In June, 2018, students and faculty members from Mullen High School in Denver, Colorado, traveled to central Ethiopia in Africa to visit St. John Baptist de La Salle Catholic School. The San Francisco New Orleans District (SFNO) and Lwanga District schools are paired together as part of the Lasallian Region of North America’s (RELAN) twinning program. Mullen twinning coordinator Elliot Gray documented the group’s experiences in this personal account of the trip.
It was when I first heard that Mullen High School has a twin school, St. John Baptist de La Salle Catholic School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that I found myself wanting to learn more about it and, ideally, to visit it with our students. Dr. Betsy Porter, one of our faculty members, had been there with another school on an immersion trip and shared her stories with me, saying how great the Brothers were there and how thankful they were for our support. We seemed so connected to it through raising money and hearing about it, but it seemed so far away from us in Denver, Colorado.
The events that would lead to being able to fulfill my Addis Ababa ambition unfolded this way. In the summer of 2016, I had the unique opportunity to experience Vandhu Paaru, living in community and teaching English in a Lasallian Centre in Myanmar’s capital city, Yangon. Not only did I get to teach, but I also learned about the cultures there. I ate new food, tried new clothing, and traveled to beautiful mountain towns and the Land of 3000 Temples.
It was an introduction to the experience of being on an international immersion trip. It was wonderful, but I wanted Mullen students to have the experience. I wanted them to see why it is so important to support Lasallian schools in other countries. I wanted them to fully experience what the twinning program was all about.
Then, in 2017, I attended year one of the Buttimer Institute of Lasallian Studies. I met incredible people, all of whom were passionate about the providing a human and Christian education to all, especially the poor and marginalized. My colleagues and new friends were from countries all over the world. However, the colleagues who most caught my attention were those from Africa – from Togo, Nigeria, Kenya…and Ethiopia.
I will never forget being at an evening social (like a true Lasallian) and meeting a calm, wise, and kind man named Brother Betre Fisseha. As we spoke, I learned that he was the Auxiliary Visitor for the Lwanga District, where Mullen’s twin school is located. He is Ethiopian and worked at Lasallian schools there prior to moving to Nairobi, Kenya, when he was appointed Auxiliary. He told me beautiful stories of his home. I asked Brother Betre if it was a possibility to take Mullen students to St. John Baptist de La Salle Catholic School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He enthusiastically said, “Yes!”, but I only half-believed him.
Still, the idea stuck with me. In the beginning of August, I was at a student retreat and bounced what I was thinking off of my friend and our Activities Director, Katie Abeyta. She was as enthusiastic about it as I was. We began to dream together and to make a plan, which we took to our president and our principal. They both said yes. However, the rest was not to be that easy.
It took long months of planning and determination to overcome all of the obstacles that stood between us and a trip to our twin school. First, we had to find students who were interested and whose parents would trust us to chaperone them in unknown territory. Then, we almost had to cancel the trip because of insurance issues. And, two weeks before we left, our flight was cancelled and we had to rebook our itinerary, which would mean adding a day of time and expense laying over in Frankfurt, Germany.
Despite all of this, on June 1, 2018, Katie and I touched down late in the evening in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Our large Lufthansa plane had very few passengers on it, but fourteen of them were students from Mullen High School.
As promised, the Brothers were there waiting for us and had everything planned for us. First, we went on the almost 400-mile bus ride from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa, the third most populous city in Ethiopia, to visit Bisrate Gabriel, a Lasallian school established by French Brothers in 1953.
On the bus ride, we saw many small towns and villages that showed us what much of life in Ethiopia looks like. The students’ first reactions suggested how new and different this experience was going to be for them. One of our seniors, Sofia, said, “When we had lunch meetings before the trip, we would talk about the location and the culture, but you can’t really put a face to a person until you see them or to a location until you really feel it. I don’t think that I really had any concrete expectations going in, but when we got there it was just mind-blowing what we did see and got to do.”
Once in Dire Dawa, our students sat in on classes, taught songs in English, and played soccer, basketball, and volleyball with the students. We also had the opportunity of seeing Harar, which is a Muslim holy place. The Brothers took us to a ministry of the Missionaries of Charity, who were established by St. Teresa of Kolkata (Mother Teresa of Calcutta). There, we saw the work being done to give healthcare to the sick and dying there.
This leg of the trip made a deep impression on our students. Another of our seniors, Bo, talked about the impact of a visit to an orphanage near Bisrate Gabriel School.
“We saw some of the girls who went to the school,” he remembered, “and we started playing volleyball with them. We could only communicate with them in simple ways, so we didn’t know exactly what was going on. Then, we started playing some of their traditional African games. We were all still confused, but we all knew that everyone was having fun from all the smiles and laughing. It was just amazing to be with people who had nothing, no family or home, but were still having so much fun and were excited to meet us.”
Sofia spoke of an encounter with those same students the next day in school, recalling, “During lunch time, they were coming up to us, wanting to give us all pieces of their food because they really wanted to share. It was so cool to see how compassionate and loving they were.”
After four days in Dire Dawa, we traveled by train back to Addis Ababa and our twin school, St. John Baptist de La Salle Catholic School. We did not stay on site at the school, but in a nearby retreat center run by wonderfully accommodating Franciscan Friars.
Each day, we would walk about ten minutes to the school, which is located in a low-income area of Addis Ababa. It was established in 2010 to provide a quality education for the children who live at the Missionaries of Charity home there, as well as in nearby Asko region and Keta, Oromiya. The school is attached to the Missionaries of Charity campus. We were told by many of the students at the school that it provides one of the best educations in Ethiopia.
