by Kevin Simpson
From the Editor: Braille Monitor readers will remember the story that we printed in November 2009 about Ethan Johnston's harrowing childhood in Ethiopia and his liberating escape to the United States. The following article, reprinted from the October 22, 2009, edition of the Denver Post, brings the rest of this story up to date. Of course the final chapters in Mr. Johnston's life have yet to be written, but you can be sure that the continued influence of the National Federation of the Blind will help to shape what promises to be a bright future. Here is the second segment of this two-part series from the Denver Post:
A jubilant Esubalew Johnston, surrounded by family and villagers in Ethiopia, throws his hand in the air. But shortly after his return to the U.S., he felt overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed and help his family. After sixteen years, the young man returned to a vaguely familiar place whose features he now absorbed almost entirely by sound and smell. In the teeming bustle of Addis Ababa, capital city of Ethiopia, his traveling companions filled in the visual gaps. Esubalew "Ethan" Johnston, blinded as a child by kidnappers who wanted to make him a more pathetic beggar, returned this past summer at age twenty-two to his native land—and ultimately to the remote village where his mother had long feared him dead.
In Addis Ababa, Esubalew (is-soo-BAH-low) brushed up against the child beggars who, years ago, could have been him. "When blind people would come to beg at our taxi, I was like, 'Wow, I used to be that person,'" he said. "For me to be giving them money, after being in their position years ago, was hard to believe."
Esubalew's journey from six-year-old beggar to a third-year student at the University of Colorado yearning to reconnect with his Ethiopian roots was chronicled last spring in the Denver Post. This summer, Esubalew finally made the trip. He flew from Colorado to Addis Ababa, then north to Gonder. Hours of driving—much of it over gravel roads and recently harvested farm fields—took him within a mile or so of his native village, Inesa. From there he and his travel companions proceeded on foot.
Children appeared seemingly out of nowhere and merged with Esubalew and his entourage. Karla Reerslev, who arranged the trip in conjunction with her nonprofit World of Good Inc., looked into the distance. Atop a hill were massed perhaps two hundred or three hundred people. That's when she realized. Despite spotty communication in advance of Esubalew's journey, they'd known he was coming--hugs, kisses, and tears.
The villagers swarmed down the hill, led by a man blowing a brass horn, while others clapped. For Esubalew, who can make out only faint contrasts of light and dark, the scene seemed almost dreamlike.
Esubalew Johnston was kidnapped and blinded at age six, left on the street to beg, then adopted by a U.S. family.
He remembers noise, singing, and laughing, "like a migration of birds." He could discern the figure of a woman making her way through the crowd, "weaving in and out, like a running back trying to find her way to the end zone." She leaped and pulled him down to her level, where she hugged him, kissed him, and cried. It was his mother, Yitashu.
"I cried, too, but it was happy tears," Esubalew said. "She was just bawling—all those sixteen years thinking I'd been dead. She said that every funeral she went to, she cried harder, for me."
Villagers slaughtered goats and pulled out Ethiopian beer. They danced and partied for three days as Esubalew met or became reacquainted with relatives. "I forgot the culture," Esubalew said. Yitashu asked whether he remembered what she looked like. He didn't, not really, but he found her voice familiar. So she sang. And while Esubalew couldn't comprehend the words, he'd hear his name and realize she was singing about him as other relatives and villagers danced around him. "I never thought it would be that big of a crowd or excitement," he said. "I forgot the culture, basically."
During one visit to an uncle's house, Esubalew's relatives asked him to recount the saga of how he'd landed in America after leaving Inesa. Zach Herries, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who captured the scene, found it one of the most memorable of the trip. "I guess they'd never heard the complete story of his history, so when he told them his version of the story, it was pretty emotional," Herries said. "It was really hard for them."
Esubalew began with the day he left the village with the men who would take him to Addis Ababa. When he got to the part where they blinded him, his relatives wanted to hear no more. Yitashu had thought her son's blindness resulted from an accident while playing with his sister. "Stop, stop," they said. "This is a terrible story."
Esubalew reassured them. "Wait," he said. "It's okay, we're getting to a good part, which is coming to America." He told them of his adoption by a family in Missouri, going to school, playing sports, and learning to adapt to his blindness. He told them of moving to Colorado and the happiness he'd found in America.
Their reunion lasted six days before Esubalew headed off to visit other places on behalf of Door of Hope, a nonprofit that aids the blind in the region. At one point, close to the time he was to leave, Esubalew asked his mother what he could do for her. Nothing, she told him. It was enough simply to be with him again. But a relative urged her to not hold back. So she told him she would like a house not so far from town, so Esubalew's half-brother, Tomtim, could easily walk to school. She also asked for some arable land and a milking cow. He could give her all this for about $1,200. He had some money and left it with a trusted friend to make the arrangements.
In the midst of the reunion, he realized once again how fortunate he'd been to be adopted into a life of opportunity, and he vowed to work harder to make the most of his good fortune. And yet, shortly after his return, the memory of his journey, coupled with the pressure he felt to succeed and help his family, overwhelmed him. He sank into depression. But just days ago, he spoke by telephone to the police inspector who'd helped find his family. He assured Esubalew that his mother was doing fine and that the purchase of a house and a cow was proceeding as planned.
The news settled Esubalew down. He has refocused on his education—he's seeking a communications degree—and envisions a future that includes radio work, motivational speaking, and opening some Ethiopian restaurants, including two in a native country he has only recently rediscovered. "But that," he said, "is a long ways away."
A Long Journey
Esubalew Johnston's journey to Ethiopia closed the loop on an improbable story of horror, serendipity, and reunion. His childhood ended abruptly around age six, when his mother allowed some men to take him from his remote home to the faraway capital, Addis Ababa—supposedly to attend school. But just days later, in a scene that echoed the movie Slumdog Millionaire, his captors held him down and blinded him with sticks and chemicals to make him a better beggar.
Workers at a school for the blind found him on the streets and rescued him. Ultimately an American family in Missouri adopted him and got him medical treatment that salvaged shadowy remnants of his vision. He came to Colorado to learn life skills at the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton.
Soon afterward, he enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Still, he wanted to reconnect to his past. Workers for an American nonprofit organization used their Ethiopian channels to locate his home village of Inesa. It wasn't easy to find. But Esubalew remembered that after the men had taken him from his mother's home, they'd stopped for the night in a town called Motta. Friends and contacts found a police inspector who lives in the region. He knew of Inesa and found Esubalew's mother.