It has been over a month since I returned from Ethiopia for the February Visiting Orphans mission trip. People have been asking for my stories, but to be honest I am still processing everything I saw and experienced while I was there. But...so I don’t forget some of the experiences I will go ahead and start writing. I will warn you ahead of time, this may seem fragmented and strange, right now I’m not even sure where to begin.
For those who don’t know, I actually won this trip. My BFF, Kari Gibson had a giveaway on her blog and she randomly chose 3 people out of almost 600 and my name was chosen. I was So excited, yet a little nervous. Why did God want me on this trip so badly? What was I going to learn, and who was I going to impact in such a big way that he GAVE me this trip?
I could go day by day and tell you what we did, who we saw, what we ate and how I felt every moment, but I’m afraid by page 10 people would stop reading - ha! So I will talk about my favorite moments.
We had the chance to go to several cities in Ethiopia. We were in the capital city, Addis Ababa for several days. It is a VERY large city. It is in a valley surrounded by mountains and the views in the morning are so beautiful. However, being a large city will no rules about auto emissions and mostly diesel engines, the air pollution is horrible. This is also a city of extremes, you will drive past expensive Mercedes, Jaguars and Land Cruisers, while at the same time you see kids living on the streets, mothers holding babies and begging on the street corners, and people with disabilites with no hope for the future. You can stay at the Hilton or Sheraton for over $200 US dollars per night, and within 50 feet of the hotel, you see the poorest of the poor living in corrugated tin shacks with no running water or electricity.
This may sound strange, but my favorite place in Addis is Korah (or Kore). This piece of land was originally given to a doctor around 60 years ago as a leper colony. He had asked the king for a place to try to help the lepers, and he was given this area outside the city. The city has since grown and that area was soon established as the city dump. The lepers, their children and grandchildren still live there. It was once known in the city as the place for outcasts: AIDS and HIV positive people, drug addicts, thieves, those cast out from society or rejected by their families and all who were considered worthless were forced to live on the dump, digging through the trash for daily food. Now over 10,000 people live in an area the size of Fowler (my hometown) living off of the dump and looking for items to recycle for a few Birr (One birr = 16 US Dollars). You may wonder why this is my favorite place. It is because of an amazing ministry called Project 61.
A young man named Sammy who was born and raised in Korah found out about Jesus through some young missionaries who were brave enough to enter the dump to spread the Gospel. A little over a year ago an amazing woman named Sumer went to Ethiopia on a Visiting Orphans trip, visited Korah and felt God calling her there. She and her family moved to Addis and she and Sammy and some other amazing Ethiopian men of God began Project 61. In the past year over 250 children who once lived and worked in Korah have been sponsored and are now either in boarding school (getting 3 meals a day, a bed and education) or attend school nearby. These “throw-away” kids, now have a hope and a future.
The village of Korah is still a devastating place to visit. On this trip we had the honor of visiting the homes of those who live on the dump. We also had the opportunity to help make-over the homes of a few families. By the time rainy season begins, their roofs should no longer leak and they will have plastic on their floors instead of dirt. We were told - just giving them something to sweep and clean boosts morale and gives these people a feeling that they have a home, not just a shack made out of trash. We visited one house that was maybe the size of my living/dining area. We were told 8 families...22 people lived in that tiny space. Unreal.
On my first trip to Korah last July, I actually had the opportunity to go out into the dump, walk through the mountains of trash, see the pigs and dogs that lived there, shook hands with ladies “working” there looking for recycling, and talked to some teenage boys who asked if they could be sponsored and attend school. When I was back in Feb., the dump was closed to all Forenge (foreigners) because of the amount of people making videos and telling the world about the conditions there (the government didn’t like the bad press). Instead of visiting the dump, we were able to go into Korah village and meet people in their homes. We had the chance to pray with a few famlies and I had a chance to meet a precious lady who was a leper. She was not more than 5 feet tall and probably weighed 80 pounds fully dressed. When we told her we would try to help make her home a little better, she had tears in her milky white eyes and wiped them away with her fingerless hands. She looked like she could be in her 70’s but I wonder if she was older than 35. The disease is terrible. As she was wiping her tears away I knew she needed to know she was worthy. I gave her a hug and told her through the translator that we were honored to be in her home and that God loved her. She hugged me back and just wept.
