EOR Board of Directors Trip to Ethiopia 2009: Part 3, (More) Harar

While walking through the walled city in Harar, our guide asked if we’d like to see the Catholic orphanage. All having been raised Catholic, and working with other orphanages in Ethiopia, of course we were intrigued. When we entered the compound, we were a bit overwhelmed–it was amazing. The Church was gorgeous, the grounds meticulous, the views insane. And this is in a walled city where each home is teeny tiny–it was really overwhelming anyway, but considering where we were, even more so.

We walked down into this courtyard, where the view to the countryside was a total “money shot”–just beautiful. Our guide told us this area was where the school was, and because I’m nosy, I said, “Can we go check it out?” Abdul said, “Sure. But you may want to introduce yourself to the Priest first.” So we did and he was really nice, and we walked into a classroom. The kids were all wearing bright yellow shirts and blue pants and it was the cutest thing ever. They all yelled, “WELCOME!” and were so happy to get their pictures taken. We learned that the kids at the school weren’t all orphans, although all the orphans were enrolled there. There aren’t very many Catholics in Ethiopia–this Church was either the only Catholic Church in the country, or one of two–and the walled city is all Muslim folks (Harar itself is about half Muslim, half Christian). I have no idea whether the other kids that were attending school there were Catholic or not, but the school was awesome. It rivaled a nice private school here in the US. It was amazing that it was part of an orphanage–truly. By far the nicest school we saw in Ethiopia.

The orphanage itself was equally wonderful–the children had a garden they tended to and grew healthy food in, there was an elaborate water storage and filtration system (rainwater was collected through gutters and pipes, then channeled to a large holding tank, where it was filtered), the dorms were clean and sunny, the kids even had a dog and cat that lived with them! The cat was sleeping in somebody’s (neatly made) bed when we took our tour. The kids were, in general, much more like our own kids than at any other orphanage we visited. What I mean by that is, they were extremely happy and talkative and full of life, the way my daughter and all of the other Ethiopian kids I know are like once they are happy and settled into families. Normally in the orphanages, the kids are quite quiet and reserved and shy–and I’ve yet to meet an Ethiopian kiddo like that who is happily living in a family! It’s a very vibrant country full of vibrant people, but it’s hard to see that in the faces of kids without parents, for obvious reasons.

Whatever they’re doing at the Catholic orphanage, it’s working. We thought that a big part of this was that the orphans were integrated into a school with non-orphaned kids who were happy and vibrant, and that this likely “wore off” on them in a really good way. I think of how beneficial it can be for special needs kids to be integrated into “regular” schools here in the US, and think maybe this is why things were going so well. The Priest here mentioned that he could really use new sheets for all of the beds, which can easily be purchased locally. This would be a great way to support an organization that’s already doing a really wonderful job, so we’ll be exploring a possible partnership with them in the future.

After we visited the Catholic orphanage, we visited SOS EE’s satellite orphanage in Harar, which is where Amelie and Meron resided for a short time before being transferred to Toukoul in Addis. I don’t really know what I was expecting,  but we were all definitely impressed. The orphanage was pretty small, but extremely well run by an incredibly organized manager–he even shared his Strategic Plans and Action Plans with us. And he had a My Little Pony on his desk, so that made him cool in my book.

There were 3 older kids, a couple toddlers and 6-8 babies at the facility. I noted 3-4 nannies on each visit. There weren’t many toys, and the older kids seemed a little bored. The older girl asked our driver if we’d bought toys when we first arrived, and he shared this with us during our visit. We asked the manager what he could use, and he said “Toys. Definitely toys.” So, we were off to do some shopping in Harar. If you’ve met Kim, you KNOW that girl can shop, so she was all over it. I stayed in the car–we were in an area where we didn’t feel super comfortable–and Kim and Lauren did a whole lot of negotiating and shopping in the market until they were able to find things for the kids. We ended up buying a bike with training wheels, several large cars, a big set of blocks, a set of musical instruments, lots of different sized balls, a magna doodle, a couple tea sets, a kitchen set and enough baby toys for each baby to have something in their crib.

When we came back, we were so excited and could not wait to give everything to the kids–I think in our heads it was going to be like Christmas morning back home. Except it wasn’t. The staff was SO excited to see everything, but the kids were just…shocked. They just stood there and stared at us. Kim grabbed the little girl who’d originally asked about the toys, and showed her how to ride the bike. Lauren grabbed the little boys and gave them cars. I brought a ball for one of the toddlers and a maracca for another. They just held their toys and stared at us. Now, keep in mind, the satellite orphanages for SOS EE are all “way stations” of sorts–the kids aren’t there for very long (2 weeks max at this one) and they’re all very recent orphans. These kids had all just lost their families, and they were by far the saddest kids we saw at any of the orphanages we visited. I scooped up both toddlers in my arms with their toys, and we sat on the ground and snuggled. It was really, really hard to leave them and I basically cried the whole time we were sitting there. They were both Oromo like Amelie and were around the same age she was when we came to adopt her. Everytime I kissed their little heads, a part of me felt like I was kissing Amelie’s head way back when she was there, and telling her how much she’d be loved soon. Leaving them was one of the hardest parts of the trip for me. Lauren and Kim were much more cautious about getting close to the kids than I was, but when we were leaving one of the older boys just grabbed Kim and held her for a long time and she completely lost it. We left knowing they were really happy for the toys, even if they were having a hard time expressing it at the time.

