Liberty woman's belief in miracles saves Ethiopian teen

Jul 18 2011 - 8:22am

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(Photo courtesy of Julie Rhodes) (From left) Mike Rhodes and Jason Burton help Taye Eshetu Alagaw, who is believed to be about 19, with the movement of his crippled right hand at Where Love Is, a boys shelter, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
(Photo courtesy of Julie Rhodes) Taye (center) poses for a photo with the boys who live at Where Love Is, a boys shelter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The group home is run by Jason Burton (to the right and slightly behind Taye), from Portland.
(Photo courtesy of Julie Rhodes) Julie Rhodes takes Taye’s crippled right hand in hers while visiting the group home for street boys in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Taye also has severe seizures. At first, doctors in Ethiopia thought Taye had a brain tumor, but when he was preparing for surgery, the surgeon said the “tumor” was actually calcified scar tissue.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Julie Rhodes and her husband, Mike, sit in their Liberty home with Taye recently. Taye grew up in Ethiopia and never knew his parents or even what day he was born. When he was younger, he found refuge in a group home for street boys, then came to live in Liberty with the Rhodes family in September.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Taye jumps on the trampoline with Kamree Young at his new Liberty home earlier this month.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Taye and his benefactor, Julie Rhodes, of Liberty, enjoy the waters of Pineview Reservoir earlier this month. Taye grew up in Ethiopia and came to live with the Rhodes family in September.
(Photo courtesy of Julie Rhodes) (From left) Mike Rhodes and Jason Burton help Taye Eshetu Alagaw, who is believed to be about 19, with the movement of his crippled right hand at Where Love Is, a boys shelter, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
(Photo courtesy of Julie Rhodes) Taye (center) poses for a photo with the boys who live at Where Love Is, a boys shelter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The group home is run by Jason Burton (to the right and slightly behind Taye), from Portland.
(Photo courtesy of Julie Rhodes) Julie Rhodes takes Taye’s crippled right hand in hers while visiting the group home for street boys in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Taye also has severe seizures. At first, doctors in Ethiopia thought Taye had a brain tumor, but when he was preparing for surgery, the surgeon said the “tumor” was actually calcified scar tissue.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Julie Rhodes and her husband, Mike, sit in their Liberty home with Taye recently. Taye grew up in Ethiopia and never knew his parents or even what day he was born. When he was younger, he found refuge in a group home for street boys, then came to live in Liberty with the Rhodes family in September.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Taye jumps on the trampoline with Kamree Young at his new Liberty home earlier this month.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Taye and his benefactor, Julie Rhodes, of Liberty, enjoy the waters of Pineview Reservoir earlier this month. Taye grew up in Ethiopia and came to live with the Rhodes family in September.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- The walls are crumbling plaster. The roof is canvas and mud. A plastic washtub, half full of grimy water, sits under a rickety rack of shelves. It is four paces one way, five paces the next, over benches and beds and a small stack of beat-up books. It is dark and dirty and smells of the chickens and cows that trot about in the courtyard next door.

But for Taye Eshetu Alagaw, this was home. And it might as well have been a castle.

Taye was a young teenager when he came to this place -- he does not know exactly how old he was because, like many Ethiopian street children, he does not know when he was born.

He didn't know his parents. And for a time, he didn't even know his last name.

There are millions of homeless children in Ethiopia. That Taye found a place in this dilapidated group home was a matter of great fortune.

Some might call it a miracle.

It wouldn't be the last for this shy young man, because 8,500 miles away, in a splendid country cabin in Liberty, Utah, there is a woman who believes miracles never cease.

Not where there is love. Not where there is determination. Not where there is faith.

Leaps of faith

Julie Rhodes knew as much about Ethiopia as most other Americans.

Famine. Poverty. Border wars. The 1985 song "We Are the World."

But when a family friend, international entrepreneur Paul Morrell, asked Rhodes to travel to Ethiopia in 2009 to check on the status of a health clinic he was building for workers at one of his east African ventures, Rhodes leapt at the opportunity.

She was used to taking such leaps.

