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Ethiopian Immigrant Knows Pain Like So Very Few

By Fred Dickey

San Diego Union-Tribune

June 5, 2017

It was assumed the boy wouldn’t live long. No one said it, but what was there to say? A one-room mud hut in a village no one cared about in the remote mountains of Ethiopia is not where nature goes to be kind.

The disease that had dug claws into Yismaw Tilaye’s body had a name but it was unknown, as was its treatment. Yismaw called it a curse, and wondered if God was punishing him.

The pain slithered into his life at age 12 and stayed day and night. It nested in his back, his legs, his buttocks and his joints. For two years, he would haul himself outside and watch other children go to school, which he couldn’t do because of the hour-long walk.

Then in the afternoon, he would watch them return and go off to play their games.

He would sit outside the hut, because to stand would bring tears to his eyes — partly of pain, and partly of who knows what emotions inside. He had no pain medication, not even aspirin, and no therapist to wipe his psychic tears.

At one point he was told his affliction was tuberculosis, but it was just a guess, and a wrong one.

He had his Christian faith, and he prayed — oh, he prayed — for the pain to ease.

The circular hut’s diameter was about 25 feet. The kitchen was a corner on the hard-packed dirt floor. The outhouse was incomplete. The “out” was there, but the house wasn’t.

He slept alongside his mother and three sisters. He lay spread-eagled, with arms and legs outstretched and his head flat. That discomfort was nothing compared to the pain it slightly eased.

Pain is made worse by the loneliness of it. You can’t share pain. You can’t even describe it; there is no language. You can only feel it, and that’s personal.

Severe pain for a boy of 12 would be far worse because their years would have given no warning. Grown-ups know pain is a part of life. But for a child, there is no experience to know how mean life can be.

Pain that doesn’t quit, doesn’t ease up ages you. It makes your soul turn gray.

Yismaw remembers, “I used to cry because it hurt so much. My joints were inflamed. I couldn’t stand on my foots because both were very painful. And my knees used to swell up. So I used to walk on a stick and I barely touched my foot, especially my right foot was very bad.

“All the people felt really sorry and despaired and they greet me with sad face and sad look. It’s like almost everyone thought that I had no hope, which makes me very miserable to live there, because I need hope.

“Yeah, just everyone was waiting for my day until I die. I see them crying. I feel my pain so hard, but seeing people crying because of me, it was the hardest thing.

“So when the kids run and climb trees, I just remember everything that I used to do with them but no more.”

Yismaw slept little because every movement would hurt. For hundreds of nights, he stared at the blackness of the grass roof and listened to his mother weep for her son’s misery.

The daily meal — yes, singular — was sort of a burrito. The unleavened bread was called enjera, like a slightly rubbery and sour tortilla. It was filled with a mash of bean paste and whatever vegetables might be available. That was called shiro, and it had to last until the morrow.

His mother farmed a small plot of land, and that was what mainly supported the family. His father lived nearby due to an occasional syndrome of marriage known to all cultures and called incompatibility.

Yismaw needed help or he would die, and he knew it. Or maybe worse, he would go on living the same way. At age 14, Yismaw turned his back on common sense and caution and acted out his desperation. He had suffered for two years, and now he was ready to risk death to overcome it.

What he did was reckless, rash, audacious and, yes, stupid.

But if you think you have just one chance at life and you don’t take it, how stupid is that?


Yismaw Tilaye today is 22 and living in semi-rural San Diego County. He is small and active, and never seems without a smile. However, the pain is still there, even though he finally has much better medication.

That Ethiopian mountain hut of eight years ago is 9,000 miles distant, but when he closes his eyes, he can step back into it. Severe pain is glue in the memory, and loosens its grip very slowly.

His lighter skin and aquiline facial features put him in sort of a racial crossroads between Semitic and southern Africa.

Ethiopians proudly claim a direct tie to King Solomon who, they believe, impregnated the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba and created a royal dynasty. The predominantly Christian nation can claim an ancient continuity of the faith.

Yismaw’s mind is neither on anthropology, nor on his frightful experiences in his native country. Now in San Diego, he now faces a different challenge, one just as daunting in its own way as his barely believable escape from Ethiopia.

He wants an education to go back and serve his people.


One Sunday in his 14th year, Yismaw struggled to his feet at 5 a.m. before his family awoke. He put on his pants, knowing that pulling them over his legs would be agonizing.

He picked up the four-foot pole he used as a walking stick and shuffled toward the door. He looked around one last time, then started down the road. All he had was the equivalent of $2. He took no food or water. He could drink at streams along the way.

You didn’t leave a note?

“No, because if I’m gonna tell them, they will catch me. I couldn’t walk fast.”

He knew nothing of the world except what he had read in books when he was still able to go to school. All he knew was the direction of the town where the bus would take him to the big city, and maybe doctors there could help him.

The road to the bigger town down the road was rocky and uneven. It went uphill and down, then again. For other villagers, it was a three-hour walk.

As he reached the peak of the valley where his home lay, he sat down and gazed backward. “I sat alone. I cried. God was only my hope. I looked at my village. It’s very, very far and you can see down the mountain now.

“I give myself to God that you can do anything you want. I pray: ‘I have nothing in this world. I have suffered enough. You can heal me, because you are my hope.’ That was my dedication.”

Along he plodded, pulling himself along with his stick. It took him 12 hours, but he finally passed a church where he was hailed and offered food.

“They said, ‘This is God’s house. Please come join us.’ I was very excited because I was very starving.”

When the bus to the state capital, Bahir Dar, stopped, the driver took pity on him and lifted him into the vehicle. He had to straddle the seats because he couldn’t bend his legs.

He reached the city amid the rainy season. The nights were very cold, and his clothes were thin. He found shelter in an open shed close to the hospital because he had been told he could line up in the mornings for scraps off the plates of staff and patients.

