Monday, July 25, 2011

Bahir Dar, Ethiopia . . .Leyla’s Birthplace and Home to School Yejatit (February) 23 and the first "Leyla Library" through Ethiopia Reads

Bahir Dar, Ethiopia is just a short plane ride from the capital city of Addis Ababa. But it is a world away in many other respects. We were excited to visit Leyla’s birthplace and the site of our first "Leyla Library" through Ethiopia Reads housed in a school named “Yejatit (February) 23” which is V-day,"Victory of Adwa," for Africa (the actual celebration day March 2). Bahir Dar is a small city nestled at the foot of Lake Tana – the third largest lake in Africa. There is abundant and varied bird species flourishing by the water. The foliage is tropical and beautifully green wherever you look unlike the arid, mountainous climate of Addis.

We arrived early in the morning. And as seemed the norm, there was some confusion over the plan. We thought we were visiting our library at 9 a.m. but our guide said noon. Michael called our Tesfa (which fittingly means "hope" in Amharic) representative and confirmed the original time was correct. We stopped briefly at our hotel to freshen up and then headed to the school. I felt butterflies of anticipation dancing in my middle.

As we entered the gate into an open courtyard, we were greeted with clapping and cheering by a welcoming procession of kids and adults holding bouquets of freshly picked flowers. We were treated as visiting dignitaries. Michael was the most comfortable with this attention, shaking hands with each person looking them straight in the eye as he greeted them. Dimitri remarked that he wished he could be more like that too. We were brought into a small room with a long narrow table. Only the adults joined us. There was a solemnity to the occasion even as Leyla, obvious to it, flitted and skipped around the table, presenting an incongruous contrast.

We presented the plaque dedicating the library to our daughter and exchanged pleasantries for a bit. Then the head mistress pointed to one gentleman and said he was to give a speech. His voice was soft but resonated as he spoke from his notes but obviously also from his heart. He spoke of the children and the opportunity the library within this school represented. After he finished, each of the adults seated around the table added their own words of gratitude and stressed the importance of the access to books and an education to provide hope to the children this school served which include 2000 youngsters, a number of whom had the additional challenge of being hearing impaired.

I felt tears well up in my eyes as I listened. I felt unworthy of such high accolades. We raised money but they were doing the difficult hands on, day to day work of molding young lives under the most challenging of circumstances with limited resources. I also was filled with a sense of how much one library, funded by many in a different part of the world, had the potential to bring about true change in this community and beyond. To my core, I was humbled. I felt the weight of responsibility to do more to be worthy of a fraction of the high praise freely bestowed on us this day.

After the speeches concluded, a silence hung comfortably in the air as we were left to our thoughts while we waited for the librarian to arrive. After a few moments, there was word she was coming and we headed outside. The head mistress explained to me as we walked slowly across the dirt field navigating the rocks and high weeds to the library building that the librarian was a former student of hers. She beamed with pride as she spoke of her pupil turned colleague. You can see her beautiful smile in this picture as she laughs with Leyla and me.

The library building was an small, unassuming rectangular brick building. But for this school, it was a huge and valued new asset. It represents hope for raising the level of education and ambition to succeed among their youth. Our funding would provide the books, the shelves, and reading areas to transform it from an open space with a couple tables and a few piles of books into a working library. The librarian and school officials would ensure it was incorporated into the school curriculum.

As my boys, ten and fourteen, walked around the small room, I could see on their faces they were comparing this modest room to the libraries they are accustomed to in their schools back home. Even fully furnished with a complete set of books, it would be a far cry from what they took for granted. We did get a sense of how small the world has become when my ten year old delightedly discovered a dusty copy of his favorite Harry Potter book from the series among the small piles that sat on sparse shelves. Our family, with a number of the school officials in front of the library building, are pictured below.

By the time school resumes in the fall for the students fortunate enough to attend, this first "Leyla Library" will be ready to welcome them. For all those who contributed financially, by joining our cause, or with words of encouragement, rest assured you made a different in the lives of these 2000 kids. They in turn will touch many others as the amazing effect of adding hope and possibility in the lives of the young ripples out from Bahir Dar, Ethiopia back into the world.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Going Back to Ethiopia - Closing A Circle - Dream big! Dream peace! And work hard to achieve it!!

