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Being of Norwegian ancestry and a New England breeding, I could not have appeared more out of place in this squalid, rain-ravaged corner of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Laden with sagging boxes and garbage bags brimming with children’s pajamas, I felt the human component of a game of “odd one out.” As the taxi from which my family and I departed disappeared back into the incessant traffic, I wondered if I was at the right place. Addresses are, after all, nonexistent in Ethiopia. But as I saw a middle-aged woman emerge from the cinderblock orphanage with an overjoyed smile, I knew I could not have been anywhere else.
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“Susanna!” cried AHOPE’s volunteer director, Sidisse, as she rushed to greet me. She hugged me firmly, Ethiopian-style. “We’ve been expecting you,” she continued, “Come with me.” She motioned to the rest of my family. “All of you, please come. You’re all welcome.”
African HIV Orphans: Project Embrace, known by its acronym, AHOPE, houses over 100 children with HIV and AIDS and provides them with medical care, an elementary education, and a family-like environment. Upon learning of this place, I felt compelled to contribute to AHOPE in whatever way I could. My Sweet Dreams Project was promptly born and driven to life. I spent the duration of my sophomore year of high school collecting pajamas (hence the project’s name) and subsequently squeezing them into the crevices of five large suitcases. Now, thousands of miles from home, I could think only of the children darting past the windows and screaming hurried Amharic phrases. When Sidisse suggested we go meet the children, I jumped up, thanked her, and half-ran into the adjacent building. After all, I thought, aren’t children the same in every culture?
As I entered the Younger Child compound, I was met by the stares of two dozen stunned toddlers sitting in front of a prehistoric TV set. Their clothes were filthy and ill-fitting, and their hair a ceaseless de-tangling project undertaken by patient nannies. They all looked bewildered by my appearance, as if I had materialized from a dream. The silent gazing continued for several seconds; then, one little boy discovered my arms could be used for throwing small children in the air.
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“Abraham,” he insisted, prodding me to repeat him, after he finally allowed me to put him down.
“Abraham,” I repeated, and then, pointing to myself: “Susanna.”
“Soo-sah-na,” he drawled, rounding off the last syllable with a peal of excited laughter. Not to be outdone, children from every corner of the damp room gathered around and followed suit, finding joy in the monotony of annunciating names.
It wasn’t long before they clamored to show me their meager collection of toys. One little girl, barely old enough to understand the concept of love, rocked and cradled two of the shabbiest dolls I had seen this side of an American trash can. Another child pitched me a ball made of rolled-up newspaper. The entire time, their runny-nosed, molluscum-covered faces never lost their smiles.
“Soo-sah-na,” Abraham called, as if he had discovered a new joke. He experimented saying it different ways: “Soosahna! Sooooh-saaaaah-naaaaa.” His laughter was contagious, so much so that any lingering guilt I had felt about leaving these children immediately evaporated. In time I would be back here, whether I was wanted or not. Fortunately, Sidisse’s sentiments matched mine, and she not only invited but beseeched me to return.
“We accept volunteers from America,” she pointedly mentioned to me, “They come and teach English. The children love them.”
“I’ll look into it,” I promised, and the idea never left my mind.
As an organization, Sweet Dreams has blossomed- donations and promises of loyal support for AHOPE pour in, while large boxes and reason for fresh hope board planes for Ethiopia. Meanwhile, I have turned my experiences and involvement with AHOPE into a career path seemingly perfect for my needs and desires. In college and beyond, I plan to study childhood education and eventually earn a teacher’s certification. With such a foundation, I hope to continue my correspondence with AHOPE by teaching there, and to bring with me a team of volunteers as excited and impassioned by our mission as I am. In the meantime, as I distribute posters for pajama drives and corral elementary students for presentations, I use the memory of AHOPE’s children- and Abraham’s smiles- as fuel for my own dreams.
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