So you would eat off of unfinished plates of patients, too?

“Yes. I can’t worry about that. I get it for survival.”

A local woman took pity and let him sleep on the floor of her house, but he received no medical treatment.

“In Ethiopia, there is too many patients, small amount of doctors. It is almost overwhelming to them. It’s something that they see every day.”

Though his disease wasn’t treated, he achieved his second goal, which was to return to school. On each morning for a year, he raised himself from the woman’s floor, tried to stretch his aching legs, then hobbled the few yards to the hospital to jostle for table scraps from others’ breakfast. He would eat half, then carefully wrap up the scraps of his scraps and save them for supper.

One day, Mismaw had missed his scraps meal and was hobbling past some shops when he noticed a packet of money lying alongside the road. He picked it up, looked around, but no one claimed it. He took it to a shopkeeper and said it was not his. He gave it to the woman and walked on.

Shortly, the woman hailed and ran after him. She told him the money rightfully belonged to him, the finder, and it should be his.

He finally took it, and ate that day.

“I realized that God is not gonna feed me directly in my mouth. I been to the school that day with no food, and I’m gonna sleep all night without food. This is a gift from God so I can have a lunch today. Then I just gave thanks and prayed for the people who lost the money.”

How much money was it in dollars?

“Probably 30 cents.”


Eventually, his plight was noticed. Two American missionaries, Tim and Cheryl Giese, “adopted” him. They also got a proper diagnosis of his disease; it’s called ankylosing spondylitis.

It’s a nasty form of inflammatory arthritis that attacks the spine primarily, then spreads tendrils of inflammation into the joints and tendons. It destroys bone, then as the bones try to heal, they become fused. The disease is incurable, progressive and painful.

Arthritis can be a stiff shoulder that costs you strokes on your golf game, or it can be the devil that had camped on Yismaw’s life.

The Gieses launched an internet campaign and raised the money to have both of Yismaw’s hips replaced five years ago. For the first time, Yismaw could walk with less pain, but “less” is a relative term.

He moved in with the Giese family and continued his education in Ethiopia.

Yismaw supported the passive resistance to the autocratic regime that has Ethiopia in a claw hold. He was a supporter, not a leader. In August of last year, he joined a crowd that he says was 90,000 peaceful demonstrators in the city center.

“We were just calling for freedom and democracy, and we had nothing in our hands, just with peace. So the government sent a troop with sniper. And the snipers had to hide into the apartments. As we were protesting peacefully, they start to shoot into the crowd, killing people who were part of the protest.

Yismaw saw people fall just yards from where he stood. He fled with the other thousands, and for several months he hid and lay low, knowing he was on the arrest list.

Somehow (that word should be his middle name — Mismaw Somehow Tilaye), he wiggled free of the Darth Vaders chasing him and managed to use his Ethiopian passport to get into the U.S. on an F1 foreign student visa.


Yismaw now lives with his “grandparents,” Jay and Cindy Sockol. They are retired teachers who live in a mobile home park on the edge of Lakeside. They met Yismaw while serving as missionaries for a year in Ethiopia. They are teaming with the missionary Gieses to backstop his dreams as surrogate families.

That he is now here is a tribute to the Christian good works of both couples.

Yismaw has only until December to apply for political asylum, which one would think would not be challenged. However, an immigration lawyer will cost $3,000 and maybe more, which he does not have.

I ask him how much money he has. He answers, “Nothing.”

The advantage of refugee status is he could return to Ethiopia or go elsewhere internationally under U.S. protection; in other words, it would presumably put him beyond the clutches of the Ethiopian government.

When he arrived in San Diego last December, Yismaw jumped directly into English from his native Amharic. That’s like driving from Peoria to Pasadena without a GPS.

Mimi Pollack was his instructor in Grossmont College’s English as a Second Language program. She says, “Yismaw is an exceptional young man. He was the best in my class at critical thinking. He also has a great sense of humor.”

He intends to attend Grossmont this fall, then eventually get a degree and go on to medical school. He says he loves science, and especially physics. That’s a good start. However, he is not naïve, so his alternative is to be a nurse practitioner.

While he is in school, the Sockols will contribute his room and board. The Geises’ missionary foundation intends to stretch their funds to pay for college.

Neither the pensioned teachers nor the thin-budget missionaries can do so easily.

Mismaw’s goal is to someday return to Ethiopia, so he can help alleviate the suffering he knew so well.

The nurse practitioner alternative shows that’s he’s been thinking about this. If he does not go beyond that level, he still could prescribe medications. It’s clear he remembers his years without the drugs that could soothe his pain.

Cindy Sockol, who is with him every day, says: “He walks stiff-legged and somewhat stooped with hunched shoulders, due to fusion in his back and neck and ongoing pain in his pelvis and legs.

“Pain is what Yismaw lives with constantly. The recent addition of the drug Humira and daily exercise work to keep pain manageable and slow the progress of the disease.”


Yismaw had ample cause to consider himself a victim; all the makings were there. He could have splashed in self-pity like a bird in a bath. However, he chose to reclaim his life.

What empowered Yismaw? I have no idea. There are things in life we are incapable of understanding. Yismaw Tilaye is one such.

How that child, who might as well have been born in the 1800s, could set out on that agonizing journey, and turn his back on a found 30 cents when he was hungry … on and on.

What he did, I don’t get.

But I also think that’s good. If we could take the mystery out of majesty, we would reduce it to commonplace, and it would end up underfoot.

The kid became a king of the spirit, and the ranks of royalty are thin.

We could say good things happened to Yismaw Tilaye.

However, let us say Yismaw Tilaye happened to good things.

Fred Dickey’s home page is

He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at

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