How I Survived a Famine in Ethiopia and Graduated from Harvard
How I Survived a Famine in Ethiopia and Graduated from Harvard
By Gebre-Egziabher Gebre

Just five months after I was born in 1984, my father and mother were killed by what became the worst famine in the history of Ethiopia. Estimates suggest that the famine, which lasted from 1983-1985, led to the deaths of 1 million people.

At the time, there were many children who were orphaned by the famine and had no family members fit to care for them. Traditional orphanages struggled mightily to accommodate the staggering number of these children who needed a home.

After my parents died, my grandfather tried to assume the role of caregiver for me and my brothers. He was too sick and too poor, however, to properly take care of us. I was fortunate that my grandfather had the courage to realize this.

After searching for a suitable place for me and my brothers, my grandfather found an alternative, family-based environment for me and my second-youngest brother. The place was an SOS Children’s Village in the town of Mekelle. I was just 5 months old when I moved to my new home.

I arrived to the SOS Village very sick. In fact, my foster mother later told me that most people at the Village were doubtful I would survive more than a couple of weeks.

I was the youngest of 16 brothers and sisters in my new family. Like me, these children were welcomed into our family because their parents had died, and there was no one else care for them. SOS Children’s Villages opted to expand the size of a typical SOS family in Ethiopia at that time to accommodate the skyrocketing number of orphaned children who needed a home. In any of the 560 SOS villages around the world today, there are generally eight children per family.

My SOS mother, SOS brothers and sisters and me (front row, second person from left) at the SOS Village in the early 1990s. Many of the children pictured lost their parents to the famine.

At age 13, I was invited to attend a prestigious preparatory school in Ghana that was founded by SOS Children’s Villages. Opened in 1990 and still in operation today, the school enrolls students who excel academically and who are growing up at an SOS Village. Nearly every student at the school graduates, with many students going on to four-year universities in Europe and the United States.

It was at the school that I found my passion for math and the sciences. I worked hard and earned a full scholarship to Harvard University, where I graduated with a degree in economics and applied mathematics in 2008.

I flew my SOS Mother in from Ethiopia to attend my Harvard graduation. It was one of the proudest moments of my life because she was able to see firsthand what I was able to achieve because of her unwavering support and love.


Me and my SOS mother at my Harvard graduation ceremony in 2008.

I now work as an energy trader in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Even though I am thousands of miles away from my home in Ethiopia, I am still in regular contact with my SOS Mother and with the Village. In fact, I sponsor a little girl at the same SOS Village where I grew up.

What’s remarkable about my story is that it's one of many. Right now, there are about 80,000 children who are growing up at an SOS Village across more than 130 countries. Like me, these children were alone or without adequate care before they were welcomed into their SOS family. Also like me, these children would be out on the streets or worse if it weren't for the love, care and stability they get at the SOS Village where they live.

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