Ethan: When I was stolen from my mom and intentionally blinded, came to this city, that I didn't even know what the city was, honestly, and it kind of took, I guess I got on a different path.
Erik: It's easy to talk about our triumphs, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer, I'm an adventurer. I climbed Mount Everest and the Seven Summits, the tallest peak in every continent. And I happen to be blind.
This is the No Barriers Podcast.
On today's show, you'll meet Ethan Johnson. As a young boy, Ethan was kidnapped from his family in Ethiopia, blinded and used as a beggar. Fortunately, at age ten, he was adopted by a family in the United States. He faced numerous emotional, physical and cultural barriers, including slowly learning not only English, but English Braille. He found sports, which became an outlet and passion. Despite the hardships he had faced in his younger years, he was thriving in America.
Always determined, he finished college, found employment, and lives by the motto, "Wanting it won't get it for you. You have to go get it."
Dave: Welcome to the No Barriers Podcast. Excited to be here with another really fascinating story to tell you today. Thought we'd start off with, Erik, what are you looking forward to hearing from our guest today?
Erik: Well, Ethan has a really amazing story, and he lives near us in Colorado. And I'm really interested because this guy seems ... I've met him a bunch of times, and he seems like he's really not just surviving, but really flourishing in his life, and I think there's a lot of takeaways there.
And he has had some hard stuff happen to him, and I'm really fascinated. How does a person go through hard stuff and then emerge in some better way, and maybe not be bitter?
Dave: Yeah. That ability to avoid bitterness in the midst of great adversity is tough. What are you looking forward to about this, Jeff? What are your thoughts?
Jeff: Well, I found Ethan's background being pretty fascinating. The trajectory of his life is something I want to know more about, coming from this sort of mysterious, unknown place, and having a fairly tragic event happen and then now he's, as Erik just said, he's thriving in Colorado, and there's a big, open space in the middle that I'm so curious about, like how that got filled.
Dave: Yeah. Well, good. Why don't we get started.
Erik: Why don't we introduce Ethan here.
Jeff: Yeah. Go for it, Erik. Get us going.
Erik: Ethan, so why don't you introduce yourself to our No Barriers audience and tell us what your life looks like. You are 28 years old-
Erik: -ish, and I think that's pretty interesting.
Jeff: Tell us about that.
Erik: Tell us why you're not 100% sure that you're 28 years old. I like that.
Ethan: Yeah. First of all, thank you so much for having me. No Barriers definitely the best organization out there for sure. My name is [Asubalu Toruna 00:03:29] Ethan Johnson. The reason the Ethan Johnson, I was originally adopted.
The reason I say that I am 28-ish is because back home in Ethiopia, we don't keep age. So when my parents adopted me, first they put me ... Well now, the age I have right now is what they gave me at first and then as I got older, well, he might be two or three years older, I'm like nope, we're going to keep it at 28-ish. Well, at that time I was ten years old.
Erik: Do you celebrate a birthday?
Ethan: Yes, I do.
Erik: Where did the birth date come from, your adopted date? Or where did it come from?
Ethan: No. I wish it was, actually. That means more to me than the birthday. They just asked me what season I liked the most, and I said summer, and they said June 30th, and it's been that way ever since.
Jeff: Nice. That's great.
Erik: Yeah, so tell us about that, Ethan. Tell us about that sort of process going from Ethiopia to-
Erik: To Missouri. To America.
Ethan: To tell you the truth, when I was a child ... Back home, kids started doing chores as soon as they learned to walk. My job was ... My mom at that time was divorced from my dad, and so my job was to watch cattle for some people, and as a payment, we got a huge jug of milk to take home. So that was my job and so that's what I was doing.
I didn't know anything about the city, and the countryside tradition is that the guys do work on the farm and the women stay home, cook, and take care of the children. The boys are grown up around 11, 12, 13. They get married by an arranged marriage, and then they start their own family in the little grass house, and that's the kind of life I knew, you know?
And so when I was stolen from my mom and intentionally blinded, came to the city, that ... I didn't even know what the city was, honestly. And it kind of took, I guess I got on a different path. I mean, nobody thinks about that at age six. You think about playing with your friends, watching your cattle, and bringing the cattle back to the owners, and taking your jug of milk and going home.
And so after begging for it seemed like 2 1/2 years, it might have been two years, I don't even remember, but I thought it was going to be my life there, that that was what I was going to do. I was going to beg and then when time called out, I would die begging or whatever it may be. Because the people that blinded us, they never fed us. So the way we got food was, people that were selling say, bananas, oranges or bread that they made, they said, I don't have any money but I can give you a piece of this bread or an orange or a banana.
A lot of the times I didn't have energy because it was from 5:30 in the morning until it got dark, that's when I begged. And so-
Erik: About how old are you at that time?
Ethan: That time, I would say seven, eight. Again, it's all "ish."
Jeff: Right, yeah. Did you have other kids around you? Or were you by yourself?
Ethan: No, they had us separated because they didn't want us to plan a way out. And so each kid that was blinded, they had their own ... So the people that blinded us, they stayed home in their grass house. They had teenagers guiding us around the city from shop to shop, from coffee shop, whatever it may be. Taxi to taxi. And so I thought my life was going to be that way.
And then one evening, we were begging at a coffee shop and we ran into a couple who were having coffee. Ethiopia is known for their coffee and their coffee tradition, and so the husband was blind and the wife could see, and she must have been telling him as I was walking up. They said, "Hey," and they gave me ten cents, they said, "Hey, we'd like to meet you tomorrow for lunch, same time, same place."
