have the financial ability to be able to support other people who don't have the means to support themselves, I want to be able to provide that, not just here in the U.S. but also in Ethiopia, where I'm from — the streets I grew up on, the places I slept, those kids that nobody gives a lot of thought to. That's always been on my heart, because I do have the opportunity to do what I can with what I've been given. If I can give back to them, that would mean a lot to me, and probably mean a lot to them."