The Greatest Weight

Close personal family friend, author, and, along with her husband--high-profile Atlanta criminal defense attorney Don Samuel--mother of nine children, five of whom are adopted, four from Ethiopia, Melissa Fay Greene writes in this week's Parade Magazine about a recent trip with her daughter Helen, 10, to visit her native Ethiopia. I can't remember the last time a piece of writing brought tears to my eyes.

It's been five years since my daughter left an orphanage in Addis Ababa and joined our family in Atlanta. Today Helen is a top soccer player, a flutist and the student president of her school. She has gained much, but much is in danger of being lost: her fluency in Amharic, her Ethiopian manners, her sense of her own history and culture.

As we pack for our 10-day trip to Ethiopia, I realize that I have no idea what my daughter is expecting to find there.

“I want to do lots of shopping!” Helen says.

“Addis Ababa is not exactly a shopping mecca,” I warn. “There’s no Target.” I want to ask if she remembers the orphanage or the beggars who line the streets. “I’m packing my iPod!” Helen calls.

Arriving at the airport in Ethiopia’s capital a few days later, we descend by creaky rental van into the city, where cars compete for right-of-way with herds of livestock. Unemployed, sick and handicapped people limp or lie on the sidewalks and median strips. Homeless children dash alongside the heavy traffic.

“This scares me,” Helen murmurs. “I don’t feel like I came from here.” Suddenly, a tall boy leans close to the window and moans in English, “Stomach zero.”

“Give! Mommy, give!” Helen cries.

She ransacks her backpack and finds a bag of bite-size Milky Ways. At the next stoplight, she serves a gold-wrapped candy to another barefoot boy who approaches. He examines it, smiles and requests another “for brother.” The van begins to accelerate. “He needs a candy for his brother!” Helen yells. “Please stop! Let me out!” But there is no stopping. My daughter falls against me, weeping.

UNICEF estimates that 4.6 million Ethiopian children have lost one or both parents, many to HIV/AIDS. Tens of thousands of street children forage in the capital; hundreds more live underground in sewers and tunnels. Some find shelter at orphanages like the one we visit on Helen’s first day back in Ethiopia.

Please read the whole thing.

Share this