After this, Lauren and I wanted to research our girl’s stories a bit more, so we visited the police department listed on their referral paperwork, the hospital where they both resided and late that evening, I was able to speak with the man who found Amelie. We’d been looking for him all day–under the assumption he’d found Meron–but when we finally found him, we realized it was Amelie he’d found, not Meron (this man had been an orphan himself and knew nothing about his story, so he kept meticulous records). The shear number of coincidences that needed to happen for Lauren and I to meet during the adoption process, for her to become involved in EOR, for our trip to Dessie to get screwed up and for us to end up in Harar together with our referral paperwork on a wild goose chase to find out more about our girls is truly mind-boggling. Everything happens for a reason. We’ll share this bond forever, and I’ll never forget when he was telling Lauren what he knew about “Meron” and none of it fit and she said, “I’m sorry. It’s not my daughter.” Kim stopped her and said, “Let Danielle talk to him.” And it WAS my daughter. Truly amazing. I’m also happy to report that the hospital where our girls were is in MUCH better shape than it was when Bryan and I visited 3 years ago. The doctor and nurse were so happy to have photos of our girls, and we were happy to thank them for taking such good care of them.

After all of that emotional stuff, we really needed a break, so we went to visit the famed Hyena Man late that night. Back in the day, there was a big hyena problem in Harar, so they began feeding them scraps outside the slaughterhouse on the edge of town to keep them away from the city. The man who was in charge of feeding them became more comfortable with them, named them, and began feeding them by hand. Today, he feeds them raw meat hanging off a stick between his teeth. He’s on the Discovery Channel all the time. It’s nuts!

We arranged to meet him, pulled up the van, and were instantly circled by 12-14 wild hyenas in this field outside the slaughterhouse. Kim refused to get out of the car. Bryan and I visited the Hyena Man last time we were in Harar, but the hyenas were NOT this close to the car when we arrived. It was scary. But, I’d already dared Lauren to feed them with me (this is an option–you too can feed the wild hyenas raw meat off a stick hanging out of your mouth!). I was working out my speech where I’d weasel myself out of the whole situation, when Lauren walked right up to the Hyena Man, sat down next to him, and fed the damn hyenas raw meat on a stick hanging out of her mouth like she was the toughest person on earth. I have some really brave friends, but I’m usually the one who does stuff like this first–I’ve never been friends with a girl as tough as Lauren, but man, am I happy we’re buddies! Kim did end up getting out of the car, but made it clear she WAS NOT feeding the hyenas, so she was in charge of photo and video. After Lauren went, it was my turn. I was scared to death the entire time. It was truly the scariest thing I’ve ever done (and I used to guide rafts through Class V rapids, have been bungee jumping so many times I lost count, etc.). When we were done, Hyena Man’s 5 year old daughter completely showed us all up by calming walking up to her dad, giving him her lollipop, replacing it with a stick and proceeding to feed the hyenas as if they were the family dogs. When she was done, she retrieved her lollipop and calmly walked over to us, gave us a high five and walked away. Next time I visit, I will not be surprised if the Hyena Man has been replaced with a Hyena Lady.

As we were getting ready to leave Harar and head to Dire Dawa for our flight back to Addis, Lauren was able to get medicine for Toukoul to replace the medicine stuck in customs. She was ecstatic the whole time she was talking with the pharmacist, placing her order. And the minute she climbed into the van with all the boxes, she burst into tears. She had felt personally responsible for the customs issues relating to the medicine she’d brought (even though she’d done everything she was “supposed to do”)–so many friends and coworkers back home had donated money they didn’t really have to provide all that medicine for the orphanage, and when she was finally able to replace it, she was beyond happy. Kim (AKA “World’s Greatest Shopper”) ended the Harar trip by buying Ethiopian toothbrushes (beautiful hand carved branches of a special tree Ethiopians use to brush their teeth) for all of the attendees for this year’s Lights of Hope fundraiser in Portland. She bought the toothbrushes from two little boys who had whittled them by hand, and who were from Amelie’s village. Their moms were really sick, and they were working before and after school making toothbrushes to support their families. Kim bought over 300 toothbrushes. Our driver said her purchase supported their families for a month. Tickets for Lights of Hope go on sale soon–tell your friends, we have 300 seats to fill!

More after I get the kids to bed,

Danielle

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