My guide said, "Oh, yeah, sure. We can meet up here, same time tomorrow for lunch, for sure." Right? So we get up on the taxi/bus and we drive back. We walked to ... The people that blinded me lived in a wooded area. It was kind of isolated. Nobody knew somebody lived in the woods or whatever. And that evening, my guides told the people that blinded me there was a couple that wanted to meet us for lunch, what do you guys think about that idea. And then of course, the people that blinded me said, "Hell, no. Do not go back that route. That sounds way too suspicious."
The next day, doing my job, and it's getting dark and we're getting ready to go home on a taxi. As I'm sitting with my guides, the couple get on the bus. They're like, "Oh my gosh, we waited for you guys all day. Where were you guys?" And my guide said, "Oh, my gosh. Sorry, we forgot. Maybe we can reschedule." And the couple said, "No, no, no. You guys can get off where we get off and we can discuss what we'd like to do with this [Asubalu 00:08:21]."
And the husband pulls out a dollar and he's like, "Hey, here's a dollar for his parents for the taxi. We'd like to talk to his parents. We run this blind school and we'd like to bring him in." And then that's when my guides freaked out and like, "No, no no. He doesn't have any family, that's why we're trying to help him beg in the streets so he can have some sort of income."
I never got once cent of the money I begged for. They kept it all, basically. "Well in that case, we'll just take him in," the couple said that. And then my guide said, "No, no, no, no, you can't." And so they played tug of war and then the blind school had guards.
Jeff: And then you're listening to this conversation [inaudible 00:08:57]
Erik: Are they speaking English, or are they speaking-
Ethan: Oh, no, no. They're talking the mother tongue.
Erik: They're talking the mother tongue. Yeah, all right, good.
Ethan: Yeah. And so they played tug of war, they get the guard. The guard chases them away. They bring me in and they asked me what happened and I told them. They're like, "Oh. I'm sorry that happens around here but we can take you in. You'll go to school, learn Braille, and after that, hopefully you can find a job."
Jeff: So let me stop you there because this is like, pretty-
Ethan: Yeah, it's a lot.
Jeff: It's a lot. So, you go from this kid who is-
Erik: Watching the cattle, collecting milk, and going to probably live this traditional Ethiopian life.
Erik: To begging on the street. Well, to being blinded, first of all. And that's something I know about because it happens a lot in Tibet as well. Kids are blinded so they make better beggars.
Erik: You know, you think okay, now this is my life, in this tug of war. Now you wind up at this blind school.
Erik: So that's kind of three lifetimes before you're eight years old. That's a lot.
Ethan: Yeah. You have no choice. You just go with it, you know, and you're just kind of like, well, what's going to happen next? And so, you're hoping for the best, but when they brought me in-
Erik: Are you hoping at that point? Yeah, what is that hope like, when you ... Are you confused at that point, or-
Ethan: Yeah, you're confused with what's next, but you're hoping things get better. You're wishing or praying, whatever your beliefs are. When they told me you're going to learn Braille, I mean, I had no idea what that is. They showed me a paper, and they're like, this is it. I never learned ... I never went to school. I never learned how to read or write.
Like I told you guys earlier, you know, as soon as you learn to walk, you're going to go do chores. You're not like some preschool candidate, no, none of that. So they take me to another country area. There's a bunch of blind people there. They're trying to be a role model, mentor me, and you got to learn and I was a very slow learner and so I got punished. I mean, it's typical. Everybody back home gets punished if you're not a good student.
And so they put a slate and stylus, I call that the blind people version of pencil, and they put that between your fingers, squeeze it and turn the stylus around so it hurts like hell, but-
Dave: Wait, did they hit you with the stylus?
Ethan: No. They put it between your fingers, and squeeze your fingers together, and they turn the stylus. So-
Dave: That's a mean punishment.
Erik: But they were trying to teach you-
Ethan: Yeah. You got to focus to learn, you know. There's no other way.
Dave: Not the American sort of style of education, at least in 2017.
Erik: When you got to this place though, did you feel some sort of fellowship that you had not felt before since you were separated from all these other kids, and now all of a sudden you're around kids. What did that feel like?
Ethan: I mean, it was cool to communicate with somebody else in my same position. I can ask them is this really a school, or what is this. Is this another camp for blind people so we can go all together and beg and try to earn money for somebody else. So you just ask questions and over time, you kind of get comfortable.
They even had soccer for blind people that was cool. The ball had a bell in it and you kick it, as long as it's running you hear it, but when it stops rolling, you've got to find a sider person to run and get it for you, but it was cool to just have friends and sit underneath a mango tree and listen to a little radio, and things looked up.
I was kind of like, okay, I guess this is what it's going to be. It is what it is, and I don't know when I'm going to see my family, but at least I have some friends.
Dave: And at first you're suspicious, is what it sounds like. Yeah, you're like, is this another factory or another-
Dave: -thing where people are going to-
Ethan: Abuse us with something else, exactly.
Erik: -do terrible things, and you start to settle in and feel a little bit more trust-
Ethan: Comfortable, exactly.
Erik: -and comfortable once you realize this may be the real deal.
Ethan: Yeah. A month into going to the blind school, I get sick. And nobody knows what I was sick of, and they drive me back to this city and take me to the hospital. And they said that I have tuberculosis. And the whole hospital's full, and somehow, someone ... There was one spot. A family came and got their son out of the hospital, so there was one spot for me. And they put me in there.
I was there for three months, and every day ... The lady from the U.S. came to the hospital looking for that kid, because that kid that left, that family that came and got him was, she was looking for a kid for him for a family in the U.S. So when his family came and got him, that left a spot for me. Hopefully they're doing well. I appreciate them for it.
I was in there and then the lady comes from the U.S. looking for that kid and they tell her, "Oh, his family came and got him, but,"-
Jeff: We got this other cute kid.
