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Rick Hodes adopted Mesfin when the boy was 8 years old, bringing him to his cramped house in Addis Ababa. “He sleeps in a corner of the living room curled up on two cushions, covered in an airline blanket,” Hodes wrote to a friend shortly after the adoption. Mesfin is the fifth Ethiopian child that Hodes adopted; he has no biological children of his own. A doctor for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Hodes treats Ethiopian children — many of them orphans — with congenital heart diseases, spinal diseases and cancers. He has worked on extreme cases, straightening the saxophone-shaped spine of one 18-year-old. He also treats Ethiopians immigrating to Israel and reports pressing health concerns to the Israeli government.
Mesfin calls him an “angel.”
“There’s days I see him getting an hour of sleep, maybe,” he says. “He’s just extremely dedicated to saving other peoples’ lives, to the pleasure of seeing them reborn.”
At first, Mesfin had a difficult time adjusting to his father’s faith. Living in Ethiopia, he says, he never really cared much about religion. “It was not something I agreed with,” he says. He was too busy worrying about where his next meal would come from or where he would sleep. But after being adopted by an Orthodox Jew, he began to reconsider.
“I was really not into religion at that time and when I came [to America], I was lost,” says Mesfin. His observant father wanted him to learn more about Jewish traditions, and initially sent him to a yeshiva in Denver. But Mesfin struggled with the strict rules there, and found the biblical texts inaccessible.
“I went to yeshiva straight out of Ethiopia,” he says. “It was crazy. It was too much. I had no background at all.” But learning about his father’s religion was important to him, so his father sent him to AHA, a pluralistic Jewish boarding school which his adopted brother had also attended — a place he now calls his second home, after Ethiopia. He says the school is more inclusive than the yeshiva, and not as strict religiously.
“I wanted to take it step by step, so AHA was a great place for that,” he says. “Now I’m learning a lot.”
He returns to Ethiopia almost every summer, where he fundraises for another orphanage called Hope for Generations. He is also at work on another project, a charity basketball tournament called Points for Peace, which he hopes will raise over $30,000 for the JDC and for Children’s Cross Connection International, an interfaith medical care and education organization started by Jews and Christians.
If he becomes the “richest man in the world,” like he jokes he wants to be when he gets older, he knows how he will use the money: helping other people, just like his father helped him.
“Growing up, I actually really thought about how I just might die the next day. I didn’t really think about what’s gonna come next, am I gonna go to college,” he says. Now, he thinks about the future. He says maybe one day he’ll study business in college. “I’m here because my dad gave me a second chance. I want to do the same for others.”
Vicky Tobianah recently graduated from McGill University with a Bachelor of Arts with honors in Political Science and English Literature. She is a freelance writer based in Toronto.