Friday, June 24, 2011

Six Days and An Entire World Apart.

In 2007, when we made the decision to send our adoption file to Ethiopia, we began to sponsor a child through Compassion Canada.  When arranging for the sponsorship, we asked for a boy who lived in Addis Ababa, who was the same age as Matthew.  Compassion found us a little boy right in Addis, who was born six days after Matthew.  We have been supporting him since, hoping that the day would someday come when the three of us would make the trek to Addis for our kids.  Our sponsorship provides Biyalfew with: an education; a school uniform (which sounds trivial, but the annual cost of a school uniform is what prevents many children from being able to attend school, even the free government schools); weekly Sunday School/church attendance at the Compassion Project location; access to medical care; a facility where he can go on any day after school to play soccer or hang out with friends; and support for his mother, in the form of food and supplies.

Most organizations request that you provide them 6-10 weeks' notice when arranging a visit with your sponsor child; Compassion's request was the same.  However, from the day that we learned of our kids' visas to the day we left for Addis was about two weeks.  I phoned Compassion to see what could be done, and they were fantastic...from start to finish.  Wow - if every you're thinking of sponsoring a child, we can attest to the terrific/friendly/supportive/enthusiastic service we've received from Compassion...and to the good work that they're doing.

Anyway, they worked within our tight time schedule, and were able to arrange a visit with Biyalfew on our second day in Addis, the only day it worked for us.  It was a great experience.

We were picked up at about 9:00am by a Compassion Driver and a Guide (whose names I have forgotten, sadly, in the events of the last two weeks - teaches me not to write things down!).  I was very moved when our guide told us how he himself had been sponsored by a single American woman from the time he was nine years old through to the age of 22-23.  He spoke to the life-changing impact that sponsorship had had on his life and the trajectory of his family's:  he was able to go to school and discovered that he was good at it; his family was supported with donations of food and other necessities so that he had food to eat; he began to attend church and discovered the faith that sustains him to this day; and he was able to attend university.  He finished a university degree in veterinary science.  He was then offered a two-year leadership training opportunity through Compassion and completed that; he is now employed by Compassion, working with sponsors and the children they support, while working as a veterinarian on the side.  He was a wonderful young man and we very much enjoyed hearing bits of his story.

We drove about twenty minutes to get to the Compassion Project which our sponsor child frequents.  We were brought into the little office there, introduced to the four staff who run the Project, and were told about the Project and how it supports 211 sponsored children who live in the immediate vicinity of that location.  There are many such Compassion Projects throughout Addis, and there are many thousands of children being supported in Addis through Compassion sponsors.

All of the sudden, as we sat there chatting, a boy who looked exactly like the picture on our fridge walked through the door.  It was Biyalfew (pronounced bee-al-fo)...along with his mother, Yeshi, and (surprise) his seven-month-old brother, strapped to the mother's back.
Biyalfew (foreground) with his mother and baby brother

Matthew and Biyalfew...born six days and an entire world apart.

It was a bit surreal, meeting Biyalfew, knowing for real the boy whose life we're making a difference in.  Over the next 90 minutes or so, we had a chance to talk with him and his mother (through the translation of our guide), watch him and Matthew play soccer in the courtyard, tour the facilities, and participate in a coffee ceremony prepared for us and for a group of Australians who were visiting various Compassion Projects in Addis.  It was a lovely time.  Biyalfew was neatly dressed, though it was impossible not to notice that he smelled of urine, as did his baby brother, whom his mother allowed me to hold for a while (me and babies...)

Biyalfew and Matthew playing soccer.  Matthew was initially quite shy, but the soccer really helped loosen both boys up.  It was easy to see how much they had in common - how boys at age seven are similar no matter where/how they grow up.  Biyalfew was very courteous, was great at sharing the ball, was affectionate with Matthew (throwing his arm around Matthew regularly), and he was clearly delighted by Matthew's visit.  I could easily imagine the boys as friends if they lived in the same place.

The church that kids attend on Saturday evenings.  Most of the time the kids spend at church is actually spent in small side classrooms, in small groups.  But this is the 'main sanctuary.'

Geoff, chatting with Yeshi

A coffee ceremony being prepared...with the traditional popcorn, of course.

The two boys, along with the Compassion driver behind them.