Ethan: -yeah, you know, here's this other kid, you should come talk to him. And they tell them my story, and she's crying and she says, "I'm sorry. I'll try to find you a family in America." And I'm like, what?
Like I said in one of the little videos for No Barriers, I thought America was a small town I never heard of.
Erik: I saw that.
Ethan: Again, being a farmer boy, we don't learn geography. Oh, East Ethiopia's over here and there's that. We don't know anything about that. You just watch your cow, go home, eat, go to sleep, do it again the next day. So I thought it was a small town. And so it's like, okay, sure, what's over there. I wasn't thinking of anything.
So she came back again. She brought me a toy car. I'm like, "Wow, this is really cool." I'm looking at it like what kids look at Xboxes, the new Xbox that's coming out for Christmas. I'm like, this is awesome. I'm just playing with it in my hand, and her name is Sherry, and I was like, "Sherry, thank you so much!" And she's like, "Yeah, I'm still looking for a family for you."
So after being in the hospital for three months, and getting a needle every day in each butt cheek, and swallowing a pill the size of a thumb, man, that's so nasty-
Dave: Basically like hardcore antibiotics, right?
Ethan: Yeah. Yeah, man. And so after that, they said to put me in an orphanage. I think somebody tried to find my family. I never forgot where I was from, but me being from the country, the government's like, oh, we don't know where that is. Just throw him in the orphanage.
Erik: Now is this different from the blind school?
Ethan: They told me, don't take him back, just put him in an orphanage because Sherry was looking for me for a family in the U.S., and so there was a bunch of kids in there. So I go in there and again, it's kind of like starting over, trying to build friends, and-
Erik: Now we're on four lives.
Ethan: Yeah, something like that. I do feel like a cat.
Jeff: Were there any other blind kids in this orphanage?
Ethan: No, I was the only one at that time. It's funny. I remember just sitting there and people from Canada, the U.S., London, they come bringing these amazing chocolate, and I'm like, okay, maybe they're ... This is great. I was like, wow. It was amazing. I'm not used to having chocolate, and I see kids getting taken away. I'm like, wait. Why are they not coming back? You wait for them and they're not coming back.
And so every time, after I realized they're not coming back, some other family comes and gets a kid, I'm like ... You always think, is it me? Is it me? When am I going to go-
Dave: Were you hopeful that it is you? Do you have that sense of-
Erik: Yeah. Which one are you, kind of-
Ethan: I mean, you're hopeful because obviously if they got chocolate, this is rich people.
You know, there was a few times that they took good friends of mine and I'm like, no, man. We had this relationship, you know. The kids knew I was blind but they didn't care. It's like, "Oh, [Asubala 00:16:38], go be goalie." And so I'd just stand there and we're playing soccer, and I'm the goalie, and they're like, "We just scored." I'm like, "Why, you got to tell me which way the ball's going."
But I appreciate that because they didn't tell me sit down, just listen to us. They made me a part of them. They let me play, even though I was a worthless goalie, but I felt like I was part of the team.
Erik: You've got family structure, right?
Ethan: Yeah. You know.
Erik: That's something you'd missed.
Ethan: Their friendship was amazing. So it was hard to see a lot of them go. And I got a letter saying that Sherry found me a family in the U.S. By that time, I kind of had an idea, I was like, a new, great place. There's no ... I don't know, I guess there is poor here, but it's going to be better than where I was at. That's kind of the idea that I have. And I think it's kind of the idea that people that want to come to America in general have. Because they watch the movies, and like, oh, America must be great. Money must be growing on trees because people are driving fancy cars, they got mansions, whatever.
So for me, in my eye, I kind of had the thought of okay, these people bringing me great chocolate, they bring us great clothes, this must be a good place. It's not somewhere you feel bad. Now I kind of got that idea, okay.
Dave: So now you know you're leaving-
Jeff: To Erik's point though, now you're on this fifth ideration, right? So at this point, are you just this young kid who is just basically once a year, just getting turned around 180 and you're just pushed forward and told, figure it out?
Ethan: For me, it was not confirmed what's going to happen until I got the letter saying that she found me a family, and they already adopted ten kids, and they adopted one from Ethiopia, and I'm like, okay. And so I was-
Dave: So they had ten adopted kids?
Ethan: Yeah. Before me.
Erik: And you were going to be 11?
Ethan: Yeah. So every time I give a speech, I'm like, yeah, the Johnsons, 11th pick, first round, the Johnsons select [inaudible 00:18:32] Johnson from Ethiopia. I always make some sort of ... because I love sports. Sports and music has always been my medicine. And so I always make sure that I reference that.
And when I found out that I was leaving and there was going to be nine kids that are coming together, we're all going to different families. But then they took us out of the orphanage and took us to a foster home. So this is where you kind of get the luxury. You get spoiled, you get to eat better food and different foods every day, your family sends you shoes, or whatever it may be.
Erik: So the foster home now is like a transitionary place in Ethiopia.
Ethan: It's kind of like the sign of, oh, life is getting better. Prepare for it type of thing, exactly.
Jeff: Let me ask you. How old are you now, back to the "ish" part, where you ten?
Ethan: Yeah, like nine, ten, yeah. Somewhere around there.
Jeff: How does your young mind even interpret that? Are you excited, are you fearful?
Ethan: Oh, I have no idea. I was just kind of like-
Jeff: Just going with it, right?
