Stealing. Smashing. Destroying. Destruction and harm for both himself and anyone else in his path. Running. Always running. For much of his early life Aweke Alemayehu knew little else.
Growing up on the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Alemayehu had no hope for his future. He expressed himself through anger and aggression, routinely picking fights and smashing car windows for no reason. He recalls thinking, “If you don’t have hope, what’s the point in being a good person?”
Surrounded by darkness and immense poverty, Alemayehu had nowhere left to turn. His entire life people had given up on helping him.
But that changed when he met Yonas Tesfaye.
Tesfaye realized early in his own life that even if he didn’t have much himself there was always someone with less.
In 2001, he and a group of nine friends noticed the extreme poverty that had become commonplace in the Ethiopian capital and knew they needed to help. The group began spending time with children on the street, giving them food, clothing and other resources when they could.
While the others got jobs and left for college, Tesfaye stayed behind, compelled to continue helping the children and young adults he met on the streets of the capital.
“I think that seeing the people living on the streets who were in need inspired me,” he says. “I saw children eating from the garbage and sleeping on the street. I began to look at myself and compare it to their lives. It was placed on my heart to help. I knew I could do something.”
During this time it wasn’t uncommon for Tesfaye to sleep on the streets alongside the boys he met. For many of them, the thought of being inside a house or shelter was terrifyingly foreign after so much time living outdoors. Over time Tesfaye was able to gain their trust and help find them safe places to stay.
Those initial acts of kindness were the first inklings of what would become the nonprofit, Hope for Children in Ethiopia (HCE).
While Alemayehu’s story is not uncommon, what set him apart were the opportunities and resources Tesfaye was able to provide him through HCE.
By providing resources as well as physical and emotional support, Tesfaye has found ways to empower his fellow Ethiopians from early childhood through adulthood. For Alemayehu, that opportunity at a better life looked like a space in HCE’s Lighthouse Boys program, which takes young men off the streets and provides them with education and life skills they can use to change the trajectory of their life.
“There are two things you should always do: create opportunities for people and never give up on them,” Alemayehu says.
Because Tesfaye and the team at HCE refused to give up on Alemayehu, he was accepted into a prestigious school for computer science after leaving the program. Today he is the Income Generating Activities Coordinator for HCE and helps mentor the boys who grew up much in the same way he did as well as the girls entering the New Life Girls program.
Alemayehu’s story is only further proof of Tesfaye’s belief that when someone is given the resources and opportunities to succeed they can do incredible things.
While the Lighthouse Boys focus on young men like Alemayehu, Tesfaye realized that there was another large population being left behind. He saw that Ethiopian women especially are often not given the opportunities or resources to find their way out of darkness and into a prosperous life.
If he truly believed that the women of Ethiopia are the country’s future, then Tesfaye knew HCE’s work also needed to include the many girls forced into sex slavery and prostitution. The result was the New Life Girls program, which was designed to rescue teen girls from these types of oppression and immerse them in a year-long program focusing on holistic care.
While all of the New Life Girls come from different backgrounds, their stories of heartbreak, abuse and neglect are often the same.
With his own traumatic experiences from life on the streets, Alemayehu acts as a mentor for the girls, many of whose experiences with caring and compassionate men have been few and far between.
One of those girls was Hawi. When she first arrived at HCE Hawi was only 12 years old but had already experienced more darkness than most see in a lifetime.
When she was five years old, Hawi’s parents divorced and fought over who would care for their young daughter. One night, under the cover of darkness, Hawi’s father kidnapped her. He took her to the countryside where Hawi worked in the fields and cared for farm animals. Eventually, she ran away and spent three years living on her own in the forest. When she was 11 years old Hawi was able to locate her mother. But she refused to care for Hawi for fear that her father would kidnap her again. Instead, Hawi went to live with an uncle. But when he passed away shortly after she was disowned by her aunt and turned out onto the street. While living on the street she was picked up by the police, and Hawi was placed in an orphanage.
Up until the time she came to HCE, Hawi had been physically, mentally and sexually abused almost constantly. But when she began living with the New Life Girls, her trajectory started to change.
While Hawi is one of the youngest girls at HCE, she has been one of its strongest leaders. After attending school Hawi stayed with HCE and helped orient each new group of New Life Girls. She has since reunited with her mother and moved back home.
While HCE has been able to help rescue many girls like Hawi through its programs, Tesfaye knows that there are many more who are ready to leave the streets for the opportunity at a better life.
When they do, the New Life Girls program helps provide a safe place to heal and vocational training that gives the young women a path to self sufficiency. From food preparation and hairdressing to crafts like leather working, girls like Hawi learn valuable skills that will help them earn fair wages and build a better future.
As always, the challenge remains how HCE can make the biggest impact possible.
In the last 18 years, Tesfaye and the HCE staff have experienced moments of immense joy—groups of young women graduating from the New Life Girls program, getting a van from generous donors to help transport HCE participants, welcoming former students back with open arms—alongside seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
But with those challenges have come collaborators and committed community partners constantly asking how they can do more to help.
The result is a positive ripple through the streets of Addis Ababa and its surrounding rural communities. Today HCE has served more than 20,000 children, women and young adults through its programs and outreach.
“Many people who didn’t have a father, call me Dad,” Tesfaye says. “I feel a lot of pride when someone sees me as a mentor or father.”
While its programs have morphed and changed over the years, the passion Tesfaye has for helping the most vulnerable people of Addis Ababa and beyond has remained the same. On any given day, Tesfaye can be seen stopping on the street to provide advice or offer help in any way he can.
“To see the change within the children’s lives keeps me going,” he says. “Their situation improves and they are able to change their lives. Children go from living on the street to being educated, being depressed to having joy. The change of the people’s lives keeps us all going to want to “The only thing you need to do to help change more lives.”
In every aspect of its mission, from the programs it provides to the way Tesfaye has come to be known in his community, HCE strives to create the largest ripple possible.
Ultimately, the idea that a small act of kindness can have a lifetime impact is at the heart of everything that Tesfaye, and by extension HCE, does. It’s the positive force that helped Alemayehu change his life for the better when he first came to HCE. It’s the continued impact of that change that helped Hawi find a safe place to call home and people she could trust. It’s the thousands of other small points of impact on the streets of Ethiopia that have yet to be realized.
With little else than basic resources and opportunities that the children he once slept on the street with likely couldn’t have imagined, Tesfaye is changing the future of Ethiopia.
But he doesn’t believe his experience should be unique. If Tesfaye leaves one legacy it would be to inspire others to follow in his footsteps, whatever the cause may be.
“If I never would have started by doing something small, I would not be in the position I am. To help someone, you don’t need money or knowledge: you need to have the heart to want to help someone.
“The only thing you need to do to help is to give someone something you have.”
In addition to these programs there are many other ways that HCE supports the people of Ethiopia. HCE also offers educational programming in the form of a multi-year kindergarten as well as women empowerment programs.