I was born in Gojjam, a remote region of northwestern Ethiopia. My father died when I was in sixth grade, and when I began working to help take care of my family, I realized I had a spinal deformity. By the time I entered eighth grade, the lumps were growing fast and I was getting thinner by the minute. My friends used to tease me about the lumps in my back by asking: “What’s that you’re carrying, Bires? Is it a ball or a lemon?” Even when people were laughing about something else, I was convinced it was me they were mocking.
School stopped in eighth grade for me. When I took the ninth-grade entrance examination, I was assigned to attend school in a city that was too far away and too expensive for my family, so I stopped my education. Because of my back problems, working as a laborer became harder each day, so I eventually began to shine shoes. Since my family was among the poorest Ethiopians, I was invited to join a skills training course for young people with disabilities in Gondar called Mahibire Tsegen. That’s where I met my friend Temesgen, who had the same spinal deformity as me and who introduced me to Dr. Rick Hodes, JDC’s medical director in Addis Ababa.
My brother is a priest, and when I told him about Temesgen’s advice, he was skeptical. If I hadn’t been cured by holy water, why should this doctor be any different? He told me to just sit at home and wait for help from the government, but I connected him with Temesgen, and my brother was convinced when he saw my friend’s recovery.
My brother has a wife and a goat, and though his first idea was to sell the goat to finance my trip to Addis Ababa, his wife vetoed that idea, because it was their only source of income. He told me he knew the road to the city — it was very arduous, especially for me with my health condition. He told me he wouldn’t let me go alone but that I shouldn’t downplay the risks: We would be going by foot, and the journey would take eight days. I told him to just take me to Dr. Rick’s clinic. I knew I needed help, and I wouldn’t have minded if I’d died on the way.
We stayed in strangers’ homes along the way, and these blessed families gave us food for our travels, water for our feet, and just the kindest hospitality. When we got to the clinic, it was Sunday and the doctor wasn’t there, so his colleagues directed us to stay at St. George’s Cathedral in Addis Ababa’s Piassa neighborhood. On Tuesday, I met Dr. Rick and told him everything. He saw that our shoes were destroyed by the journey, and then he took us to his home and gave us clothes.
I started my journey because I believed Dr. Rick was my only hope. He didn’t disappoint. When we met, he ordered an X-ray and when he examined it, he told me surgery could fix my condition. After a few short months, JDC sent me to Ghana, where I was in traction for four months and 15 days before surgery. Now I have perfect posture, just like everyone else — a 95 percent change from before. Today, I believe I’m as healthy as anyone. It was as if I was born for a second time.
Though a long time had passed since I had any formal education, I recently took an advanced sewing class. I used to say that if G-d willed it and I could get a sewing machine, I would make clothes. That was my plan, and when a JDC Board member stepped up and donated so Rick and his team could purchase a sewing machine for me, my dream came true.
Over the past months, all of our lives have turned upside down as the coronavirus has hit the world, but I’ve tried to see the pandemic as an opportunity. Using my sewing skills, I’m now making masks. I’ve designed four different styles, and I plan to have the “listros” here in Addis Ababa — street vendors who sell small goods and shine shoes, like I once did — sell my products.
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The only reason I am healthy and doing this is because of Dr. Rick and the JDC spine program, so I plan to donate 50 percent of my mask profits back to the JDC program. The thing which will make me happiest is to help other kids like me. In my free time, I teach people not to discriminate against people with disabilities like mine. I tell people that laughing is not appropriate, and we should help our brothers and sisters with special needs instead.
I don’t have the words to show my gratitude for Dr. Rick. May G-d bless him and may he live a long life. I love him very much, and I call him my father.
Bires Gashu lives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he makes and sells clothes.