Ethan: Exactly, yeah. Because you have no idea what's on the other side, you know? I remember, I guess the day came, and everybody's all dressed up. They're going to a party, and you know, the lady that ran the foster home got us cassettes, got us books, necklaces, just, like a Orthodox necklace, put us in the traditional Ethiopian outfit. And it was about 8:30 at night. And the people that took care of us started crying. And I'm like, why you guys crying? Are we not coming back? You know, I wasn't sure. I don't know what's on the other side type of thing.
I remember going up a lot of flights of stairs. I guess at that time I didn't even know what the hell a plane was, honestly. So we're getting in there, and we're sitting in them and like, oh, this is a weird car. Why is the seat so low? Next thing you know the plane takes off. All the turbulence, I'm like, oh, I guess this is the end of ... that we're going to die because I'd never been on a plane and the turbulence is going up and down and sideways, and it's shaking.
Erik: Yeah, it had you pretty scared.
Ethan: Oh, absolutely. I asked my friends because they all could see and they're like, "Yeah, we're in the air," and I'm like, "What? How are we in the air? This is wicked." I wanted to get out, you know.
Jeff: [crosstalk 00:20:40] set you up for failure-
Ethan: Yeah, that's what it seemed like. I thought I was finally at the end. I'm going to die now.
So we go from Ethiopia to Germany and Germany to Chicago, and then Chicago we all split up. I went from Chicago to St. Louis, and that's where I met Sherry, the lady that helped me, that found me a family-
Erik: Wait. Now you mentioned back, and then we can get to your life as you transitioned to the States, but you mentioned, just off the cuff, you said music and sports have always been kind of a thing you go to for comfort.
When you were in Ethiopia going through these five different lives, what did you go to for comfort? Where did you find the ability to get through what you were dealing with?
Ethan: That's a great question. I think for me, it's kind of like, I just kind of I just sit and zone out, honestly. A lot of times there was a church, a Yoruban church right next to the orphanage. So a lot of times around 5:00 p.m. the orthodox church, they start, so it's loud enough where I can just sit there and just listen.
Before that, I'd kind of just hang out, just kind of in my corner, doing whatever. Sometimes I'd be playing soccer as the great goalie I am, standing there-
Dave: Brick wall.
Ethan: Yeah, exactly. But that was kind of, and of course a lot of music, the radio. And everybody had radios with the little battery and so, I'd sit there and listen to the radio a lot. That kind of helped me pass time.
Back home, you really don't have a choice anyway. So it's like, pout and keep sulking, or kind of move along and kind of continue to hope for the best that whatever happens, happens. And go with-
Dave: Well, you don't have a ton of media either, right? Like, you don't have TV and all the stuff happening, video games-
Ethan: No, no.
Dave: -nothing, right?
Ethan: You just got the radio if you were lucky, and the rest you have to create your own stuff. I mean, I remember a lot of games we created. We made soccer balls out of milk bags and we'd stuff it with paper and then tie it with a rope, and that was our soccer ball. We had other rock games we played, especially in the countryside, I said [foreign language 00:22:44], that in our language means countryside.
I guess we call it hockey here, but there's no ice there, so you just have this little rock, you choose one rock and you hit it with the stick back and forth, and you set ... The goal's over here. My goal's over here, your goal's farther on the left side, whatever, and you just learn to be creative. So that's kind of how I pass time.
Erik: Take me back to the airplane and peeing on the floor, please. Like you got to complete that circle for me.
Dave: So now you come to Chicago?
Ethan: Yeah. Chicago to St. Louis, that's where my family was. So Sherry was there and then all my brothers and sisters that were there, and my parents of course, and I was in a coma because I still don't know, I felt like I was floating. I don't know what's going on. It just felt like I was being passed around.
I remember my parents giving me a hug, they brought me in but my arms are still straight down by my side. You know, what ... I don't know what the heck a hug was, and it was weird. I remember they had an 18 passenger blue van, and so we all packed in there, and-
Dave: They all came to the airport to pick you up?
Erik: Eleventh pick.
Ethan: Yeah. [crosstalk 00:23:51] They brought plenty of bread, and they were passing it and I kept eating. I kept eating it. That's my favorite bread, by the way. So anybody, if you want to send it in the mail or FedEx.
Dave: Fed Ex. All you listeners, listen to that. Send the banana bread our way.
Ethan: No nuts, though. I hate nuts. But anyway, I remember starting school. I didn't speak English. For a while, we didn't have a translator. I just felt weird, everybody touching my hair. I mean, when I look back, I felt like a pet dog, or a brand new baby out of the box, whatever it may be. It just felt weird, everybody touching my hair, and I didn't know different color skins. I thought we were all the same, you know.
I had eye surgery right away, within six months being there. My first eye surgery was a cornea transplant, and I could see ... Whenever they operated after that, I could see light and color. And I remember my mom putting eye drops in my eyes, she's like, "Oh, can you see a little bit?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I can see light. I can see you but there's something wrong with you."
She's like, "What do you mean?" "You kind of look white." She's like, "Well, I am white." I'm like, "What? What do you mean? I thought everybody was brown." She's like, "No, no, honey, that's not ... " and of course she had a great laugh and called up everybody on the planet.
She's like, "Oh, he thought we were all brown or black or whatever." I'm like, oh, boy.
Erik: That's the greatest pure anti-racist commentary ever, man. Racism is blind, right?
Jeff: So you can see well enough to see shapes and see light.
Ethan: Yeah. Because I had 14 eye surgeries and-
Ethan: Yeah. Shout out to my doctor in Missouri. Dr. Cowden. He was great.
Erik: Missouri. St. Louis has really good eye stuff, really good medicine for eyes.
Ethan: Yeah. They're really good over there.
That kind of started the transformation, so okay, so we're not all the same color. She was kind of telling me like, you know there's, in America, a Caucasian that don't like black people and there's black people that don't like Caucasian. And I'm like, what? Why?
