By Brenda Kahn
Flanking the steps leading to the second floor of the C Building at Berkeley High School is a pair of colorful and poignant murals dedicated to students who died in the 1997-98 academic year. Nearby, adjacent to the G/H Building, is a small memorial grove dedicated by the Berkeley High School Computer Academy Class of 2000 “to the students and staff of Berkeley High School who have passed away.”
But for Yonas Mehari, a popular and involved Berkeley High student who was murdered at home in 2006 during the fall of his senior year when he was just 17, there appears to be nothing specific to mark his brutal death at the hands of a family member.
Scratch the surface, however, and memories flood back for current and former Berkeley High staff members who interacted with Mehari, an engaging and ambitious Eritrean immigrant who played on the school’s soccer teams, ran track and held leadership positions in two clubs — and aspired to attend U.C. Berkeley.
Mehari, his mother and his older sister were murdered in the family’s apartment on Thanksgiving Day 2006. It took nearly five years for a verdict to be reached in the triple murder case, but last week an Oakland jury found two members of Mehari’s extended family guilty of three counts of first degree murder plus related charges
The fact that Yonas Mehari had escaped mortal danger in a war-torn region of East Africa only to be gunned down by members of his own extended family here in the relatively safe haven of the East Bay — and on the most American of holidays — gave the case an added dimension of tragedy.
When reached by phone last week, Berkeley High Assistant Principal Kristin Glenchur said she had heard about the recent verdict on the news. She recalled Mehari’s presence at school, as well as his death. “When a student dies in their senior year, that’s awful,” said Glenchur, who was the school’s athletic director at the time Mehari attended Berkeley High. “There’s a bit of an imprint there.”
For Glenchur and other current and former BHS staff interviewed for this story, Mehari stood out from the crowd in various ways.
“He was a really interesting kid, quirky, with a little mischievous smile,” Glenchur said, who came to know Mehari well through his involvement in athletics during his nearly four years at the school. “I can tell you he loved soccer. You’d always see him with a soccer ball,” she said.
Former Berkeley High college advisor Ilene Abrams likewise had no trouble remembering Mehari or his death. “It stood out because I knew Yonas so well and he died such a violent death,” she said.
The College and Career Center, Abram’s domain, was one of Mehari’s favorite hang-outs at school, and she probably got to know him as well as anyone at the school. She easily rattled off his accomplishments and attributes.
“He was an amazing kid,” said Abrams. “He did so many things. He did sports, he tutored other kids, he was in ELL (the program for English Language Learners). He was in the College Center all the time. He was a real leader,” she said. “He had a smile on his face all the time. He was someone who was friends with everyone …He was such an alive person, such a force.”
According to Abrams, Mehari’s fellow students in the ELL program were “completely devastated” by his sudden death. Mourning students gravitated to the College and Career Center, where they turned a table into a makeshift shrine and wrote heartfelt remembrances and farewells on a piece of butcher paper.
“The College Center was where people came to mourn him,” said Abrams. “It was a place to share their grief.”
Grieving students organized a fundraising drive in order to help send the bodies of Mehari, his mother, and his sister back to Eritrea for burial, she said.
Abrams said she also was devastated by the loss at the time of the murder, and felt compelled to go to the family’s apartment complex the day she read about it in the paper, over that Thanksgiving weekend. “I thought it was important for someone from the school to go over there. I just sat and talked with people for a while.” She also went to the victims’ funeral at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland. “It was an incredible gathering of the community,” she said.
“He was a wonderful young man with a big future in front of himself. He could have done whatever he wanted to do,” Abrams observed.
Janet Huseby, volunteer coordinator for Berkeley High, also has fond memories of Mehari, whom she came to know well in her role directing the school’s college essay coaching program. Mehari was a regular “client” at the essay-coaching table at the school’s College and Career Center in the fall of 2006. “So much of it was his energy,” said Huseby. “He was a real go-getter. He was fun to be around. You can’t believe someone like that is gone. It seems so unfair.”
Huseby pointed to something concrete to remember Mehari by: an essay he wrote for his U.C. application that was included in the The Berkeley Book of College Essays, published under the Cody’s bookstore imprint in 2007 and still available for purchase at the BHS College and Career Center for $15. In the essay, Mehari talked about his leadership role with the Earphone Club, which brought English language learners together at lunchtime once a week to listen to English books on tape while following along with the text.
Huseby also pointed to Mehari’s role in founding a club that brought together students of Eritrean and Ethiopian descent. The goal was to foster ties between these two groups while also exposing the larger student body to the richness of their cultures. The club eventually disbanded, and, while efforts were made to revive it this academic year as the Ethiopian and Eritrean Alliance, it never got off the ground.
If he were alive, Mehari would no doubt be heartened to learn that a student of Eritrean descent had climbed the political ladder at Berkeley High to become student body president this academic year: senior Raymok Ketema. Although she had only met Mehari once, her older sister was good friends with him, and his death is seared in Ketema’s memory, who was in eighth grade at the time. “I remember the day so well. It was my birthday,” she said of the Thanksgiving Day 2006 murders.
Ketema lamented the lack of a memorial for Mehari and the other Berkeley High students who have passed away in recent years, to keep their memory alive among future generations. “People die, and we do something at the moment, and we don’t keep it going,” she said, calling for something more lasting by which to honor and remember deceased students. “If it can’t be a memorial, then do something like make an announcement on the anniversary of the death,” she suggested.
In the meantime, the generic memorial grove outside the school’s G/H Building will have to do, even though the stone marker is largely obscured by foliage and it’s unclear whether this particular memorial was intended to honor those who passed away in generations beyond the class of 2000. The inscription on the stone ends with these words: “May They Never Be Forgotten” — who “they” specifically refers to is not readily apparent.