November 2008, we traveled to Ethiopia to meet our daughter and bring her back to our home in the Pacific Northwest. We are returning to her homeland with her as a three year old and her two brothers, now ten and fourteen. We have a completely different purpose. We want to connect our daughter with her birthright and introduce our boys to the land of their adored little sister. I see evidence of the connection they already have in images like this ID card of my eldest son (from the year his sister came home). Where unbeknownst to me, he added an Ethiopian stamp. We are also fulfilling
a promise we made to ourselves to help the children of this amazing land.

Our connections to Ethiopia have grown. We connected with Jane Kurtz, a renowned children’s author who grew up in Ethiopia and is a tireless volunteer for Ethiopia Reads. We met Melissa Faye Greene, a award winning journalist who wrote about the challenges in Ethiopia related to AIDS and HIV and is an adoptive mother of 5 including 4 from Ethiopia. We found Yadesa Bojia (or rather he found us on facebook) the artist who designed the African Union flag and himself a shiny example of the possibilities if you fight to overcome the circumstance many Ethiopian children face. The bonus is Yadesa lives in our town.

We are also working with Dana Roskey who lost his Ethiopian fiance in a tragic car accident as part of our efforts to put another Ethiopia Reads library in Addis. He is now fulfilling his fiance's dream of providing education and hope to the children of her ancient country. We are going back thanks to the help of Habtu Tekeba, an Ethiopian travel agent, with some assistance from Jane Kurtz and her brother, is making a better life and future for his family and helping those like us honor our connections. We are also grateful for the chance to honor the man who was instrumental in bringing our daughter safely to us. He is a protector of children and is fighting each day to save one more . . Ato Teklu. We can’t wait to show him how much little Leyla Marie Fasika has grown and flourished since he last saw her.

We were asked to draft the language to put on the plaque for the first Ethiopia Reads library in Bahir Dar -- funded through generous contributions of friends, colleagues, family and perfect strangers. Michael and I wanted it to reflect our hope for Ethiopia and her children as well as our love for our daughter.

This library is for the children of Bahir Dar, birthplace of Leyla Marie Fasika, beloved daughter of Ellenore and Michael Angelidis and cherished sister of Dimitri and Damian Angelidis.

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." Frederick B. Douglass.

But the more I thought, it didn’t seem enough. I wanted to inspire these children (some shown in the photo above) to see hope for their future and the role reading and education could play in making it more than just a dream. I reached out to Yadesa and asked if he would be willing to help me. Yadesa responded beyond my expectations. He provided a signed African Union flag he designed to adorn the wall of the new library. He gave me posters and copies of a cookbook with his art that was a tribute to the Lucy exhibit he designed in Seattle (which ironically occurred when we were last in Ethiopia). And he committed to visit the children when he is in Ethiopia.

When talking about the flag, he told me, “I ordered another flag and it just arrived. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, honestly. Then you reached out and I knew that was where the flag was meant to be.” I asked if he would also be willing to provide some words to the kids. He wrote a beautiful letter in Amharic for the children of Bahir Dar (translated below for us English speakers).

Dear Students;

The great African leader Nelson Mandela once said "Education is a power weapon to change the world."

In today’s world, where science and technology is at its highest peak, you might feel like the lack of school, materials and all the basic necessities around you might keep you from playing a vital role in your country as well as community. But with all the hardship around you, education will help you to win the battle just like Mandela said.

Dear students, with education there is no mountain you can't climb and there is no dream you can't achieve. You are defined not by the poverty and struggle around you but by the effort you put to better yourself.

When I was a little kid, I used to worry about my future until I understood education is my ticket out of poverty. The poverty around me helped me to be dedicated to my goals. The poverty around me did not hinder me from dreaming, instead it pushed me to go after my dream.

So I beg you and urge you to seek education to change your future and your country’s future. You are tomorrow’s leaders and your dedication will better it for generations to come. Dream big! Dream peace! And work hard to achieve it!!

From Ethiopia to Seattle, back to Ethiopia, and then back to Seattle and so it goes on - - much has come full circle in 2.5 short years. Yadesa’s words are for all of us: Dream big! Dream peace! And work hard to achieve it!!