Erik: A lesson, huh?
Ethan: Yeah, it was like, what is going on? So I remember, talking about little simple stuff that I remember, they gave me a basketball at recess, my sisters did. So back home all we know is if there's anything around, it's a soccer ball. So I drop kicked it over the fence. And they're kind of confused. They paused, they kind of clapped. I'm like, wait. Why are they clapping?
But I think they kind of felt bad because I didn't know, they wanted me to shoot it, but again the whole language barrier, and not knowing that all I know is soccer. So-
Dave: You know one of the things we were talking about in anticipation of meeting you, Ethan, was, and Eric brought this up and I'm going to take Erik's question from him. And he kind of cued us up in the beginning, but you have every right to be bitter, right? Or to be angry.
Erik: Cynical, yep.
Dave: Maybe cynical is the best word, right? So do you ever feel that way at all? Does it ever creep in, and honestly, transparently, does it sit with you at all?
Or do you feel like this is just something like you've been as a kid, the fifth or sixth iteration of you. You just kind of take it and roll with it. What do you feel about that?
Ethan: That's a great question. Definitely, there's times when you, like nobody's perfect, and people are like oh, I'm a happy go lucky guy. That's a lie. You're just being fake then because there's definitely times where you get frustrated. I'm sure Erik's been in that position because for instance, you're going to catch the bus but if you could see, you could see it from far away, so you can run and catch it. As a blind person, you've got to find out after it passes by, and you're like, oh, that's my bus. I got to wait for the next one.
Or, say one day you're not using your cane properly and it bounces off a pole. You put your [inaudible 00:27:43] on it and you're like, oh, you get so mad because that hurts. And you can't hit back, you know? So there was moments that, oh man, I wish I could see, or I think nothing against sighted people, it is what it is, but driving a car? That's the greatest freedom you could ever have because you control your own time.
One thing I hate with a passion is relying on people. I think that's any blind person or any person with a disability is just-
Erik: Relying on the whims of people, right? [crosstalk 00:28:15]
Ethan: Yeah. Waiting for somebody to come get you, or, can you tell me what this says, or is there something on my shirt or on my face, whatever it might be, and that part is just frustrating but again, it's part of life. It is what it is, you know?
I mean, there is other people that have it worse. I have a sister that doesn't have legs or arms, and can you imagine every day somebody giving you a bath? Like that's beyond invading your privacy, man. That's crazy.
So everybody's always having it worse, but again, I'm not going to lie to you and it's like oh no, it's great, but there's times where you get kind of frustrated and getting like more like, oh, I hate this, or whatever.
Hopefully that answered the question.
Erik: If you have tough things, like this really horrific thing happen when you're a kid, does that affect the way you see the world? Like when you go to this family, how do you keep yourself open, you know what I mean? With this family, after ... I'm putting myself in your situation and I would think, I'm not trusting anyone in this world.
Ethan: Yeah. That's a great question. It was hard at first. There's definitely a lot of turbulence in the family just because I was very closed and I didn't want to say stuff, and again, no disrespect to my parents, but they didn't understand.
When I came here, I started thinking about my mom, and I'm like, what she's going to think. When am I going to go see her? And I had a sister at that time. What are they going to think, and what happened to me? Because I didn't tell this at the beginning of the story. When they took me from my mom they told my mom, my sister and my grandma, hey.
What happened was that people from the city, two guys from the city came to the countryside looking for kids they can take so they can take them to school. That was what they were saying. But they were blinding people. And so of course, as a parent, what parent doesn't want their kids to be educated and become better than the farmer. And so-
Erik: So did they think they're giving you up for an amazing life.
Ethan: Education, yeah. And then I can come back and help them out. And they told my mom and my family, we'll bring him back every holiday so you can see his progress, which in Ethiopia, every holiday means every month. And so, going back to when I came to the U.S. I thought about that. And the thing is, night time here is daytime and Ethiopia. So I'd be up all night while everybody was sleeping. So I would just cry my eyeballs out and just wonder why. When am I going to see them, when am I even going to ... Are they going to survive enough to see me, or am I even going to have ... Whatever, the knowledge, the funding, whatever, to go back and try to find them.
And so the first five years? I felt like I'd cried the rainy season in Ethiopia. I just poured my eyeballs out and nobody could understand me. I couldn't really be like, oh, yeah, I'm going through this because I miss this. Nobody could speak my language. I couldn't speak the English language. I learned English after a year, but still, I wasn't really expressive.
Erik: As a kid, to learn how to speak the language of emotions, though, is pretty near impossible.
Ethan: Yeah. And I just cried it out. That was it. That was the only way I could. And afterwards, you either fall asleep of kind of forget about it and then again something reminds you and again you go back to crying.
So nowadays, I think the way I transformed is having great friends, great support. My mom tried to put me in counseling. The worst idea ever. It didn't work. It did not.
Erik: Did it kind of backfire?
Ethan: Exactly. I hated it, I felt like me and the counselor were playing hide and seek, like she was trying to unlock a combination code and I'm like nope, you're not going to figure me out. So I kind of felt they were like teaming up against me.
Erik: From their perspective, they were trying to get you to open up, and from your perspective, you're like, I'm not some lock that you can figure out the key.
Erik: Got it.
Ethan: I definitely wasn't the greatest kid that they ... Now they say I am, but that's ... that's like yeah, right.
In Ethiopian culture, we share everything. You sleep in the same bed, you eat off the same plate and if there's one bite worth, if there's all of us in here, from that one bite, everybody gets a bite. And so I came here, kind of, I want to say selfish but like in a way, because everybody's kind of by themselves. All this is mine and that's yours kind of like everybody eats separately, and a lot of times, everybody's on their own time. And again, that was kind of weird, hard, I guess.