When Brother Kassu Fantaye, FSC, the school’s headmaster, showed us around, we began to get a sense of some of the everyday challenges that must be faced there.
“I was impressed,” Bo stated, “that there were about 30 to 40 computers in the IT room, which I didn’t expect. All the students were coding and building websites. I asked if they used Java, and they said that they had to keep it on flash drives because their computers were too limited. It was sad to see because the students have so much potential and they couldn’t use the best tools.”
For Katie, certain things began to make more sense. “When we had emailed the school during the planning for the trip,” she said, “we’d get these really short responses, not like the information that we were used to getting in emails. Then, once we got to the school, we realized, ‘Oh, their Internet is off for three-quarters of the day.’ If there’s a lot going on, then they really have to prioritize what they can do online.”
The younger students would wait for our students each day – to play Simon Says, be chased around the courtyard laughing, or just simply to hold hands. The older students at the school were studious, dedicated, and overall excellent students. Their diligence and hard work was nearly unbelievable. They study hard and go to top universities in Ethiopia. They also apply to and are accepted into some American universities, but none can afford the high tuition costs in the States without full scholarship.
Bo noted, “They take their education very seriously because it’s how they’re going to make life better. Their goal is to get a college degree in the U.S. to be able to help their families. All of them have hope that Ethiopia can become a less impoverished country.”
Seconding this, Sofia shared, “One day, we went upstairs to the IT room and were helping students revise application essays for scholarships that would help them come to college in the U.S. Seeing just how much they want this opportunity for themselves and their families…it was awesome to be able to help them work to achieve their dreams.”
The beautiful part of our students’ interactions with those in Addis Ababa is how much they found they had in in common with them. They bonded talking about favorite (and least favorite!) school subjects, future goals, and universities. They also talked about the local dance clubs and who had the best taste in music. Our students realized that they had much more in common with these teenagers then they had ever imagined.
One thing that they did struggle with was their realization of just how much needs to be done in terms of support and how little it felt like we actually did. It is my experience that these trips are just as much, if not more, for the participants as they are for those with whom we walk. For example, when we left Ethiopia, we took our students to Kenya for a safari. In the midst of being on a comfortable and relaxing excursion, they would talk about how much they missed Ethiopia.
“Something that was hard to see,” Sofia said, “was when we would walk to the Church every morning and we would see destitute people on the side of the road. Poverty was everywhere, like it almost was normal.” Bo added, “The poverty there was so extreme. Not to minimize what it’s like to be poor here, but a poor person in the U.S. would be considered almost average class there.”
A powerful benefit of our trip was how it raised everyone’s awareness of Mullen’s place in the larger Lasallian family, as well as their individual roles in advancing the Lasallian tradition. The phrase in our mission statement, “especially the poor and the marginalized,” has always more or less haunted me. My heart is service, and I’ve sought opportunities to expose our students to different areas of poverty. They are the future and the people who are going to determine what is to come. That is why it is so important that they understand our mission.
Bo reflected, “It definitely broadened our perspective on our core principle, concern for the poor and social justice. We saw whole new depths of poverty, which helped us appreciate more the Lasallian mission.”
“Before the trip,” Sofia confessed, “I don’t think a lot of us realized that the club, Lasallian Youth, is really all about this mission. Now, we’re all passionate about going out to help. Being there and seeing the faces really helped in opening so many new doors in respect to helping other students understand why it’s so important.”
Katie mused, “You often hear that the Lasallian mission is about serving the least, the last, and the lost. Sometimes that can be misinterpreted into an ‘us – them’ way of thinking, like we’re doing all the helping. When we were there, I felt like it was us being helped a lot more. We were all together, connected, doing the same thing, and really that is the mission everywhere. It strips away the ‘us – them.’”
During the last of our evening reflection sessions, the students started to articulate both their empathy for their fellow Lasallians and their desire to act. They had such great ideas to bring back to our Mullen community. For instance, they want to spearhead the initiative for awareness and fundraising for our twin school. They want to lead announcements and include educational bytes like the value of a dollar in Ethiopia or the amount of money spent there on education per month – $24. They especially want to share their experience with our entire community by putting together an awareness presentation.
“It’s important,” Sofia insists, “that we stress with Mullen students and students everywhere how essential twinning is because there are other Lasallian students who don’t have the same resources and opportunities that we have here to get to do what they want and what they are passionate about. We can help bring those opportunities to them.”
As I look back on our Lasallian adventure in Africa, I can see similarities between our experience and St. La Salle’s own life story. Like him, it must have been Divine Providence that guided us to and through our journey. If it were not for our group trusting God’s will, it would have never been possible. Like him, we realized the importance of saying yes to invitations and questions. It was the “yes” of so many different people that gave us this incredible opportunity. Finally, like him, we experienced the value of dedication. Getting caught up in minutiae can happen easily, so it is essential to remain goal-oriented and mission-driven.
This was such an awesome and eye-opening experience for all of us. It is Katie’s and my goal to take another group of students to Ethiopia in the summer of 2020. As Lasallian educators, it is our duty to show those who are ready for it the injustices and struggles that our brothers and sisters know and that we ourselves may face, and how to respond to inequality and injustice appropriately. We can show our students this beautiful and diverse world and let them recognize, as Katie says, “how very similar and connected we all are. Yes, our circumstances may be different, but our drive and our dreams are not.”
Photos courtesy Elliot Gray and Mullen High School, Denver, Colorado.