Matthew D. LaPlante
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — It’s lunchtime at the Yehiwot Reay compound in the Megenagna District of Ethiopia’s sprawling capital city, and a mob of gangly boys scrambles for seats at a worn wood table. They dive into plates of injera and shiro, 12 hands ripping at the food. The room reverberates with dinner-table chatter in three languages.
They are as young as 6 and as old as 20, though most can only guess at their age. And like boys anywhere, they push and scrap, argue and pout. Two of the older boys toss a ball across the room, goading each other to see who can hurl it harder.
One of the youngest, Tareku, plays music videos on a laptop computer — a technological incongruity in this meager brick and plaster home. The skin on his forearm is cracked and disfigured — an eight-inch sleeve of scars. He glances away from the screen and to his arm.
“Fire,” he explains.
Jason Burton does his best to piece together the difficult — and sometimes horrifying — facts of the lives once lived by these boys, who have come to him off the squalid and often violent streets of one of the world’s poorest cities. Some have been abandoned by parents who cannot feed them. Others came to the city from their rural villages intending to support the families they left behind. While on the street they sometimes slept against the walls of churches, under bridges or in trash-strewn alleys.
Now they are part of Burton’s family. Like all families, this one has its struggles. But after five years of this work, Burton can’t walk away — even though he recognizes that he’s put many aspects of his own life on hold to answer this call.
By the time they met Burton, many of these boys were addicted to tchat, a mild narcotic that is cheap and popular in Ethiopia. Others have struggled to overcome alcoholism. Burton aims to provide a home, a shelter and a place where they are wanted.
As lunch winds down, the 25-year-old Oregon native and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints looks across the table.
“It’s time to get to work, you guys,” he says.
He’s been there since early morning, walking a half hour from his apartment he rents with three of the oldest boys. Every morning he rouses them from bed and prods them to begin their chores. It’s the rainy season break from school right now, so the boys are fighting idleness. Burton does his best to keep them busy with study and reading, cooking dinner and washing clothes. When they have free time, they kick an old soccer ball around the yard or weave multicolored bracelets they hope to sell. It’s a very different lifestyle than the ones they used to lead.
Burton, who grew up in Portland, Ore., first came to Ethiopia in 2007 intending to volunteer for eight months at the Mother Teresa Hospital for the poor.
Then he met two young street boys.
Masha and Berhanu were about 14 years old when they met Burton, who was then only five years their elder. Burton was helping with outpatient care at the hospital, where Berhanu had come to seek treatment for an infected wound. Not wanting to be a burden to his mother, the boy had left his home in Lalibella, north of Addis, after the death of his father. He’d hoped to find work to support his three younger brothers, but things hadn’t gone well.
At the time he met Burton, Berhanu was sleeping with other homeless youths by a church. At night he would pull his oversized T-shirt over his knees and curl up against a wall. One night, as he drifted to sleep, Berhanu fell forward and sliced his eye on the corner of a step. By the time Burton befriended him at the hospital, Berhanu’s eye was swollen shut and the infected area had ballooned to the size of grapefruit.
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