At a 2003 conference at BYU, Rhodes and her husband learned about the need for orphanages in Ecuador. They were moved by the stories of children who needed homes -- and inspired by the audacious idea that they might be able to do something about it.

Within hours, they had placed calls to their employers to request an extended leave of absence -- and six months later, her family had relocated to Ecuador to begin building an orphanage.

Six years and several small miracles later, with that project on firm ground and her family back in Utah, Rhodes was looking for a new challenge, a new cause.

"I think Paul called me because I was the only nurse he knew," Rhodes said. "There were better people for the job, but he wanted someone right away -- and so I said yes."

She soon was in Addis Ababa, the sprawling, ramshackle capital of one of Africa's poorest nations. Because she was already in Ethiopia, Morrell asked if she would look in on a project that his family's charity was sponsoring -- a group home for street kids run by Jason Burton, a young Samaritan from Portland.

"While we were there, we took the boys out for an activity," Rhodes said. "And Jason brought one of them to me and said, 'This is Taye. He has a brain tumor.' "

When she was 16, Rhodes lost her 7-year-old brother, Brody, to brain cancer. And watching the nurses at Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City set in motion a desire to care for those who need it most -- a desire she fulfilled, for a time, as a cardiovascular nurse.

She immediately felt a connection to Taye, a shy, sweet teen who came to the shelter after being savagely attacked on the streets.

"It's not clear if he was already ill before and that this worsened it, or if his health issues all began at that time," Burton said. "It's also not exactly clear why or how he was attacked, but that sort of violence isn't all that uncommon here."

Whatever the cause, Taye was developmentally disabled. He suffered from severe seizures and had a crippled right hand.

"I wanted to know about him. What were the circumstances? But I didn't have very much time, and we were leaving soon," Rhodes said.

But the boy wouldn't leave her mind. As soon as she was back in the United States, she sent Burton an email.

"Tell me about Taye," she pleaded.

Trial and error

Rhodes would make four more trips to Ethiopia over the next year.

"I'd go for another purpose, but would take a day or two to take Taye to the doctor," she said.

In March 2010, Rhodes received word that Taye had received a coveted date for surgery at the Myungsung Christian Medical Center in Addis Ababa.

She rushed to Ethiopia to be at his side.

"I spent the whole day at the hospital with Taye, and we waited and waited and waited, and finally the surgeon came out."

"I'm not going to do surgery on him," the volunteer doctor from Norway said, "because he doesn't have a brain tumor."

What Ethiopian doctors had mistaken for a tumor was the calcification of dead tissue around Taye's brain, most likely the result of the attack. The surgeon said he could remove the hardened tissue, but it wouldn't fix any of Taye's problems.

Disappointed but undaunted, Rhodes turned her attention to getting Taye's seizures under control.

The teen's Ethiopian physicians tried several drugs, but money and resources limited what they could give him. For the most part, Rhodes said, they simply gave the boy whatever medication they had on hand and waited to see what happened next.

Rhodes had just arrived in Utah in August when Burton called.

"I want you to know that Taye is back in the hospital," he said. "He's had another really bad seizure."

An allergic reaction to one of the many medications doctors had been trying had prompted a grand mal seizure. Taye had lost consciousness. His muscles had violently contracted.

Since the moment she had met him, Rhodes had harbored a fantasy about bringing Taye to the U.S. for treatment.

Now she knew that's what she had to do. And she was certain she didn't have a lot of time to do it.

"I'm going back to Ethiopia to get Taye," she told her husband that night.

Mike Rhodes knew the obstacles and expenses would be great. "I know how the government works," he said. "Visas take time."

But he didn't dare protest.

"Taye knew he needed a mom, and Julie knew she was that mom," he said. "Someone just had to convince the government of that."

A threadbare start

Adoption was off the table.

Even in the best of situations, Americans wishing to adopt an Ethiopian child must endure a yearslong slog through two governmental bureaucracies and two immigration systems.

And in any case, doctors assessed Taye's age at 19 -- two years past the age at which individuals from other nations may be legally adopted by U.S. families.

