LHS student reconnects with twin brother in Ethiopia

By Michael Phillis/Staff Writer
Posted Sep 03, 2010 @ 10:00 AM

Amanual Abate was on his way home from track practice last January when his adopted mother, Jo Hannah Katz, handed him what she said was a late Christmas present.

“I thought it was a stupid card or something,” said Amanual, 19, now a senior at Lexington High School.

It wasn’t a card. Katz had managed to track down a phone number, which would connect Amanual with his twin brother and some of his other siblings back in Ethiopia — siblings he had not seen or heard from in more than seven years.

During their first two-hour long conversation, Amanual and his twin brother, Adinew Belay, reminisced about their childhood in Ethiopia, each scarcely believing the person on the other end of the phone was really his brother.

“We talked about everything,” Amanual said.

Adinew had been told Amanual had died, and was shocked to learn he was alive and living in Lexington with an adopted family, having immigrated to the United States about three years ago.

Until that fateful phone call, Amanual had no real knowledge of his family. But from that point on, Amanual began doing whatever he could to help his family, sending the money he earned as a cashier at Stop & Shop to support his siblings back in Ethiopia.

A new home

Amanual came to the United States in January 2007 with his father, his father’s wife, and their children, but he recognizes he could easily have been the one to stay in Ethiopia, while Adinew went on to the U.S.

According to Amanual, one day his father said he was going to take one of his sons with him to Boston but not both.

“Me and my twin brother, we slept in the same bed. We bonded together,” Amanual said.

Amanual’s father wanted to figure out which of his twin sons would get along better with his wife.

“He asked people and had a meeting about who was the nicest,” said Amanual. “I was the nicest kid and he took me with him.”

Amanual said he had only three or four days to prepare for what he believed would only be a few months away from his family. Adinew followed Amanual silently as he left the house — the two did not speak again for seven years.

Upon arriving in the U.S., Amanual’s family moved around, living in Dorchester, Roxbury, and South Boston.

Amanual and his father disagreed about priorities — Amanual wanted to focus on his education and running track, but his father wanted him to come home after school and babysit. Tensions mounted and before long, it became clear Amanual would not be welcome in his home once he turned 18.

Katz, a second-grade teacher at Bridge Elementary in Lexington, got to know Amaunal through the St. Michael’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Boston, where she and her four adopted Ethiopian children were active.

Katz said the church was an important part of her adopted children’s lives — her son Dawit went to church three times a day when he lived in Ethiopia.

“One of the first things we did was go to an Ethiopian Orthodox church,” she said. “That became a huge network for them.”

Katz often offered Amanual rides home from church.

“He was deeply respectful,” she said. “He was always reading and would tell me about current events.”

Recognizing Amanual was in a bad situation at home, Katz invited him to spend Christmas with her family. Soon after, she met with her family to discuss the idea of adopting Amanual.

“I knew [Amanual’s] circumstances and that’s what he needed. I sat everybody down and I said, ‘What does everybody want to do?’ They all agreed adoption was the right option,” she said. “He was joining our family and he was our son, and that was it.”

Providing for his family

Since reconnecting with his family in Ethiopia, Amanual’s life has changed dramatically. The knowledge that his family is still alive and in need of his help has put considerable pressure on Amanual.

“I try to get over it. Mostly, I just put on my iPod,” he said. “I think a lot of things. I get very stressed … I imagine I’m there with them.”

Amanual learned one of his 11 siblings, an older brother, had died of asthma. He also found out Adinew was suffering from yellow fever.

According to the World Health Organization, yellow fever is an acute viral disease, which causes about 30,000 deaths a year. Up to 50 percent of those severely affected by the disease die if not treated.

Adinew is one of 15 percent of patients who suffer a more acute phase of the disease. About half of these patients die within the first two weeks, but Adinew has survived.

“He tells me he is doing OK,” said Amanual. “He never wants me to be worried about him. He doesn’t want me to send him money.”

Earlier this year, Amanual’s family held a fundraiser, aided by the LHS track team, raising approximately $3,000 to help Amanual visit his family in Ethiopia.

“The money came out of nowhere,” he said. “When school was over, I thought I could spend the money for airfare and give [Adinew] treatments.”

Amanual had a list in his room where he had written all the various things he was looking forward to doing once he saw his family. Along with the list, he kept a chart to count down the days until his probable departure.

Ultimately, Amanual decided to defer the trip to next year so he could continue sending money to pay for Adinew’s medical care.

“I don’t want to go there and see them, come back, and then [have him] die because he didn’t get any treatment,” he said.

According to Amanual, the long-term prognosis of his brother, especially if his situation and living conditions do not improve, is unknown. Survival depends on the availability of medicine, good diet and living conditions. Right now, medical costs for Adinew are higher because he lives in a small residence without electricity or water.

Amanual hopes to buy his family a new house with electricity and plumbing.

Katz estimates that in addition to $150 a month for food and supplies, Amanual would need to raise about $20,000 to buy a house in Ethiopia. Katz said the house would be very modest, but still a significant step up.

“The prognosis for a longer life is better if there is a clean, safe, dry environment and better nutrition,” Katz said.

To support Amanual’s efforts, Katz and family friend Yuval Ramon are organizing a 10K charity run in Lexington on Sept. 19. Their initial fundraising goal is $5,000.

“With $5,000, it can set them up for a good year,” Katz said.

In addition to Adinew, Amanual is helping his sister, who is 17, recently married and a new mom, to finish school. The money he sends also helps three other siblings meet their basic needs.

With the weight of his family’s future on his shoulders, Amanual said he is staying focused on his goal.

“Most people here want to have fun; I don’t care much about it,” he said. “When I think about myself and my problem, I work.”

Entering his senior year at LHS, Amanual said he hopes to run track, graduate, go to community college, and then on to a four-year college to study sociology.