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From the Ashes: Learning to Read Gave This Ethiopian School Boy Opportunity to Give Back

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He calls it "the miracle of the scrap paper."

Asratie Teferra was born in a rural village in northeastern Ethiopia. The home he and his family shared with their farm animals was a one-room grass covered hut, an open fireplace in the center of the room. It was tough reality, but Asratie was a kid with big dreams.

Each day, recognizing her grandchild's hunger for learning, his grandmother provided him with the little bits of old newspaper and magazine clippings that served as packaging for the sugar and other food products at the market. With eagerness he examined the text of each scrap, practicing his reading. Then, his grandmother would whisk the scraps away, and use them to start her cooking fire. Besides his grandmother's prayer book, fashioned out of goatskin, the daily scrap papers were the only reading material in the house.

One day, a certain piece of paper caught Asratie's eye. It was a picture of the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Something about the picture and the building it showed entranced him. The next day, Asratie visited the very small village library and found the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity in the encyclopedia. As he read about the U.N., and he built a dream -- if he worked very hard in school, he would one day work for the U.N.

He did just that.

Asratie Teferra went on to work for the World Food Program and UNICEF in Ethiopia. In 1996, he came to the U.S. through a Diversity Visa Lottery, and was naturalized as a citizen of the United States in 2002. Currently, he works for Verizon Corp., and is an influential part of the African Diaspora community, promoting development initiatives in Ethiopia and throughout the continent. He has also become a board member for Books For Africa, and one of its most steadfast supporters. In fact, he often arranges for African Ambassadors, such as the Ethiopian Ambassador to the U.S., to host Books For Africa events in Washington, D.C.

Asratie calls himself "the example" of what can happen when a child is given an education. "Education changed my life," he says. "If we really want to help Africa, we have to educate the children. They are the future of Africa. And literacy is the cornerstone of education."

Though his primary and secondary schools lacked books, Asratie's hunger for learning and the influence of his grandmother, who understood the importance of literacy, altered the course of his life. This is evidenced in his paternal half-brothers. Unable to attend school past the fourth grade, his brothers live as subsistence farmers in the area of Ethiopia in which they were born. "My brothers did not get the chance they deserved," Asratie says. "I am now a PhD candidate. Only the opportunity to hold a book sets us apart."

Since coming to the U.S., Asratie has devoted himself to providing chances to the children of Ethiopia through his work with Books For Africa. He said he was shocked to find the wealth of books in the United States, having come from a place where books are so precious. In Ethiopia, children "hold books as if they were hugging a loved one. The need is so desperate," he says.

Books For Africa has sent over two million books to Ethiopia since 1988. "We cannot stop until every child can hold a book," Asratie says. "In every shipment we send, if one kid is inspired, I tell you, we have done our job." Asratie believes that books open up the world for a child. The "miracle of the scrap paper" changed his life. Many children are waiting to experience their own "miracle of the book."

This blog is part of our #GivingTuesday series, produced by the Huffington Post and the teams at InterAction, 92nd Street Y, United Nations Foundation, and others. Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday -- which takes place for the first time on Tuesday, November 27 -- is a movement intended to open the holiday season on a philanthropic note. Go to www.givingtuesday.orgto learn more and get involved.

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