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Ethiopian Orphans Are Growing Up With a World of Possibilities

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Journal from the field #2, May 31, 2011
Dr. Aronson in Ethiopia, May 23-27, 2011

I've traveled from Ethiopia to Bulgaria and am finally adjusting to the seven-hour time difference both countries share with New York. Still having some trouble sleeping, but making some progress, though last night I had a nightmare about lice... quite vivid, though not real in fact... phew!

I am thinking about my time spent with a travel companion last week visiting Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO) programs in Addis Ababa. It was the first morning after our arrival in Ethiopia and we had traveled a long time to our destination, but we joked and talked and enjoyed getting to know one another.

Without much effort, we were up at 8 a.m., and we had breakfast at the Hilton café. I had tea and my friend had buna, the Amharic word for coffee. According to my friends, buna is fabulous. My buddy loved the coffee and the friendliness of the people -- many of whom I know from past trips. Ezra is still making omelets and Almaz, the evening host, is still her very happy and friendly self. My friend enjoyed the fact that one could return to a hotel and have friends, but that is surely Ethiopia.

Off we went for a day of excitement and fun with the kids at the WWO Academy, the Family Health Center and Des's Village. It was a day filled with many opportunities to engage the children, to laugh and smile with them. I was focused on two things: watching my friend open his eyes and heart for the first time to orphans in Ethiopia, and witnessing once more the impact of WWO's work. It felt as if I'd just been there with those sweet children, but it's been nine months since my family and others traveled to Addis to bring our children to WWO camp.

I brought my eager guest to visit the new school building and it was fantastic. The kids have outside space to run around and the classrooms are very spacious and full of charts, student work and books. As we entered the orange school gate with the name of the foundation, there were the achievement awards with the photos of the children posted on the wall. This was indeed an honor roll and I read the profiles carefully. I was so proud of the kids, the faculty and the head of school, Berhane. My visitor was in awe.

As we entered each classroom, the children greeted us as one. We watched them write in their workbooks and we listened to them recite their answers to questions from the teacher. There was a real exuberance in the classes.

The art room had special work desks with paintings in progress. The materials and art supplies were neatly organized on shelves. The children were not in class that morning, but the work was creative and full of vitality. There was none of the copying from years ago, when a teacher would make a drawing and ask the kids to make an exact replica. Those days are over.

The music room was filled with a variety of musical instruments and the teacher was instructing the children in percussion. One after another they tried out the drums and their ability to replicate the rhythm was fantastic. I tried and it was funny how bad I was, but I laughed and they laughed. Then they began to dance a traditional Ethiopian dance and it is just amazing how much fun the kids were having.

My guest returned to the school a few days later and he participated in music and drama. One of our drivers, soon to be assistant camp director, Million, shot a video of this young man doing the traditional goat herder dance and it was as if he were Ethiopian himself. Surrounded by the children, he effortlessly joined the fun and shared the beauty of the culture.

We returned to Des's Village, a group home for 39 HIV-infected children, to say goodbye on Friday, our last day in Ethiopia. It struck me most forcefully how much the kids have grown physically and socially. My sweet Rahel, who was the subject of our Camp Addis film a few years ago, when she was "Super Camper," is not a baby any longer. She is growing up to be a young lady. She has her group of girl friends and is studying hard at school and achieving. She is highly motivated to be a good student.

As I looked around at these children whom I have known for many years, I realized that they were all changing. My friend was quite attached to them in just a few days and he was surrounded by them playing, holding hands, kicking a football and enjoying their impishness. He only met them a few days before, but within that time, he began to surrender to their tenderness.

I had an interview for a few minutes with a man from Voice of America and then I returned to the dining area to find that the kids were all standing holding their red Des bags, which I had brought from the U.S. as a gift from my son, Des, after his Bar Mitzvah last week. Yes, I cried, as they sang to me and then I nestled among them and some photos were taken.

I am aware of how these healthy and proud children are growing up to be outstanding Ethiopian citizens. They are happy and successful and full of hope. We can't let them down. My friend is now figuring out ways to return and to advocate for them. They need our love and support until they can be on their own, and more children just like them deserve the same. It can't be 39 or 39,000 -- it must be all of them.