Last year, Lehigh Valley businessman Abraham Zegeye started raising money to build a school in his father’s native village in Ethiopia.
When the children attend classes later this month, they’ll find a larger, block building with a concrete floor and windows has replaced the cramped stick-and-mud shack with a dirt floor where they used to learn.
Zegeye, who has raised $15,000 for the $30,000 project, will visit the school at the end of the month to deliver supplies for its 250 students.
“I want to make sure they have books, blackboards and desks,” said Zegeye, owner of Abe’s Six Pack shop in west Bethlehem. “It’s not hitting me yet because I am not there to see their faces and their expressions. It’s hard from here to imagine it. But when you get there and see the kids coming and smiling it will be unbelievable.”
Zegeye’s story is one of reflection and reconnection. Raised in Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa, he left his war-torn homeland as a teenager in 1982 for the stability and opportunity of America. The brutal Derg regime ruled the country at the time, imprisoning and executing those suspected of resistance.
Zegeye’s memories left him bitter and he vowed to never return to his homeland. But those feelings changed over time, and he took a trip to Ethiopia a few years ago. While there, he visited for the first time his father’s native village of Hurufa-Kelate, about six hours from the capital by car and donkey.
He was shocked to see villagers fetching water from a muddy ditch where cattle and goats drank and others did laundry. He and his family members contributed $5,000 to build a well used by 2,000 villagers. Clean water now flows through a spigot instead of bubbling up from a muddy ditch.
But Zegeye, of Lower Nazareth Township, said he wanted to build a school to increase opportunity for the villagers. The small school could only accept children up to fourth grade. Those who wanted to continue schooling had to leave their families during the week to take a grueling walk to another village. Often, only boys were allowed and girls stayed behind to work family farms, Zegeye said.
The new school has sufficient room for children up to eighth grade, so children can continue learning without leaving their families. The government provides instructors as long as communities provide the school, he said.
“Education is the only way for them to come out of this poverty,” Zegeye said. “They can get a better life for themselves and their parents.”
His initial plan was to build a school and clinic for nearly $100,000, but he scaled that back when fundraising fell short. He was able to finance school construction, which has allowed him to build the school before raising all of the money.
Zegeye said he is grateful to his customers and others who helped him raise $15,000. He posted photos of the project and a collection jug in his shop. He also established a trust for the school project through Lafayette Ambassador Bank for donations. Donations ranged from $500 to spare change, he said.
“Day-to-day, people dropped a dollar, quarters, 50 cents,” Zegeye said. “It is making a difference.”