by Kevin Simpson
From the Editor: The following article is reprinted from the May 31 edition of the Denver Post. It reminds us how lucky we are to live in the United States.
Ethan Johnston was born in Ethiopia and intentionally blinded as a child by men bent on using him as a beggar. He was ultimately adopted and now attends Colorado University.
On a playground court, Esubalew "Ethan" Johnston cradles the basketball and begins a rhythmic, right-hand dribble. He weaves the ball through his legs, darts forward, spins, drives left, and pulls up to shoot—at a basket he cannot see. In what passes for his field of vision, the white backboard casts a dull silhouette on a chalky sky. It is enough. With a flick of his wrists, the ball caroms off the board and through the net.
He wasn't born blind. Esubalew (is-soo-BAH-low), now perhaps twenty-two by his own reckoning, navigates the few blocks from his Englewood home to the outdoor court with a white cane he leaves in the grass at one corner of the asphalt. "My jump shot's terrible," he says. "But my inside game is good. If I could make a jump shot, I'd be the blind Kobe Bryant."
He's got the jersey—No. 24 in Los Angeles Lakers gold. And he shares one other trait with the NBA star. "I feel like I'm living a millionaire's life," says Esubalew, who just finished his sophomore year at the University of Colorado. "I never thought I'd be here talking smack about the Lakers and playing basketball. "I guess it worked out."
Esubalew was five, maybe six, when the men came. Age is an imprecise matter where he lived in Ethiopia. He remembers certain things. The trees around his mother's grass hut in the village of Inesa, the rainy season that sometimes made the hut collapse, the dry summers that scorched and cracked the earth so badly you could turn an ankle in the fissures. He remembers tending a neighbor's cattle in return for a large jug of milk. It was his way of contributing to the small household headed by his mother, Yitashu. He rarely saw his father. And he remembers playing with his younger half sister Etagegnehu outside their hut one day, when two strangers asked his mother if she'd like her son to attend school in the capital city of Addis Ababa.
Wanting him to become something more than a poor farmer in the isolated village, she sent her son away with the men. They put him on a donkey, and that was the last she saw of Esubalew. A few days later they blinded him. They told him to get ready for bed. Then three men held him down while another employed sticks and a caustic white extract from a tree. Blind children made the best beggars. He was instructed to cling to a rail attached to local taxis and refuse to let go until passengers took pity and dug into their pockets. Sometimes the taxis simply took off, dragging him until he lost his grip.
On these days his teenage overseers would tell the men that Esubalew hadn't tried hard enough, and they whipped him with a switch. “I thought it was my job for the rest of my life," he says. "From daylight until dark, that was it—nothing else. It seemed like forever. But it was probably more like a year." Then, while begging in a café, he met a couple who worked at a school for the blind. They inquired about his situation and eventually wrested him from his captors.
Fortune took odd forms. Esubalew contracted tuberculosis and had to be hospitalized. There, a doctor showed him to Cheryl Carter-Shotts, director of Indianapolis-based Americans for African Adoptions Inc. Her decades-long concern for children suffering on the continent has withstood controversy over international—and interracial—adoptions. "Esubalew climbed into my heart a long time ago," Carter-Shotts recalls, "and never left."
In a country ravaged by civil war, she saw a blind child wearing nothing but a torn T-shirt and underpants. Esubalew had told his caregivers the name of his village, but no one had heard of it. Authorities never seriously pursued his case. "It was wartime," says Carter-Shotts, "and they were not going to focus on one lost child."
She gave him a Matchbox car and promised to return for him. Months later she did—and found him a foster home in Ethiopia until she placed him with a Missouri family who'd taken in special-needs children from all over the world. "We thought a lot about adopting him," recalls Kris Johnston, fifty-six, from her house south of Columbia. "But I was scared to death. With a blind child, what would our life be like? We were going off a story and a gut feeling that we should do this."
In October 1997 Esubalew—then approximately ten—flew with other Ethiopian adoptees to Indianapolis. He stepped off the plane wearing an ivory tunic with embroidered trim. "I was shaking, I was so afraid," recalls Johnston, who met his plane. "But as soon as I saw his smile, I knew it would be OK."
She nicknamed him Ethan, after the part Tom Cruise played in the movie Mission Impossible. Johnston thought the name exuded strength and character—and that it would help Esubalew's transition to go by something easier to pronounce.