The ministry team at Project 61 has begun a feeding program for some of the lepers at Korah. The men with leprosy make their way to the Project 61 shelter and other volunteers go to the homes of the widows with leprosy to feed them. Some on our team had the chance to feed the men. Keep in mind, most lepers have lost their fingers so it is very difficult to feed themselves. They are also feared, so can not work. Several of our team had the chance to feed these precious men. In Ethiopia, silverware is not used. Everything is eaten with a spongy sourdough bread called injera. You scoop up your food with the injera and eat it all with your fingers. Watching these loving Christians hand feeding lepers was an amazing thing. I told those who had the chance to do that, that they were literally being the hands and feet of God. When we get go heaven God will say “Come with me into my kingdom, for when I was hungry you gave me something to eat, when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink, when I was naked you clothed me and when I was sick and in prision you came to visit me - for whatever you do for the least of these, you also do for me”. I can’t even express the power of that moment watching my friends “feed Jesus”!!!!
One of the most amazing things I have ever experienced happened at Korah. On our first day there, a young mother came to us, begging us to come to her house to pray for her daughter. We said we would, but as they day went on, I am sorry to say we forgot. The next morning the mother was waiting for us, and once again asked if we would come pray with her daughter who was very sick. 5 ladies in our group decided to go with her. I wish I would have gone, but the homes are so tiny, I didn’t want to overwhelm the household. Here is the story I got from my friend, Kari, who was one of the five. This lady’s daughter was a beautiful 15 year old girl named Mercy. Five months before this, Mercy had been very sick and had actually died. The mourners came to the house, a tent was being brought to the house for the funeral and this incredible mother decided to go into a room by herself and pray. The thanked God for giving her daughter to her, but she understood that God was taking her back. She in turn told God she was giving Mercy back to Him. When she walked back into the room where her daughter lay, Mercy sat up. She was literally brought back from the dead! The next five months were spent going to doctors to see what was wrong. The ladies from my group saw several papers with medical testing and MRI’s that were hard to understand. Mercy was alive...but still very sick. As she lay unmoving in her bed, these five American ladies laid their hands on Mercy and prayed for healing for her body. As they were praying, Christie from our group remembered a lady in her church telling Christie that she needed to sing over Korah, so they played a song on their video camera and sang the song “Healer” over Mercy. They finished praying, then left to walk the mile or two to join the rest of our group for our service projects at Project 61’s facility.
Around an hour later, guess who came walking down the street with her mother! It was beautiful 15 year old Mercy, walking towards us, smiling and healthy! She was healed! Can you believe that? Just like Bible times. We all gathered around her and said a prayer of thanks and sang a song praising God for being so amazing! The next day, Mercy came by in her school uniform on her way back to class!! Wow...unbelieveable, but I saw it all with my own eyes!!
We had several other amazing days visitng orphanages, taking sponsored kids on field trips to play soccer and do crafts. We held orphaned babies and fed them fomula and prayed over them. We gave toys, bags, candy, wooden cars, necklaces and lots of love. We played with a parachute and made balloon animals. We hugged, played, kissed, served food, cried and just sat silently with our new friends. I sat in a home with one family and they sent one of their children to buy bottles of Orange Fanta for their honored guests...us!!! There were so many great things that happened that it would take an entire book to tell the story.
I guess I will end with my favorite day. First, a little history. When I went to Ethiopia in July and visited Korah I met a beautiful quiet teenager named Abenezer. He didn’t speak much English but we talked a bit through his friend Binyam. I spent the entire day with Binyam, Abenezer and another friend of theirs (whose name I can’t pronounce!!). They carried my backpack and my water bottle. When the group went on a hike to the soccer field, they held onto my arms as we climbed a large rocky hill. They pointed out mud puddles and were sure to keep me from stepping in them. Such sweet boys!!
A few days later, 6 of our group had the chance to have Korah’s first sleepover. We bought our pillows and blankets, ate popcorn with the 17 kids who slept at the shetler, the young girls served us coffee in a Ethiopian Coffee ceremony (which honors special guests), and we watched a movie together. One of our team brought glow necklaces so we turned out the lights and the kids laughed and screamed at the glowing colors. During this time, Abenezer sat beside me. He told me he wanted me to be his sponsor, even though he already had one. For a while, every time I called him my friend he would say “no”, point to me and say “sister”. By the end of the evening, I was calling him son, and he was calling me mother. At one point he lay his head on my shoulder and fell asleep. I told him that he was important and that God had a plan for him. I told him to go to school and work hard so next time I came to visit we could communicate even better. The next morning I hugged him goodbye, gave him a wallet sized pic of my family, told him I loved him and that I was his American Mom and that I would come back to see him as soon as i could.
