OAKLAND -- An Ethiopian-born, Italian-educated East Bay restaurant owner told the graduating class of Holy Names University that the U.S. remains a magnet for those who thirst for opportunity.
"In America, with your education and hard work, it doesn't matter who you are or where you came from," said Menbere Aklilu, owner of Salute e Vita Ristorante in Richmond. "It only matters where you're going."
Aklilu, the keynote speaker at the college's 87th commencement, told her story of poverty, tragedy, immigration and irrepressible hope to about 1,000 people Saturday. Born in Ethiopia, Aklilu witnessed the murder of her mother before she was a teenager. She said the memory of that event lingers, but stronger is the memory of her mother.
"She's always with me," Aklilu said.
Aklilu said she later emigrated to Italy and gave birth to a son in a women's shelter in Rome because she had to escape an abusive relationship with the child's father.
Aklilu came to the United States and got a job as a hostess at Salute e Vita in 1995, climbing the ranks and ultimately buying the Marina Bay restaurant in 2002.
"Some people said no, don't go to America, don't take the risks," Aklilu said. "I said I must go. I must take the risk."
Aklilu told the grads: "Life is now, life is this moment."
"You have to say, thank you for the past, tell the past, I got the lesson, thank you," Aklilu said. "And then tell the future, I am ready."
Aklilu's speech touched on perseverance, positive thoughts, the value of education and the importance of moral righteousness. She told the graduates she has adhered to three basic principles in life: to strive to do right by others, to give back and to never settle for less or compromise goals.
"There is a huge door, and you have to push that door to achieve," she said. "And what you get, you get from the world, so you have to give back to the world as well."
Each Thanksgiving, Aklilu's restaurant serves elegant meals to hundreds of homeless families. Speaking almost no English, she began working at the restaurant as a hostess for $7 an hour. She said she scrubbed floors and did other jobs at the restaurant because she felt embarrassed to be making so much money for just greeting guests.
"When you do a good job, when you do excellence, there is always someone who remembers it," she said. Aklilu said members of her family, including her son, Christian, have thrived in the U.S. through education and hard work.
Aklilu was among the winners of the 2009 Contra Costa Woman-Owned Business of the Year Award.
"Menbere's personal story is one of successive conquering of tragedy, deprivation and loss -- by faith, industry and courage," Holy Names President William J. Hynes said in a prepared statement. "Her story is quite amazing."
The university also granted Aklilu an honorary degree -- doctor of humane letters -- presented by state Supreme Court Justice Carol Corrigan.
Aklilu gave all the graduates a gift certificate for dinner at her restaurant. She told them she would be waiting for their call for a reservation.
"I will open the door for you," she said. "You will have the best seat in my house."
Holy Names was established in 1868 on the banks of Lake Merritt, near downtown Oakland. The university moved to its present campus in the Oakland hills in 1957 and offers 20 bachelor's degrees, five degree-completion programs for adults, seven master's degrees and various certificates and credentials.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 and follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.