It was 4 a.m. and Dagim Haile-Leul couldn’t sleep. Instead, he sat in the living room with his mom, and they cried. The house was full of family photos of weddings, babies, and graduations. Some of those photos were of his cousin, Yonas Seifu, who was fighting for his life at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Weeks earlier — on April 23, 2006 — Yonas was hit in the back of the head by a stray bullet, while at a friend’s house. Yonas, then 26, had graduated from the University of Washington with degrees in economics and electrical engineering. He was a consultant with a successful company, and was recognized as a leader in Seattle’s Ethiopian community. “It didn’t seem real,” says Dagim, who was a senior in high school then, and now is a senior at Seattle Pacific University. “He was our pioneer, the one who made it — the golden child.” That night, Dagim and his mom prayed, and he told her, “I have to do something.”
Tension in the community was high and retaliation seemed like a possibility. “I allowed my vision to clear. I wanted to change the direction of that momentum and create something that embodies Yonas,” he says. That’s how he came up with the idea for Hoops for Hope: a basketball tournament to raise money for Yonas’ medical needs and to help bring an end to gun violence. Dagim spent about a month-and-a-half working on the details throughout each night along with his long-time mentor, Sahara Anthony.
In the meantime, Yonas could not walk or talk and needed skull surgery. When he heard about Hoops for Hope, he vowed to work hard in physical therapy so he could walk into the tournament. “I wanted to be an inspiration for all the people who were supporting me and to show them, I’m not taking this lying down,” Yonas says. He only had weeks, but he walked into the gym that August using a cane and wearing a helmet. The crowd of about 800 people at the tournament was speechless. “Every one of us was in tears,” says Dagim’s mother, Zene Tefera. “It was something that we didn’t think would happen in such a short time.”
The tournament was far from just a basketball tournament. It was a two-day event that included raffles, free haircuts, hair braiding, guest speakers, dance team performances, a dinner auction, and more. It united Seattle’s East African and African American communities, and raised $13,000 for Yonas’ medical expenses.
For Dagim, that was not the end of Hoops for Hope, but only the beginning. Tali Hairston, the director of SPU’s John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development, loves how Dagim has taken his personal pain and used it as a launch pad to make a difference. “This is not a distant issue that has never affected his life,” Hairston says. “This is personal. This is God speaking into his life and using it for others.” Hairston says that this is a biblical model of engaging the culture. “You have people who are affected by something and experience forgiveness and
repentance,” he says. “There are so many ways to engage the culture. But to really engage my own injustice, my own condition, my own struggle — and to empower myself to act in God’s way toward that struggle — is powerful.”
After the first Hoops for Hope, Dagim continued to get phone calls from community members and the media about gun violence issues in Seattle. He held tournaments between 2007 and 2009 to help families alleviate funeral costs and help at-risk youth go to college. Dagim went to Eastern Washington University, then Xavier in New Orleans, and then came back to Seattle after losing his best friend in a house fire. Last year, he came to SPU and has found it to be a place of rest.
“When I first looked at SPU and saw its vision of ‘engaging the culture, changing the world,’ it felt like a fit. That’s what I felt I had done with my life,” he says.
Dagim acknowledges that gun violence is still a huge problem in Seattle. He went to three funerals related to gun violence in 2012. At one of them, he watched a fight break out amongst grieving teens. “Hey, there are alternative ways to deal with this,” Dagim said, and gave the young men his phone number. They called the next day. And that was the beginning of this year’s tournament at Seattle Pacific. The event drew a small crowd of about 300, which included Mike McGinn, Seattle’s mayor, and local TV and news media. The event raised $500 for the Boys and Girls Club and had 242 youths pledge not to take part in gun violence. “I feel like God called me to do this right now,” Dagim says. “When shootings happen, it makes me realize that time isn’t promised and if I’m going to do something, I need to seize the opportunity and do it."