After almost two hours at the Compassion Project, we all loaded into the Compassion van (with Biyalfew and his mother/brother) and drove the short distance to where they live.  When we turned off the main road, we ended up on a rutted dirt road that led into something that looked like a run-down campground...except instead of tents and trailers, there were tiny shacks and huts and gigantic, overflowing garbage containers.  As we drove past a particularly pathetic-looking, patched, canvas-sided shack, I couldn't help but wonder who might live there and I was so ashamed of the wealth that we live in back in Canada.  The contrast was just horrifying...unimaginable.  To my shock, the van suddenly made a turn, and stopped directly in front of the shack that I'd just been wondering about.  It was Biyalfew's home!  Our guide noticed my expression (thankfully I was not in viewing distance of either Biyalfew or his mother) and nodded sadly, noting that one of the requirements of that Compassion Project was that the children be the "poorest of the poor."  Well, certainly Biyalfew and his mother qualify on that count.

Biyalfew's home (our Compassion guide is in the foreground, wearing the blue striped shirt)

This is it folks: Dirt floor; 6x6 room; with a tiny curtained-off closet area behind this room where they sleep and store the few things they have.  Here is Matthew with Biyalfew, holding the soccer ball we gave him.  The gifts we gave them, though they cost us very little, likely comprised most of the possessions they own.

Biyalfew's Mom, Yeshi, standing in front of her home, where many other children and curious onlookers had gathered, to see us "ferengi" (white foreigners).  It was interesting to see how she, like I when visitors come over, fussed about her home...trying to make it neater and somehow more 'acceptable' to her guests. She was very gracious and seemed genuinely delighted to have us there.  Again, not much difference between two women from polar opposite ends of the earth.

For the life of me, I can't find the photo I took of the gifts we brought for Biyalfew and his mom, but one of our large checked bags on route to Ethiopia was about half full of stuff we brought for them.  I will post what we took for them (to the best of my recollection) because I wish someone else had posted a list of stuff that they had taken to their sponsor child/family when we were in the planning stages - it's hard to know what to take.  I wish I could find that photo, to jog my memory, but here's what I remember packing:

For Biyalfew:
- a soccer ball and pump (clearly possessions to be proud of, based on Biyalfew's face)
- a photo album
- a back pack, stuffed to the brim with:  notepads; markers; pencils; pens; scissors; pencil sharpener; pencil case; ruler; many assorted stickers; half a dozen chocolate bars; towels and a wash cloth; soap; a variety of hot wheels cars (a real hit!); toothbrushes and a few toothpastes; playmobil action figures to assemble; etc etc.  I can't remember the rest.

For Biyalfew's mother (who was shocked to receive gifts, too):
- towels (in a dark colour, so that dirt doesn't show as much)
- chocolates
- a large multi-pack of unscented soaps
- shea hand lotion
- toothbrushes and multi-pack of toothpaste
- sewing supplies (needles; pins; several X-large spools of thread in different colours)
- bed sheets
- a shoe-box size rubbermaid container filled with stuff I can't remember!  How sad is that, after I chose and packed everything so carefully!?  I know there were some toiletries in there, but beyond that, your guess is as good as mine!
Finally it was time to say good-bye.

I struggled with tears most of the drive back to our guest house, and Matthew and Geoff were pretty quiet, too.  It's sobering, to see the reality of the conditions people live in, and also to see how far the support we provide really goes.  Biyalfew seems like a bright boy and I'm so thankful that he's able to go to school, and perhaps make a difference for his family.  It was a life-changing day that sadly got a little lost in the many life-changing moments that followed in that same week, but I can surely encourage anyone reading this blog to consider applying for a sponsor child - it really, truly makes a world of difference to that child and his/her whole family.


  1. Reading this really makes me think I need to find a way to bring Faith along to Ethiopia so she can meet our Compassion child (also less than a month apart in age). What an experience for Matthew and Biyalfew. I bet it will be easier to find stuff to write about in letters now (Faith always struggles to know what to write...)

  2. This was a great post Ruth! I know you know this, but I think you're fantastic! Just felt the need to say it again.

    Love ya.


  3. I love this post! And I love child sponsorship! It's so life enriching... for us and for them. We had 2 sponsor children up till recently. The one in Ethiopia no longer needed sponsorship, so we're back down to one right now.

    We visited our sponsor child in Uganda in 2008. It's such an amazing experience. His family was extremely poor, but it looks like your sponsor child is poorer, just by looking at the house. I remember the last day we went to his home. I thought I could hold back the tears till we left, like I had done every day till that point, but I couldn't. I bawled in front of the whole family, then our sponsor child came over and hugged me (after his mother told him too because he was too shy to do it on his own.) It was very hard leaving him there because he's like a son to us and his parents would gladly send him with us to Canada because they know what we could provide for him. That made it hard.

    That's very special that your sponsor child and your son are so close in age. It will be great for them to grow up knowing each other. May God bless you for caring for this family.