In a photograph snapped in December 2012, 17-year-old Mesfin Hodes hugs his friends at a skating rink at the annual Hanukkah on Ice celebration sponsored by American Hebrew Academy, where he is a junior. He wears a blue AHA sweater and a wide grin on his face. Originally from Ethiopia, he stands out in the photo. He’s the only student of color in the picture — and, in fact, the only one at the school.
Mesfin never imagined that he would one day attend a Jewish boarding school in North Carolina. At 6 years old, his biological parents abandoned him and at age 8 he was brought to Mother Teresa Orphanage in Addis Ababa. Soon after he was adopted by Rick Hodes, a well-known Orthodox Jewish doctor living and working in Ethiopia.
But while Mesfin loved living with his new family in Ethiopia, he says his father knew he would get a better education — and achieve his dreams — if he moved to America. And his biggest dream is to help the people he left behind back home. “I have received a lot — amazing, incredible stuff,” says Mesfin. “My life changed. I’m trying to give back as much as I can to the community I grew up in and to the people who are starving in Ethiopia.”
That’s why he started a charity project to raise money and collect clothing for children living in his former orphanage, through AHA’s “Four Corners Fund,” which helps students develop fundraising ideas into achievable goals. The money students collect over the academic year — typically thousands of dollars — is allocated to different charity projects. Last year, the students chose to send it to Mesfin’s former orphanage.
While most of his friends knew Mesfin’s story, some, like Andrew Dubin, heard it for the first time while helping Mesfin with the project. “It’s because he’s modest,” says Dubin, an 18-year-old senior at AHA.
According to his teachers and peers, Mesfin doesn’t broadcast his unusual background. “He doesn’t wear it on his sleeve,” says AHA principal Gary Grandon. “With all the things he has been through in his short life, the boy never stops smiling… He’s one of the happiest people I have ever met because he knows where he came from and he knows where he is and he really appreciates it.”
Mesfin is known around the school for his easygoing attitude. “The small things that the rest of us get concerned about don’t seem to bother him, because he’s been though so much,” says his former English teacher, Richard Smith. “He puts things into perspective.”
And Mesfin says he has a lot to be grateful for.
After his parents abandoned him, he had just one encounter with his mother. When Mesfin was 14, he was walking down a street in Addis Ababa when he heard a woman screaming, “You’re my son.” He turned to look at her. “I’ve never seen this woman. I thought she was crazy,” he says, but he stopped and talked to her and “I found out she was my mom.” That was the last time he saw her.