In the six months after I left Ethiopia, I was able to send and receive several emails. Abenezer and I tried our best to stay in touch. At one point I asked him to write and tell me about his life...his story. He sent a one page email with a bit of his background, how he lived with an aunt for a while and lived on the street for several years.
In December, I learned Abenezer had been very sick. He was taken out of school and missed several months of classes. I emailed Sumer to see if there was anything I could do to help, send medicine, money etc. She said all they could do is pray and wait it out. In January he was well enough to go back to school.
During my trip this Feb, all of the Korah kids, including Abenezer, were at boarding school at Shashamene...about a 4-5 hour drive away from Addis. I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep my promise to go visit. God is good at working out details. Three people on our team had sponsored kids from Korah and they wanted to meet their kids, too. We hired a driver for the day and had a little road trip to Shashamene. When we arrived at 10:00am, the kids were all in class. The two hour wait seemed to take forever. Sumer had told Abenezer that I would be there at some point, but he didn’t know what week...or possibly even what month, so he had no idea I was there. I sat in the cafeteria and watched as group after group of kids came through the line. Finally one of the teenage boys we met earlier in the day ran up to me and told me Abenezer was coming. I saw him walking up and ran up to meet him. He smiled REALLY big...looked like he was about to cry, then hugged me. I told him to go ahead and get his food and I would be waiting for him at a table. He went outside to get in line...but when he made it inside, he came straight to the table. I asked if he was going to eat, but he told me the doctor said he couldn’t eat injera and shiro (the main food they eat at the school) because it would hurt his stomach. I was worried he wasn’t getting enough food.
As we sat and talked, he said he wanted to show me something. Remember the family photo I gave him in July? He had turned it into a belt buckle! He was wearing my family around his waist! We went outside to sit under a tree and talked some more. He told me when he was sick, he had a dream that I came to visit him. He also asked about each member of my family. I told him I had a gift for him and that I would give it to him before I left (I bought him an Amharic Bible, socks, underwear, some candy and a KU Basketball t-shirt :-). He told me he had a gift for me, too!!
He showed me around their campus (several of the students gave us funny looks as we walked around - who was that strange white lady with the crazy red hair running around with Abenezer??). When we arrived at the dorm, he showed me to his room. One of his roommates was at the one desk in the tiny dorm room doing homework. The room consisted of the desk, one window and three sets of bunk beds. I said, “Do you have 6 boys in your room?” Abenezer said, “No...ten.” Ten??? Wow. Some of the boys share a bunk. Granted, sharing a bunk bed is much better than sleeping on the street or in the dump. Abenezer went to the closet and pulled out a backpack. Inside was a package beautifully wrapped in red and silver paper. My gift, which had been in his bag, just waiting for the day I came to visit. Again, wow. I unwrapped the gift and found three strands of magazine bead necklaces which he made for me. There was also a comp notebook. Inside were pages and pages of flowers which he had drawn and colored. Each page had 2 or 3 Bible verses. The second half of the book was titled “My Story” and, starting with his birth, told all about Abenezer’s life, up to and including the time when he was sick. It was incredible.
The day ended way too soon. It was a bittersweet goodbye. Once again I told him I would think about him and pray for him every day. He told me he “had no other wish than this, that you would come to see me.” He also told me he would cry when I left. Which I saw him do as we were driving away.
It is a lot to take in. I jokingly told him to climb into my backpack so I could take him home with me. On several occasions he has told me he would love to see where I live. Honestly, I don’t know what to do with all this. Adoption is not an option (he still has parents, he has just never really known them). I could try to get him a student visa (very difficult to do), but he turns 15 in April and is only in 6th grade since he has not always been able to attend school (There are no public schools in Ethiopia, you have to pay tuition and pay for your uniform - that was not always possible for him). Even if I could get him a student visa, he would be really far behind the rest of his class. SO, be praying with me about Abenezer. I don’t know what to do other than visit when I can and continue to love and encourage him.
Now what?? Well, I am going back in August. I am leading a group with Visiting Orphans to Rwanda and Ethiopia, and Lord Willing, Shane and Alexis will be coming with me. Each trip brings new joy, new heartache and a new view of this world we live in. There is so much more to tell. So many more stories I could share...but it may take another few months to figure it all out.