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.
Not long after, Masha was brought to the hospital. The teenager was suffering from chronic stomach ulcers that made it difficult for him to eat anything but injera, a traditional Ethiopian food made of teff. A glucose IV at the hospital kept him alive, but Masha’s problems were more than sickness. After the deaths of his parents he had moved in with his grandmother and uncle. But they feared the sickly boy was cursed and turned Masha out, leaving him to fend for himself.
“I knew immediately that I had to do something that lessened that sort of pain, even if just for a few people,” Burton said.
When his eight-month visa expired, Burton returned to the United States. But Masha and Berhanu were always on his mind.
Before making the trip to Ethiopia, the 18-year-old Burton spent four months in Ecuador working in an orphanage owned by Paul Morrell, a businessman and philanthropist from Utah. It was that experience that sparked Burton’s initial interest in helping street children. Even with so little, the children in the orphanage were the lucky ones: They had a place to go.
So when Burton met Morrell on a chance encounter while in Ethiopia, the two discovered their connection and Morrell took an interest in what the young humanitarian had done to help a few street boys. If Burton wanted to do more, Morrell said, he would help him launch an organization dedicated to helping street boys, who number in the hundreds of thousands in Addis.
Ted Burton said his son spent hours on the Internet poring over United Nations reports on homeless youth populations and “printed reams and reams” of studies detailing the challenges non-government organizations faced in developing countries. Burton was seriously considering Morrell’s offer.
“As a parent I kept saying, 'No. There’s just too much war, too much famine, too much danger; no, no, no,'” recalls Ted Burton, who tried to dissuade his son from the daunting venture. “I said, 'Pick a different place, there’s street kids all over, pick somewhere beside Ethiopia.' But, the Lord had other plans.”
Realizing he could not change his son's mind, Ted Burton conceded and helped his son draw up a business plan for a home for street children. Then they went to see Morrell.
Soon Masha, Berhanu and Burton were together again in a small Addis house, where they were joined by Berhanu’s old begging partner, Dustlyn. And it wasn’t long before other boys started coming for help.
“Usually how it worked was they had medical needs. One had fallen off a bridge and broken his leg, Taye had his tumor, one had a tooth abscess that was really, really serious to the point where we took him to the emergency and he was unconscious for a while,” Burton says. “That’s how things started happening, when boys who we'd known before started having little emergencies and saying, 'Can you help?' And then you realize, ‘Huh, they can’t get better on the streets.’”
Today, 20 boys live in the home called Yehiwot Reay — which means “Vision of Life.” Most of them have been with Burton for four years or longer.
“It’s more like a family rather than an organization, to be honest,” he says.
It’s a big family, but Burton — who grew up in a family that now numbers 15 — is used to that. That’s where he learned the patience it takes to do this sort of work, he says.
“Jason’s remarkable,” Morrell said. “What kind of 20-year-old kid does that kind of thing? He’s had a lot of really, really hard times. He’s taken in kids that are addicted and have no discipline, and with all these challenges it’s remarkable he takes them on and does as well as he does with them.”
But as the years have gone by, Burton has begun to think more about when he will start his own family. He refuses to abandon the boys, but he thinks often of school, work and marriage. He gets lonely at times.
“I didn’t expect it to be easy; I knew there would be challenges,” he says. "But I guess I didn’t expect so many challenges.”
The latest obstacle is funding. For the moment, Burton is supporting the boys largely on his own savings. He says he will be able to keep the program going for the next year but fears he won’t be able to meet the demands of the government, which expects him to take in new street boys every year in order to keep his license. The four oldest boys have offered to get jobs to help pay the expenses of the home, which costs about $2,000 a month to operate.
Jote, 18, says it only makes sense to help, given the way Burton has cared for him and his 12-year-old brother after their parents died of AIDS.
“I learned from him what love means,” Jote says.
Burton is touched by the gesture. “Even though it’s a really big challenge, it’s really nice to see that they have such a great appreciation for the home that they’d think to do that,” he said. “That it’s not just a program for them, it’s their family.”
In a nation where the per capita income is just more than $1,000 a year, there is little hope that the older boys could make enough to support the home by themselves. But their efforts might be part of a model for making the home sustainable. And that, in turn, might open some room for Burton to return to the United States.
He wonders, sometimes, what would have become of him if he had not been drawn back to Addis.
“I would have probably gone on to study sociology and worked as a social worker in a non-profit in the States if Ethiopia hadn’t sidetracked me so completely,” he said.
Sometimes, he says, people accuse him of being some sort of Peter Pan, the leader of the band of lost boys in a faraway land.
“I do feel like God moved me to help that first boy, but sometimes I feel like I’m just a spectator watching things go where they’ll go in spite of me,” he says. “But I’m sensing that I’ll always stay involved with our kids, but that the way could change.”
But for now he feels this is where he needs to be.
Ted Burton recently celebrated his 50th birthday, and as tradition dictates, the family celebrates by driving to Lake Shasta in Northern California and spending their last week of summer on the water. It’s times like these when Ted Burton finds himself thinking about his absent oldest son.
“Wanting a future back home for him, it’s not quite like that. I can see where he’s happiest and he definitely belongs there,” he said. “There’s real joy and inner meaning to his life in Ethiopia, and that’s not something I know how to replace for him here. Once you’ve had kids who would have died if you weren’t there, it’s not something you can replace.”
Ted Burton pauses. It is a long, contemplative pause. “But we sure do miss him.”
Back in the home, Jason Burton gently chides 6-year-old Kufa, who has missed his first day of summer school.
“I didn’t see you go, Kufa,” Burton says.
He holds the boy’s gaze, prodding him to admit he was on Bole Road, his old stomping grounds. After a while the boy shrugs and goes back to working on a craft bracelet. Burton holds no grudge.
“It’s a struggle, especially for the ones that have been on the street for more than a year,” he explains, noting that drug addictions are especially hard to break. “But they support each other a lot, and when they overcome the drug problems it’s a lot of time because of them supporting each other.”
He reaches down to touch Kufa’s hair.
“We’re all human,” he says. “Just do your best — that’s all you can do.”
Mackinzie Hamilton is a freelance journalist based out of Logan.