And then I remember during the summertime going into a neighbor ... Back then you can walk to your neighbor's house and get water, whatever. So I remember that summertime I walked to the neighbor's house and got water. I got the spanking of my life. I'm like, for what? You do not go to the neighbor's house without nobody's permission. I'm like, we do that back home. This isn't home. I'm like, okay. It was crazy.
Jeff: It sounds like there's some customs that you want to hang on to.
Ethan: Oh, absolutely. The sharing aspect, that's beautiful. I know people will say, I know you had that, but they blinded you, man. You know, no country's perfect. Everybody has their flaws.
Erik: You mentioned before we started this episode, that you now live in a part of Colorado where you're surrounded by Ethiopian culture, right?
So connect the dots for us there and sort of how that sort of in a way kind of brought you back home, is that right?
Erik: Is that fair to say?
Ethan: Yep, absolutely. So, finished school in Missouri, graduated, and I remember in junior high, 11th grade, I had a tutor-mentor type of person. And she was blind and she was like, "Oh, I went to the Colorado Center for the Blind. They get to rock climb, and canoeing, and ski, and you get to live on your own in an apartment." And I'm like, "What?" I never thought blind people would be doing things like they're doing now. I mean, it's incredible.
So she told me and I'm like yeah, whatever, I kind of skipped it off. And then in 11th grade I had the opportunity to go to the Colorado Center for the Blind, and Vocational Rehab for the Blind in Missouri said I could go. And that would've been the first time I would've been on a plane.
I applied to the center, I got accepted ... The Colorado Center for the Blind, got my airline ticket, got a taxi to Kansas City Airport, and I told my mom again, I'm going to the Colorado Center and, "Are you sure you want to go? I'm like, "Yep." You know, being back on the plane kind of brought back memories, and when I got to the Center there was like a million blind people. And I'm like, "Where you guys been all my life?" It was just weird to see blind people all over the place and seeing them cross the street on their own. I'm used to somebody like, "Here, let me hold your hand, we'll go across together."
I was just amazed how they were making lasagna, grilling meat off the grill, just getting it out without catching the apartment on fire, the house on fire, or catching themselves on fire. And I remember going back to Missouri because I had to finish my senior year in high school and I was telling my mom, "Oh, maybe I could do this," and she was like, "No, baby, you're going to catch the house on fire." I'm like, "No." So finally, I think they were out. They're coming back from Iowa because they used to live in Iowa, and they go, "Can you make something with gas?"
So I made, obviously having ... First of all there was a total of 25 of us, but 21 that they adopted, so at the time there was still 15 left in the house. So she was like, "Can you make meatloaf?" I'm like, "Yeah. Sure." I cooked it up and it was just cool to get my response from my sisters because then my brothers, that's why ... me and my parents, whatever, but to my sisters and brothers look up to me and for them to say, "Wow. This is awesome, Ethan."
You know, to have them be proud of me, it was kind of awesome because before, I had to pay them money to have them make me peanut better jelly sandwich.
Erik: Oh, your brothers and sisters?
Ethan: Yeah. They always cranked up the price every time. [crosstalk 00:36:18]
Erik: So that taught you some independence, huh? Like some independence, and then you come back and you feel changed, it sounds like. And there's a kind of pride in that, right? Making your family dinner and contributing.
Ethan: Exactly, absolutely. And so I graduated high school and then they had that adult program, I came back to Colorado, and I never left since.
I finished the program, went to school at CU, transferred to Metro, finished up at Metro, and then life is good after that.
Erik: So tell us just a little bit more about how you have come to be sort of a part of this Ethiopian community here.
Ethan: Oh, yeah. One day I was taking the bus, and I was talking to the bus driver and he had an accent. And I'm like, "Where are you from, man?" He's like, "Africa." "What part of Africa?" "East Africa." "What country in East Africa?" He finally said, "Ethiopia." And I'm like, "Oh, yeah, me too, bro."
Erik: You just started busting out the mother tongue?
Ethan: Oh, no, I forgot it. Yeah, like I only knew my mom's name and the town I was from, and that was it. So he's like, "[foreign language 00:37:12]," like, "How are you? How's everything? How's life?" And I'm like, whoa, slow down, I don't know what you're saying. He's like, you're not Ethiopian then.
Erik: Was it like a foreign language, or are you getting some glimpses of things?
Ethan: Oh, no. Seriously, I forgot it.
Ethan: Like I can name it, I couldn't even get the accent, honestly. I couldn't tell if somebody spoke, if they're Ethiopian or whatever.
Erik: You had to re-learn your native language, ah, that's crazy.
Ethan: Yeah. So it's like, I don't speak it and he's like, "What do you mean, you don't speak it, you're not Ethiopian then," and I was like, "No." He asked me what's my name and I told him and he was like, "Oh." And it clicked, and he's like, "Oh my gosh."
And then it's just, from there, everybody knows each other and in between the churches, the restaurants, and of course going to see you, there was a lot of Ethiopians there too, and so we built a friendship and they're like my brothers. If I need anything, they show up. We make fun of each other. They can't speak English very well, so I can't speak their language very well, so back and forth.
Erik: That's great. You really have kind of come full circle to a certain extent. Now, you're not living out in the country herding cattle or anything like that, but-
Ethan: I miss those days, though.
Erik: The simplicity of it?
Ethan: Yeah. Exactly.
Erik: Yeah. Sure. But you've kind of come back to your community and yet we always use this sort of metaphor, the coming out of the ashes and so the Phoenix rises, and so here you are.
