Dr. Adanetch Gebreselassie’s interest in public health began when she was nine years old. She credits her father, Dr. Gebreselassie Okubagzhi, an epidemiologist and a public health officer with the World Bank, for igniting that spark.
“His specialty was HIV/AIDS, and I saw his passion for helping people,” Gebreselassie said. “One day, he told me about a boy who had a distended stomach because of schistosomiasis, a disease caused by drinking contaminated well water. From these stories, I learned that consuming contaminated water and food were public health issues. FSIS encompasses both— passion for helping people and preventing foodborne illnesses and hazards.”
Gebreselassie is a relief public health veterinarian (PHV) in the Raleigh district, who joined FSIS in 2015. As a PHV, Gebreselassie performs a variety of food safety inspection tasks to ensure the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry and processed egg products are safe, wholesome and correctly labeled and packaged. Gebreselassie completes these tasks by monitoring the health and disease status of live animals during the ante-mortem phase of inspection, and by inspecting the carcasses and parts of meat and poultry used for human food during the postmortem phase. She also ensures that the animals that will become part of the food supply are handled humanely.
Her initial PHV assignment was in Dodge City, Kansas. After four months, she transitioned to work in a poultry plant in Hurlock, Maryland, as a supervisory PHV. In that role, Gebreselassie supervised four consumer safety inspectors (CSI) and one lead CSI. She made sure that her colleagues, a term she prefers to subordinates, performed their inspection tasks efficiently. She also considered all those colleagues and herself to be a team.
“I empowered the inspectors that I worked side-by-side with. They were the most professional and dedicated public servants I’ve ever met. There were truly outstanding people,” Gebreselassie said. “We were a team, and teamwork made us perform better and be more productive.”
Gebreselassie is a native of Ethiopia, a country in Eastern Africa. In the 1990s, war broke out between Ethiopia and its neighboring country Eritrea. Luckily, before the war began, Gebreselassie left the country to study at the Moscow Veterinary Academy in Russia, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Animal Husbandry in 1994. After completing her education, Gebreselassie wanted to return to Ethiopia and build a poultry farm, but those dreams were curtailed when the Ethiopian government disallowed her return. Gebreselassie found herself without a home.
While still in Moscow, she applied for refugee status in the United States and was granted entry. She said those first years in the U.S. were some of the toughest times she had ever experienced in her life.
“It was September 2000 when I arrived in Washington, D.C. I received a green card, but I didn’t have any money or know any veterinarians who could help me get certified and work in my field,” Gebreselassie said. “I did have a brother, who is now a cardiologist, who arrived shortly before I did. But he wasn’t stable himself, so he couldn’t help. I slept in parks until I found a job at the hotel. I was able to sleep there sometimes.”
Determined to make a good life for herself here in this country, Gebreselassie enrolled in nursing school even though her budget was stretched so thinly she worried about being able to pay for classes. One semester was all she needed to complete, and it became a turning point in her life, she recalls.
“After I aced a human anatomy exam, my teacher wanted to speak with me,” Gebreselassie said. “He wanted to know my background because I was excelling in the class. I told him I was a veterinarian, and he told me how to obtain the certifications.”
Gebreselassie credits her mother, Dr. Hagos, the first female biochemist in Ethiopia, for her ability to make a way out of no way. “My mother taught me to never to give up on my dreams,” Gebreselassie said. “She was an orphan and was still able to earn a Ph.D., which is rare for a woman to do in my country. My mother is my hero.”
Through all of her struggles, Gebreselassie endured those first few years in the U.S. and says she is happy that she found her way to the Agency.
“I started in Africa, stopped for a bit in Russia, to homelessness, to FSIS,” Gebreselassie said. “I am proud of what I have accomplished and happy to be in this country and an FSIS employee.”
Gebreselassie is a mom to two children, Ebenezer and Hosanna. She enjoys watching movies and reading spiritual books.
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