Semegnew Molla Hodes was in constant pain, and his twisted back slowed his breathing. Still, he was determined to reach Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, approximately 200 miles from his rural village. He had embarked on this long walk, expecting to hitch occasional rides, because poverty and lack of medical care in his village offered no hope.
“I followed my feet and hoped they would take me there,” the soft-spoken young man said in a recent phone interview.
He was 12 years old when, destitute and crippled, he found his way to the Mother Teresa Center in Addis Ababa. Now, 12 years later and half a world away, that desperate boy has become a man -- and the owner of a degree in chemistry from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. as of his graduation on May 9.
Semegnew owes the remarkable path his life has taken to Dr. Rick Hodes, 60, an American doctor who has lived and worked in Ethiopia since 1990.
Hodes is medical director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The Joint Distribution Committee, founded in 1914, is a Jewish humanitarian assistance organization that provides needed services in more than 70 countries. Hodes is based in Ethiopia, but responds to other international humanitarian crises such as Rwanda.
Hodes' medical team served an estimated 70,000 so-called “Felas Mora” Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry before they emigrated to Israel. Hodes also serves the predominantly Orthodox Christian Ethiopian population.
“If it wasn’t for him I would be dead today,” said Semegnew, an Orthodox Christian. “He’s like a savior, an angel.”