By all definitions, Habtemariam was a difficult child. After arriving at CURE Ethiopia, he quickly established a reputation for being a “rebash,” or a trouble maker in English. He was constantly starting fights with the other kids. He would cry when he didn’t get his way, and he was blatantly and publicly disrespectful towards his mother.
However, when you hear what Habtemariam had gone through in his short life, his behavior begins to make a little sense. This wasn’t simply a problem of character, but one of circumstance.
Habtemariam was born with clubfoot. It’s a condition where both his feet twisted inwards, essentially forcing him to walk on his ankles. Arguably worse than the physical disadvantages Habtemariam’s clubfoot put him up against, were the social and emotional challenges. Ethiopia is a very homogenous society where outliers – like someone with a disability – are not seen as strengths, but as dangers to the community at large.
Habtemariam was banished to the fringes of society. The more mature members of his community whispered behind his back while the less mature openly mocked him. He was bitter inside and always angry towards his mom and people who wanted to get close to him. Habtemariam soon realized that no one was going to look out for him, and so he looked out for himself the only way he knew how, with his fists. It’s not hard to trace his penchant for fighting, his manipulative tears, and even his disrespect for his mother back to feelings of being unworthy of love.
Here at CURE Ethiopia, our surgeons do hundreds of clubfoot surgeries every year and Habtemariam was a classic case. But our spiritual staff had their work cut out for them. Thankfully, they saw through Habtemariam’s tough exterior to the hurting little boy inside.
Habtemariam stayed with us for several months to complete his treatment. During these months, members from the CURE Ethiopia spiritual staff showed up at his bedside every single day. They showed him he was loved, cared for, and important. They refused to let him drive them away. Old worldviews don’t die easily, but days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, and as the spiritual staff’s message didn’t change, Habtemariam started to believe them. He slowly began to trust them. He began to believe that they did love him and that he was worthy of their love.
The change didn’t happen fast, and Habtemariam is still a little difficult sometimes. But the young man who left us is nothing like the scared little boy who showed up at our door. Habtemariam began to not only receive love but to also show love. He stopped picking fights with other kids and practiced processing his emotions. Our spiritual staff worked with his mother on healthy ways to discipline Habtemariam while still letting him know he is cared for and loved.
When it came down to it, Habtemariam was never a bad kid. He just desperately wanted to feel loved. Now that his treatment is finished, Habtemariam is going home not only with two straight feet but with a whole kit of tools to help him to process the emotional curveballs life may throw at him. Our prayer is that Habtemariam’s emotional progress will not stop at our gate, but that he will continue on this trajectory to become a strong man of God who is a living illustration of what God’s love here on earth looks like: a living version of the Bible stories we read together.