Rhodes decided the best option would be to try to seek a medical visa. She earnestly placed calls to government officials in Ethiopia and the U.S.

Again the news was not good. "Everyone said it could take years," she said.

Undaunted, Rhodes booked her ticket to Ethiopia -- and set her return for 10 days later.

Along the way, Rhodes and Taye's Ethiopian supporters had found a relative able to provide Taye's full name. That was a start, albeit a threadbare one.

"What she wished to do in such a short amount of time was impossible," Musie Tadesse, a social worker assigned to Burton's street boys shelter, said of Rhodes.

"Taye didn't even have a birth certificate. He didn't have any identification. He didn't have anything at all to start the process with."

And Musie wasn't impressed with Rhodes' plan.

"I asked her, 'What are you going to do?' and she said, 'Well, I'm going to pray,' " he recalled.

"And that didn't seem to me like it was going to help much."

Faith and fortune

Musie figured his doubts had been confirmed when, on the very first day he went to seek a birth certificate for Taye, he ran into a wall of bureaucracy.

But as he was leaving the office, a friend Musie knew from school walked in.

"What do you need?" the woman asked.

"A birth certificate for this boy," Musie answered.

The woman, a clerk in the office, filled out a form and printed out the certificate. Still unsure of when Taye was born, Rhodes selected Sept. 24, reasoning that if she were able to get Taye to Utah, he would have a few weeks to adjust -- "and then we could have a celebration."

That night, Rhodes called her husband. "Miracle No. 1 happened," she said. "I just need about six more."

And one after another, she got them.

Securing an Ethiopian passport was supposed to take two weeks -- and when the group walked into the passport office, it was hard to see how it could even go that quickly.

Hundreds of people were huddled together, waiting for their turn to speak with a government official.

But as soon as he walked into the office, Taye began having another seizure. "They took one look at him and said, 'OK, come back tomorrow,' " Rhodes said. "The next day, it was ready."

Next step: Getting a letter from an Ethiopian physician certifying that Taye could not get the care he needed in his own country.

But whether it was a matter of national pride or professional idealism, the neurosurgeon at Ethiopia's Black Lion Hospital refused to sign off on Taye's travel, arguing that the teen could indeed get the care he needed in his native Africa.

The surgeon consented, though, to let Rhodes take Taye's case before the hospital's committee. "Come back in two weeks," he told her.

For a moment, Rhodes felt her faith falter.

"We had an appointment with the U.S. Embassy the next morning," she said. "I decided that we'd just go. We'd take them everything we had and at least we'd have a list of what we would need to do when we came back."

In the U.S. Embassy the next morning, Taye had another small seizure. Apparently eager not to make things worse, and seeking to move things along, an embassy worker permitted Rhodes to answer the questions she was supposed to ask Taye.

The next day, Taye had his visa -- and a plane ticket to the U.S. No one even asked about the physician's letter.

Burgeoning believer

Taye arrived in Utah on Sept. 11.

Consistent medication and changes to his diet have almost completely eliminated his seizures. His visa was renewed in March and is up for renewal again in September.

Rhodes doesn't know how long the U.S. government will allow him to stay for treatment -- but she's confident that, if and when she needs another miracle, it will be there.

When Rhodes returned to Ethiopia in May, she stopped by the shelter to visit Burton and his boys -- and treated the group to a day at Addis Ababa's Black Lion Zoo.

On a drizzly afternoon when most of the animals sought shelter in the recesses of their cages, the boys quickly lost interest in the enormous cats and gangly monkeys. Far more entertaining were the photographs of Taye that Julie brought back to show the boys who were his family.

"He's getting fat," one of the boys cried -- sending the others into a fit of laughter.

Along for the trip: Musie, the once-cynical social worker.

"I admit now that what happened to Taye was the best miracle I have ever seen," Musie said.

"And ever since then, I've had a strong feeling about faith -- that if you believe in something and you want to make it happen, it will."

A few steps away, Rhodes smiled.

"When you take these sorts of leaps, you always have a chance to do amazing things," she said. "They're not always the things you expect, but they're still amazing."

Matthew D. LaPlante is an assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University.

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