A visitor for Haymanot*

The Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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By Julie Rattey


*Based on the story of Haymanot (last name withheld for privacy). Research conducted with the assistance of Gabriel Delmonaco, U.S. national secretary of CNEWA and Haymanot’s sponsor.

Haymanot, 11, clasped and unclasped her slender hands in her lap for the hundredth time that afternoon as she waited in the Sisters’ small living room for her visitor to arrive. Restlessly, she opened and closed her colorful school notebooks, scrutinizing her round script and hoping it would appear neat enough. Then, once again, she unfolded the yellow sheet of paper, smooth and crisp and thin as onion skin, that listed her grades for the semester. She skimmed the page, her heart beating faster as if the column of A’s — a neat little stack of grinning pyramids — would disappear before she could show them to her guest.

Any minute now, he’ll be here! Haymanot had been telling herself that for the past three hours. While she waited, the November sun had gradually crept, like a soft, golden cat, from one arm of her chair to the other.

Her guest was coming especially to see her while he was visiting Ethiopia. Today he was doing business north of the city. It was hard to predict just when he would arrive in the suburb of Addis Ababa, where her friends the Capuchin Sisters lived. Haymanot sighed.

“He’ll be here soon,” said an encouraging voice from behind. Haymanot turned to see Sister Senait smiling as she reached out to arrange Haymanot’s shirt collar.

“Let’s see those letters again,” Sister suggested, sitting beside her. “I always like looking at the pictures.”

***

Haymanot grinned as she pulled a sheaf of letters from a folder by her side. Five years ago, the Sisters had told her family that Haymanot would be sponsored by a family in America through the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. The Sisters had told the organization about Haymanot and her family — about the one-room shack of sticks and mud her family of five (two parents, three young children) rented in the outskirts of the city, about how Haymanot’s mother cleaned houses to scrape together enough money to make ends meet. About how her father was unable to find a job.

Haymanot knew she was lucky. The $28 a month her sponsor family provided made it possible for her to go to school, and it was helping to provide food and rent for her family. And unlike other children in Ethiopia, some of whom braved the possibility of encountering hyenas in the dark hours of the morning as they walked barefoot on dirt roads to school for their lessons and for the crust of bread and cup of water that would be their only meal of the day, Haymanot lived close enough to her school to walk there in daylight, and had shoes in which to walk there.

At first, Haymanot had been too young to write letters to her sponsors, the Delmonacos. But she had sent pictures, sketched on whatever scrap of paper she could find. Later, she began receiving pictures back! The Delmonacos had a son, Alessandro, who was now 8. He sent drawings of himself — with his family, or in his house, or playing soccer. Haymanot liked the smiles of the people in the drawings, wide and cheery as watermelon rinds. She liked how a picture of Alessandro’s room — a whole room just for him! — took up the entire page. She particularly liked the bright green of the soccer field he drew for her, and its waxy crayon smell.

***

“Read this to me,” Haymanot said eagerly, giving Sister Senait a letter that was newer than the rest. She had read it herself many times, but it was more fun to hear it from someone else.

“Dear Haymanot,” Sister read, “How are you? How is school? I’m sure you’re doing very well! I have some exciting news: I will be traveling to Ethiopia this November! I would very much like to meet you. I’ve written to the Sisters and —“

Sister was cut short by the sound of a car crunching down the dirt road. As she rose and went to the door, Haymanot flew after her, shading her eyes from the sun as Gabriel Delmonaco, her sponsor, stepped out of the car and walked toward her through a cloud of brown dust kicked up by the vehicle.

Gabriel had pale skin, curly black hair, and a wonderfully friendly smile. He greeted Sister and embraced Haymanot, kissing her fondly on the top of her head.

“Hello, Haymanot!” he said, smiling down at her.

Haymanot had been waiting impatiently to see Gabriel for hours. Now she felt shy. She met his gaze just long enough to say, “Very well, thank you” in her best English before looking down with a blush.

Sister Senait laughed. “She’s talked of nothing else for weeks but seeing you,” she said. “Come inside and sit down.”

 

***

 

Haymanot’s shyness ebbed with each notebook, each homework assignment she proudly presented to Gabriel for his perusal. “Well done, Haymanot!” he said.

“This is a picture I drew for you,” Haymanot said. She presented him with a partial map of the world. “Here’s Ethiopia,” she said, pointing. “And here is the United States.” Her finger traced the line she had drawn between them. “Together,” she said, smiling.

Haymanot and Gabriel talked and laughed, and took pictures with Gabriel’s digital camera. Haymanot was amazed to see her image appear on the small screen on the back of the device. Gabriel scrolled through the photos to show her the latest pictures of his wife Beatrice, and of Alessandro.

“Next time,” Haymanot asked eagerly, “will Alessandro come with you?”

“I hope so,” said Gabriel. “He is afraid of flying,” he confided.

“I will help him!” cried Haymanot. “I want to be a pilot when I grow up!”

“You do?” said Gabriel. “Then you will have to be my personal pilot whenever I come to Ethiopia!”

Haymanot beamed.

“Our family would be happy to help you study to become a pilot,” continued Gabriel, his voice earnest. “When you are older, if you still want to be a pilot, you just let us know!”

Haymanot noticed Sister hovering nearby. It was already time for Gabriel to leave.

Haymanot frowned. It seemed her friend had just arrived!

“I will come back,” Gabriel said, as they once again stood outside the house. “And in the meantime, we’ll write to each other!” Then a thought occurred to him, and he removed the baseball cap he was wearing and placed it on Haymanot’s small head. “This,” he said importantly, “is your special pilot’s cap!”

Haymanot’s eyes lit up. She grinned widely from under the too-big bill of her new treasure. Then she took Gabriel’s hand.

“Thank you,” she said.

As Gabriel drove away, Haymanot reached up and pressed the warm canvas of the hat to her head. She would grow into it, she decided. And when she did, she would be old enough to be a real pilot. CD

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.