Give us a sense then of sort of your overall feeling towards how your history has made you who you are right now as an individual.
Ethan: I know to a lot of people, like, Oh, I'm so sorry. Yeah. I agree, it's bad. I wish I wasn't blind, but at the same time, I guess the whole saying that everything happens for a reason kind of happened because I say that.
My mom wanted me to get an education, that's why she let me go with those guys. Guess what? I did. Way better than that, you know, in the best country, America, full of opportunities.
Going back to see her in 2009 for the first time since I left, and they all thought I was dead.
Erik: You went home?
Erik: Oh, I bet you bent some minds when you got back home, huh?
Ethan: It was so, it was another culture shock. It was so ... I just cried.
Erik: Tell us that moment when you saw your mom and your family.
Ethan: Yeah, the lady, my friend, she adopted five Ethiopian girls, and so two of the girls that came with me, she adopted them. And so when we went back, driving through and she was describing everything, you know, blind people begging in the street, donkeys carrying a bunch of stuff on their back, cattle, goats, everywhere. And so going back to memory lane it was like, wow. And-
Dave: Were you scared?
Ethan: I didn't know what to expect. Again, it's kind of the whole process of coming here. I didn't know. I forgot everything. I think in my mind I'm so Americanized that I'm expecting it to be just a little bit, not as great as America, but a little better. But-
Dave: So you're now seeing it a little bit from American eyes.
Ethan: Exactly, yeah. I'm looking at it from Ethan's instead of [foreign language 00:40:20], it's kind of weird. I remember getting to the airport, and there's no electricity. The electricity was out that day. I'm like, what the hell? What is this? I was so mad.
Dave: What country is this?
Ethan: Yeah. I was so mad. There was a lot of us filling out paperwork with the hand. With the pencil and the paper and I'm like, what? I was livid, and of course some other old fashioned Ethiopian pencils-
Erik: You turned into a spoiled American. [crosstalk 00:40:46]
Ethan: Oh, no doubt. No doubt. That's why I love having both sides of the life.
Erik: What was it like when you came across your family?
Ethan: Yeah. So driving through dirt roads, and we get there. We're driving through the farmlands, and this lady stops the car. She has a huge jug of water on her back, and she's like, "Are you guys soldiers? What are you guys doing here?" And like, "Oh, we're bringing back [00:41:10], [00:41:11] son and she's like, "What?" [foreign language 00:41:15] son.
And she throws the jug of water on the floor, runs around the car, tries to rip the door handle off, and then she's like, "Unlock it." So she opens the door, she grabs me and start kissing me on the cheeks a million times, I'm like what the hell ... I say I was confused, like what is going on. And I told the translator, "What's happening?" And she's like, "Oh, she says she's your cousin." I'm like, "Okay." I didn't feel anything. I got no emotions. It's like, okay. I have a million cousins but I don't remember anybody except my mom and my sister.
And then of course, the village kids see that and they all surround the car, and then what's going on, and they find out and they're running to go tell my family, and then from a distance you hear drums. They're hitting the drums and they're blowing the horn, and everybody's clapping, and I felt like I was the President showing up or whatever it may be.
And then my mom ... People always ask me how would you know if it was your mom, anybody in Ethiopia could say that's my son if they knew what America was like. So that had that doubt in my head. And so when my mom, she's always been a singer for the village, whatever, weddings, holidays, whatever. So I never forgot her voice.
So when she got to me, she almost tackled me, you can hear on the recording I got a little boom sound, and then she's saying, "Oh, my son. My child. He's still alive." And talking to her later on, she thought ... Well, they all thought I was dead. And so she said that every funeral she went to she'd cry harder because she thought of me. And I show up, fattened up, ready to ... healthy like an ox, you know, and they called me [Woofa 00:42:53] which means fat boy, and I'm like, "I'm not fat. You should go to America and you'll see what [inaudible 00:42:58].
So it was just an amazing experience, hearing her voice and a million neighbors and relatives just pulled me here that way, that way and kissing me, and I wasn't used to that. I was kind of like, ahhh. I mean yeah, they kiss you on the cheeks a million times, that's a tradition, but I was ... Here it's not. People are not touchy feely, and so for me to go back, I'm like, that's enough, can you get off of me.
Erik: Do you stay in touch?
Ethan: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I went back again in 2012, and I still talk to my mom over the phone. I just have another sister that discovered from my dad's side, so I call her and then tell my sister to go get my mom from the countryside because I want to talk to her, and that's the way we-
Erik: Because now you speak the mother tongue, right? A little bit?
Ethan: Yeah, I'm about 75% there. There's still some stuff that I don't get because especially when people find out I'm Ethiopian, they have a deep conversation. I catch bits and parts of it, and I'm like, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.
Dave: You keep transitioning from one thing to the next.
Dave: Sometimes I think when I meet people, like the people I work with at No Barriers, I think there's kind of almost like a faith component to life. I don't know, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but you keep winding up in another spot, and you go, "Survive that." And now I'm in this new place.
Does it border almost on like a mystery that you just kind of accept or try to figure out?
Ethan: It's like a process, I guess. Of course it started out rough, and then it got better and better. And after I came to the U.S. I think I trusted everybody, and that kind of burned a lot. It's like meeting people who go, "Oh, tell me about you," yada yada yada, and it was really open, and as I got older, I'm like, there's a lot of fake people.
So it helped me kind of filter all that out and kind of find closer friends, and I think for me, of course I had great friends, but then in the Ethiopian community, how they kind of put their wings around me and kind of brought me in and always supported me of course, and honestly. And then of course, No Barriers.