His physical issues were obvious. One eye, Johnston recalls, was "horrifying to look at." A specialist confirmed the extent of the damage and recommended a cornea transplant on his good eye to salvage even some semblance of sight. When Johnston removed his bandages and asked if he could see anything, Esubalew replied: "Yes. You're white."
He describes it not so much as a shock as a revelation about the wider world, and the starting point for his understanding of race in America. "It was just part of my education," he recalls. "She said people will have issues because you're black, or because you have white parents. I said, 'Are you kidding?' But she was right. There were some situations like that, and if I hadn't been warned, I would've reacted instead of just letting it go."
There would be several more cornea transplants as his body rejected the new tissue. Eventually an artificial cornea produced the best results in his left eye. Months after his arrival Esubalew's right eye became so infected it had to be replaced with a prosthetic. His vision yields little more than lights and darks and shades of color. In his new home, he initially grew frustrated at his inability to express himself. English came slowly but ultimately supplanted his native language, Amharic.
He made friends easily, struggled academically through middle school but graduated from high school with a B-plus average. Along the way basketball caught his interest, starting with an NBA broadcast in which announcers hammered a new word into his developing vocabulary: "Shaq." Shaquille O'Neal's Los Angeles Lakers became his team as they marched to league championships—though Kobe Bryant has replaced O'Neal as his personal favorite. In sixth grade a friend taught him to play, igniting a passion that he carries into adulthood. With practice Esubalew learned to recognize the white lines on the court, use sound to judge the arrival of a bounce pass, and shoot a passable percentage in loose pickup games.
Johnston, with architect husband Chuck, has reared twenty-five adopted children from all over the world—about one-third with some kind of physical disability—in the 4,000-square-foot home they built on ten acres. Esubalew stands out primarily for his perseverance. "He's not bitter," Johnston says. "He has such a zest for life—just a real excitement for what's coming around the corner, what next year will bring."
When he turned sixteen, a high school counselor recommended he enroll in a summer program at the Colorado Center for the Blind, a Littleton-based school that teaches life skills. Excited by his growing independence, he returned for a second summer, and then for a full-time program. Already in love with Colorado, he enrolled at CU-Boulder, with the help and encouragement of Eric Woods, an instructor at the center. At first he found himself falling behind in college classes—until he got his materials translated into Braille.
Although he has shifted his major from journalism to sociology, he remains fascinated by the possibility of becoming a sports-talk radio personality. But he realizes he must work harder. "I'm way too laid back—like the Lakers with a big lead," he laughs. "School's tough. I need more discipline."
Pickup basketball continues to be a big part of his life at CU. Also, he immerses himself in music. A few years ago it was rap and hip-hop, which was an outlet for adolescent angst. More recently he has embraced Ethiopian music. "As I grew up, I saw life getting better and better," he says. "I had to go back to my culture. Ethiopian music has a hip-hop beat, but the lyrics are kind of country—about family, how life is over there. It's about appreciating life."
Esubalew lives with Woods and his wife Lori while on breaks from CU. They speak of him proudly, like a son. "He understands that something good has come of all this," Eric Woods says. "Everybody's got a tale to tell, and his is horrific. But he's focused on the positive." Esubalew helps at the Center for the Blind when he can. He has taken a particular interest in another Ethiopian, a young man about his age, who also was blinded under circumstances similar to his own. "I don't think he knows how lucky he is, but as he learns English and the culture, he'll understand," Esubalew says. "We're both lucky to be here in America with the opportunity to become somebody."
In about two weeks Esubalew will walk into his native village for the first time in nearly fifteen years. Karla Reerslev, an Oregon woman with two Ethiopian adoptees who lived in foster care with Esubalew, also runs a nonprofit that connects children there with American sponsors. She used her connections overseas to track down his mother and arrange a reunion. Esubalew's initial excitement has become nervousness as he wonders how his mother will react. Does she feel guilt at letting the men take him away all those years ago? Will his return be cause for celebration?He no longer speaks more than a few words of Amharic. But he hopes to convey that he understands her decision and that his life has turned out well—far better than he could imagine his lot in the village of Inesa. "In a way, my mom's dream came true," Esubalew says. "So I think I won in the end."