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Man shakes off tragedy to excel at Alabama high school

April 14, 2018

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Thierry Havah plans to make the most of his opportunity.

That’s why the Huffman High School senior slides out of bed at 3 a.m. each day, rising early to study for a few hours and do chores while most of his classmates sleep. Havah’s drive is one of the big reasons he’s Huffman’s 2018 valedictorian and a regional winner in the 2018 Bryant-Jordan Scholarship Program.

“You’ve got to work,” he said. “Nothing is given.”

Havah’s story sounds better suited for a Hollywood movie studio than a Birmingham high school. The 3 a.m. wake-up calls are nothing compared to what he’s already endured.

First abandoned by his mother as a toddler in west Africa, Havah emigrated to the United States and met his father for the first time as a 12-year-old, had to learn English and get acclimated quickly to American life, and then lost his step-mother to a heart attack in 2017. Those experiences forged Havah’s steely determination.

The teenager suffered a knee injury and has missed all of the 2018 soccer season, but his story of perseverance has made him a regional winner in this year’s Bryant-Jordan Scholarship’s Achievement category, which honors Alabama high school athletes who have overcome personal hardship to excel on and off the field. He has earned a $2,500 scholarship and could get more.

“He’s a shining example of what you can do,” Huffman Principal John Lyons said. “He beat the odds to do it. As a principal, I couldn’t be more proud of him. He’s a role model for every student we have.”

Koffi Havah Dovi — Thierry’s father — came to the United States in 2000 in search of a better life for his growing family. Theirry was only a month old.

Then 27, Dovi left two sons behind in the west African nation of Togo with plans to find work, send money home to his family and eventually bring his family to the United States.

Thierry’s mother abandoned him when he was a toddler, and he has no memories of her. He then lived with his paternal grandmother and other family. Life wasn’t easy. He helped care for an aunt, who passed away.

At school, Thierry said he would “get whoopings” for virtually any transgression, even for arriving late.

“Where I come from, I had to grow up early,” Theirry said.

Things weren’t much better for Dovi, who first went to New York City and was homeless, sleeping on the street, before finding work.

Dovi eventually came to Alabama and married, laying a solid foundation before bringing Theirry to the United States when he was 12. He has another son who still lives in Togo, whom he’s trying to bring to Birmingham.

Theirry didn’t understand a word of English when he arrived, although he speaks French and Mina, his native African language, but he picked up the new language by watching TV and listening to others. He said having his father and stepmother speak only English at home helped immensely.

He quickly joined the debate team at Huffman Middle School and emerged as a standout.

“I don’t know how that happened,” Dovi said of his son’s language transition. “It’s amazing.”

By the time Theirry arrived in the United States, Dovi had married Felecia Etheridge-Dovi, owner of Etheridge Senior Car Wash in Birmingham.

It didn’t take long for Theirry, then 12, to realize life in America was not the Utopian dream he’d envisioned.

“Our perspective was America was where everyone is wealthy, because that’s what they show us,” Theirry said. “I came here and the first place I went to is the car wash, and I thought, ‘This is not what I thought.’

“I worked in the car wash when it’s cold, hot, and I just love it. . That job let me know America is not just a country where everything is easy. You know, you’ve got to work for everything. I love it. I just love it.”

Added Dovi, “He’d work in the rain, in the cold, in the heat. He’d never stop. When he puts his mind on something, he will do it. You can’t stop him.”

Etheridge-Dovi quickly became the mother figure he never had.

Theirry enrolled at Huffman Middle School and joined the school’s debate team, emerging as a team leader despite the language barrier.

At Huffman High, he excelled academically and has made straight As since the 10th grade. He joined the soccer team and recently learned he’s the 2018 valedictorian.

But high school brought another tragedy when Etheridge-Dovi died of an apparent heart attack while Theirry played basketball outside. He was among those who found her body in the family’s home.

Even that shock and tragedy couldn’t derail Thierry. If anything, it galvanized his determination to succeed. He said he plans to study engineering in college and has received scholarship offers from Alabama A&M, Miles and Tuskegee.

“There are people with potential, but they do not have the opportunity. I want to use the opportunity that God gave me,” he said. “I am nobody. I have not done anything. You can’t be satisfied, because the moment you’re satisfied, you’re stuck.

“I will rise up, no matter what.”

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Information from: The Birmingham News, http://www.al.com/birminghamnews

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