My story begins in Kofele, Ethiopia where I was born and raised. Kofele was a peaceful and prosperous place back then. My six siblings and I enjoyed a loving and happy life. My father was a respected community leader who built the first high school in Kofele.
I remember looking at a globe with my father when I was a little girl. I told him I wanted to go “there and there and there” pointing to different spots on the globe. I couldn’t understand why most Ethiopian women only thought about marriage and children. I wanted to see the world.
So, after high school, I moved to the Netherlands where I studied Dutch, and tourism. From there I moved to Los Angeles, California where I worked in retail and earned a degree in fashion Merchandising. After a couple years I got my license in real estate.
But, I was not prepared for the extreme challenges that I was to face. I was nearly killed twice through gender-based violence, the details of which I will put in a book some day. It is a miracle that I am alive. I had put those near death experiences behind me. But, in 2008, I realized that my life had been spared for a reason and I had to find out why.
So, after 25 years away from home, I returned to Ethiopia. I knew I wanted to help people in need and find purpose in life when I got there. My friends and family believed in my mission and generously contributed $5,000.
With $5,000 in my pocket, and love in my heart, I traveled home. I knew that Ethiopia had changed since I had left as a girl. But I wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of the changes that I saw. The poverty was heart wrenching and the plight of the children, especially of the young girls, was truly saddening. I cried a lot.
I knew that I couldn’t help everyone, so I decided to help one family in a way that would immediately better their lives. There was a family with eight children living in a mud hut with no kitchen and no bathroom. In one week I was able to have a house built for them.
It was during the construction of that home that I met UBO. At seven years old, Ubo worked as though she were an adult, cooking and cleaning. One day I decided to have a little chat with her. I took her photograph and when I showed her the picture She told me, “I didn’t know I was so beautiful.” She had never seen her own image. Her name, in our native language of Oromo means “beautiful.” I choked back my tears.
That was the day I made the decision to do all I could to make sure that no girl would grow up without knowing how beautiful she is or having the opportunity to go to school. And, especially, no girl would be a victim of gender based violence, being forced in to marriage at an early age, premature childbirth and illiteracy.
The next time I went back to Ethiopia I was determined to help more girls. I thought I might be able to find sponsors for 20 girls at $1/day. When I arrived at the meeting place there was a long line of girls waiting. And so, 20 girls became 51 because there was one set of twins and I couldn’t separate them. I had no Idea how I would get sponsors for 51 girls, but I said a little prayer and took all their pictures. When I returned to Sausalito with a Board Member who was on the trip with me we took the pictures of the girls and showed them to every one we could think of. And through the compassion and generosity of many people, we were able to find sponsors for all 51 girls. At present we have another 50 on the waiting list.
With the encouragement of friends and family, I founded a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, Tangible Hope Foundation, so that people can make tax deductible donations to support the health, education and protection of young girls.
These little girls are still vulnerable to kidnapping and rape. We founded the Tangible Hope Foundation and obtained land in Kofele on where we hope to build a compound. The building would be safe place for them to study and empower girls to teach others how they can grow into women who can change their own world.
I still cry when I return to Ethiopia, but now I cry tears of joy at how well the girls are doing. I now know that it is my purpose in life to help more and more girls learn to help themselves into a future full of hope and opportunity. They, in turn, will lift future generations out of the cycle of poverty, ignorance and violence.
I now know this is what I am meant to do in my life. These are my children – to be mother to all.Lily
Life should not only be about living, but also about giving.Lily