I'm not trying to say it just to butter it up, but every day you walk around and people go, "Oh my God, he's so inspiring. You're walking with your cane. Oh, oh." I hate that. I'm not ... Maybe to them it is great, but at the same time, I feel like they're just looking down on me, honestly. It's like it has the opposite effect.
But when I went to No Barriers and everybody has different abilities, and they say, "Oh I understand what you're going through." They do.
Erik: They actually do.
Ethan: Yeah, exactly and that's the beauty of it, and that's why it's just ... Again, that whole week being there, I felt like I was floating in the air. I was so pumped, just to meet different people and hearing the story from the Homeless to Harvard and of course, Mandy, and all those people. It's just amazing stuff. And the normal, "I have a blind cat," or "I have a dog that has three legs." I'm like, great. Thank you. I'm glad you look at me that same level as a stupid cat or a dog, you know.
Erik: Dude, you know you're one of those people though, you know that?
Dave: Do you eat like a cat?
Erik: One of those inspirational people.
Jeff: Do you know that though? Do you hear people say that and you're looking around when you go to the summit, and you see other people that are inspiring to you, and you're one of those people.
Ethan: Yeah, I mean, I always tell people I don't try to do anything different and I'm sure Erik doesn't either, I just live by example. It is what it is. You just got to accept it, I guess, even though you hated it. It's part of the process.
Erik: So if you have things that make you shut down, right? Part of your process ... Because you said even when you met your parents you felt like you were floating, you felt like you were in a coma, is there like a process of awakening?
Is there a process of waking up in your life, like layers of sort of something coming away as you get older?
Ethan: It just expands. It's like I look back at it and how that experience made me better, and how I feel comfortable, I guess, or like happy and clear. Honestly, it's when I go back home. I mean, I really do appreciate it.
I'm blessed to be here but at the same time, when you go back home, there's no noise. It's just like nature's noise. I mean, the cow, goats and kids, birds, chickens, and then people. That's it. There's no TV, car honking, just plain, kind of like meditating, I guess, when you go hiking, a zone with no outside machine-made noise or whatever.
Dave: It reminds me of a story you told when you were young and I asked you that question about what you did to find that peace, and you said you would just sit there and listen.
Dave: And there weren't nearly as many distractions when you found that peace.
Erik: Solace in the quietness.
Ethan: Yeah. I don't even know if that answered your question, Erik, but-
Dave: What are you dreaming up for the future? Where are you hoping to be in the next few years?
Erik: 11th round pick for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Ethan: Yeah, that was amazing. Honestly, my dream was to be a basketball player, and as I grew older I was like, oh yeah, well, I don't think there's going to be a blind basketball player, I don't care how you put it. Not in the playoffs at least. And so I wanted to be a sports broadcaster. Dan Pasternak is my favorite. I would love to do what Dan Pasternak is doing, or be a co-commentator.
But to answer your question, as far as what's in the future, I'd love to buy a house, and help out family back home for sure. That's my number one priority. And make sure family is good there, and if the family's good there, then travel. Learn different cultures and enjoy life, honestly, and be thankful for everything that I have, for sure.
Erik: Tell you what. You do look like you're 28, but since you're not sure, you're way more mature than you're stated age, man. You're a seasoned vet for sure.
Ethan: I appreciate it. Life sometimes makes you be that way, honestly, the experience for sure.
Dave: Well, it's been a real pleasure to have you with us and share your story. We appreciate it, you being a member of our No Barriers community.
Ethan: I appreciate you guys having me. It's been an amazing experience, and looking forward to doing more things, tearing down barriers.
Dave: Yeah. So Jeff, and Erik, as we wrap it up here, we always like to close out just kind of reflecting on what we've heard and what we can take away from this conversation for our listening community.
What did you hear, Erik, that struck you?
Erik: It couldn't escape anybody like this sort of like, all these transitions through our lives, right? I know the word inspiring is overused, but it's pretty comforting that you can have so many transitions, so many massive new situations being thrown into these things and you survive them, you learn from them, and you move forward.
And each of them, kind of when you look back, maybe that had some kind of purpose in it. That's a wild thought to me.
Dave: Yeah. What about you, Jeff?
Jeff: I can't shake this idea of just how positive Ethan is and he has every right to not be. But then I think his environment has obviously been this sort of fluid dynamic landscape, and has crafted him into the man that he is and a lot of us could lean on his example on just how to be resilient.
The other thing that's really interesting too, is how quickly he became Americanized, you know, and sort of comes back and is like, "There's no power here."
Dave: Where's the cake?
Jeff: Yeah. Where's the [inaudible 00:50:25]bottle cook? So I find that also fascinating. But what a wonderful young man. Just a really incredible story.
Erik: What about you, Dave?
Dave: As he was finishing up, I was just kind of thinking, one word that was popping into my mind was, acceptance. And what I was thinking as he was talking particularly about his younger years, there was just sort of a natural acceptance that life was going to have unexpected turns, and that was just the way things were and you have to accept it and move on, keep moving on, and each new transition there's a bit of that, you got to accept or you can't move on. And so that really stood out for me.
Erik: Like don't fight it, right? Don't fight it.
Dave: You know, obviously he fought it when he was a teenager. Who doesn't fight when they're a teenager, but that message of you got to get to a point where you can accept it before you can move on.
Erik: And try not to let the weight of it, right, tear you down. Because I think as we get older, the weight of all our experiences can sometimes be destructive. Ethan and people like that, they have the ability to move forward without that weight sort of debilitating them.
Dave: It's been a great conversation again here at No Barriers Podcast. If you're wondering how you can get involved more with No Barriers, as always we encourage you to share this podcast with your friends and family.
Thank you all for listening, and thanks Jeff and Erik. It's been a great conversation.
Erik: No Barriers.