Visually impaired CU student finds way to America from Ethiopia
Years ago, somewhere in the forest outside of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, there stood a grass house. Made of logs, mud and sticks, it was built isolated from any other village. Far enough away from anyone who could hear the screams of pain from inside.
A young boy was being pinned down by two grown men, one of them sitting on his legs and the other on his chest. A third man stood over the boy, poking sticks and pouring an unknown chemical into his eyes. The boy was whipped if he struggled or flailed too hard.
Over the course of a few days, Ethan Johnston became blind. The men who took Johnston from his mother and little sister with promises of an education and a better life, now told him he was going to make them money by begging in the capital.
Johnston said he thought he was trapped.
“There’s no way I’m seeing my family again,” Johnston recalled. “This is what I’m doing the rest of my life.”
Johnston figures he was about 5 or 6 years old when this happened. He is not exactly sure how old he is now, though the records say he is 18. His age was never kept accurately in Ethiopia and was determined instead by about how old he looked.
These days, Johnston does not beg for money in Addis Ababa. He is a freshman pre-journalism and mass communications major at CU, working on the education that was promised to him years ago.
“Through fighting, scratching, clawing and being positive, I’m here,” he said.
Johnston’s friends say they have seen his positive attitude as a constant over the years.
“He has the prettiest smile I’ve ever seen. It lights up the entire room,” said Ollie Long, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in nursing at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo. “Everyone wants to be a part of who he is.”
Johnston’s journey to Boulder began during a day of begging at a coffee shop in Addis Ababa. He remembers receiving some money from a woman and her blind husband who asked his guide if they could meet with him again at the same place.
But the men at the grass house wouldn’t allow it, maintaining that the couple was too suspicious. Johnston was told not to return to the coffee shop.
He did meet the lady and her husband again the next day, but not in the coffee shop. Johnston and his guide had avoided going back there, but happened to get into the same taxi that the couple was already riding in.
The couple took Johnston away from the guide, away from begging on the streets, and into a school for the blind.
“When they brought me in, they gave me bread and tea and clothing,” Johnston said. “I’m always thinking about how life was, how it is now, and how I’ve been lucky.”
After being transferred to a second blind school in Ethiopia, he became ill with what he believes may have been yellow fever. While being treated at the hospital, a woman came to his room looking for a different patient that had already been released. She found Johnston instead and heard his story.
The woman was from America, looking for kids who needed a home in the United States. While attempting to find one for Johnston, she had moved him from the hospital to an orphanage. He would stay there for four months.
Johnston was moved to a second orphanage, where he would stay for only for only six more months before the woman from America found him a home in Ashland, Mo. He was then either 9 or 10 years old, on his way to the United States.
“I thought [America] was heaven,” he said. “You get to places faster, and all this technology . it was amazing.”
It took Johnston eight months to learn English and a whole year to get adjusted to the new food. For some time, he said the only foods he would eat were apples and bananas.
But after he grew accustomed to his new home, Johnston began making friends at school including his best friend since third grade, Drake Detwiler.
“He can make friends with probably anyone he’s around,” said Detwiler, a 19-year-old sophomore biology major at the University of Missouri. “The way he talks to people, they totally forget his disability.”
Seeking to gain independence, Johnston first went to the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton the summer after his junior year of high school. For two months, he learned from other blind instructors how to cook, travel and be free.
“Before I went to go to the center, I didn’t think blind people could do anything,” he said.
He repeated the same two month summer program after his senior year before moving on to a different program at the center, one that would see him living in an apartment for nine more months with another blind student.
“That’s how I became who I am now,” he said.
In his spare time, Johnston says he loves to listen to music and play sports. He says he especially likes to listen to hip-hop and play basketball. Johnston has received 12 cornea transplants that allow him to see colors and shapes which he said is particularly useful when he plays sports.
Detwiler says he and Johnston have bonded over playing basketball, with him teaching Johnston the nuances of the game.
“If he can’t get something, he’ll keep working at it,” Detwiler said. “He doesn’t like to be treated like he has a disability.”
Long says this determination is Johnston’s greatest strength.
“It ultimately says he can accomplish whatever he wants to do,” she said. “Even if it takes him 12 years, he will get it done.”
Johnston says he hopes to translate his journalism major into a career in sports commentating. Inspired by Dan Patrick of ESPN, he aspires someday to have his own TV or radio sports show.
He says the trick is always to stay positive, never dwelling on the past.
“Why would you want to go back to the negative and stay negative?” he said. “You’ve got to be stupid.”
Contact Campus Press Staff Writer George Plaven at George.Plaven@colorado.edu.