Orphaned at age 9, Chernet Sisay lived on the streets of Ethiopia for more than a year and can't bear to summon the memories. So why can't he stop smiling?
Chernet Sisay, orphaned at age 9 in AIDS-ravaged Ethiopia, was overwhelmed by neither emotion nor the magnitude of his accomplishment when he received a diploma in the spring of 2017 at High Point. The milestone, seemingly impossible when he had been scrounging for food more than a decade before on the streets of Addis Ababa after losing his biological parents, was merely one more step on the former cross country runner’s long road. “I came here and did what I needed to do,” he says of earning his bachelor’s degree in human relations.
The subject of the fall 2015 Champion cover story was unmoved that day because he can so clearly see his larger purpose, shaped by the traumas of his youth. A year after graduating, Sisay is already well on his way to undertaking his life’s goal — providing opportunities to those who need them most.
As he articulated then, Sisay hopes to use his remarkable stroke of luck — being adopted from an Ethiopian orphanage into a loving home in the U.S. — to help others whose youths have been marred by the type of suffering he knows well. That dream hasn’t changed: Via an AmeriCorps fellowship, he now tutors underprivileged middle schoolers at South Boston’s Tierney Learning Center and is in the midst of pursuing a master’s degree in nonprofit management at Northeastern.
That blend of practical experience and his ongoing education on the nuances of overseeing a nonprofit is preparing him to launch one of his own after he completes his master’s degree. His daily work at Tierney has demanded patience, but he remains undeterred. He tries to relate to the children, many of whom live in the surrounding projects and have little interaction with their parents, by articulating his own experiences. He hopes his example proves to them that, with the right blend of effort and help, they can cultivate ambitions beyond mere survival.
On the day his life story was published, friends and teammates learned about the experiences his smile had long hidden. He received text messages from more than 100 people, eventually putting his phone in airplane mode to escape the deluge. “It was a good moment,” he says. “But at the same time, I was embarrassed. I don’t think I’m a person who wants the spotlight.”
So Sisay will continue to do vital work in relative obscurity. It took him months to realize that he can’t connect with every child, so he has learned to relish each day’s small victories: “You can’t change everyone,” he says, “but if you can make a difference in one kid, that’s a win.” — Brian Burnsed
October 20, 2015
Approach a pair of automatic sliding glass doors, and an infrared sensor will take note. The sensor sends an electrical signal to a drivetrain, which tugs on a system of cables that pull the doors open. Since 1960, billions of people have triggered that reaction without breaking stride, passing through doors like those without wonder.
Not Chernet Sisay. They astonished him.
The boy encountered his first set of sliding doors at a grocery store in Boston. Sisay had spent the first 11 years of his life in Ethiopia, so when he tripped the sensor and the doors glided open, he marveled. Intricacies like infrared lights and drivetrains and cables eluded him. Someone must be watching, he thought. Someone must have opened those doors for me.
A decade later, Sisay still chuckles to himself when he walks through automatic doors in his adopted hometown of Boston or at High Point University in North Carolina, where he is a distance runner. His new life is filled with technological wonders, ornate fountains and girls who shout his name when they spot him on campus. He carries the happiness he has found in America like an egg, protecting it with gregariousness and an unrelenting smile that ensure he doesn’t fumble his most delicate possession. If he allows his thoughts to linger in Ethiopia, he worries, the egg might shatter.
He chooses to forget because even the brightest moments of his old life are tarnished. Sisay remembers sitting atop his father’s shoulders to watch a parade for Haile Gebrselassie, who returned to Ethiopia a national hero after capturing gold in the 10,000 meters at the 2000 Olympic Games. But that father drank and abused his family. And the mother who protected that family from the violence was claimed by AIDS when Sisay was 9 – his father followed her to the grave only a month later. Sisay spent the ensuing year in the streets stealing and fighting to keep himself alive through sweltering days, and grappling with the memories of his mother that inevitably arrived with moonlight and the evening chill. So when friends or loved ones ask him to sift through the muck of his past, he politely declines. He keeps the egg safe.
Sisay insists his story isn’t about a boy from Ethiopia. It’s about the adoptive family, the teachers, the tutors, the coaches and the friends who taught him that his ambitions could extend beyond mere survival. To pay them back, he wants to help others like they helped him. But he doesn’t yearn to return to Ethiopia like Gebrselassie, a benevolent hero who escaped poverty with his feet. Sisay loves running, but it didn’t save him – Boston did. So he wants to give the city’s forgotten children the same opportunities once afforded to a boy from Ethiopia.
He is certain that, like him, anyone can escape if the right doors slide open.
Cow dung held together Sisay’s first home.
It gave the one-room house shape and supported a thin metal roof. Sisay, his parents and his younger sister each slept and ate in their own corners of the dwelling. He used a communal bathroom and heated water in a bucket outside when he wanted to take a lukewarm shower. Sisay’s connection to the world beyond Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, was limited to his family’s radio and the occasional bit of television he would watch at friends’ houses, but “the small things for us were very big,” he says.
As if he was stuck in a perpetual tunnel, Sisay was able to fixate only on what was directly in front of him – the next meal, the next safe night of sleep, the next outburst from his father. The realm of dreams and aspirations existed somewhere beyond his periscopic view and those dung walls; goals and the future proved too abstract to comprehend.
His mother was a “tiny lady with a big spirit,” who oversaw her own grocery stand and was a devout attendee of an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church. Sisay didn’t share his mother’s beliefs but accompanied her there because it was their refuge from daily torments and, simply, because he was a son who wanted to make his mother happy. His father eventually landed a job as a security guard for a factory, enabling the family to move into a two-room home when Sisay was 6.
Through Sisay’s youth, nearly 4 percent of all adults in Ethiopia carried HIV; the World Health Organization estimates that more than 110,000 Ethiopians lost their lives to AIDS in 2001 alone. Even as a child, Sisay knew the disease lurked everywhere,
but still couldn’t believe it could afflict his own family.
Then, the woman with the big spirit began to weaken. For months, he watched the person he cared for the most – the one who shielded him when his father raged – slip away. Sisay, at 9 years old, tended to her until the end but was granted no catharsis or tearful goodbye: She spoke her final words weeks before she died.
Anguished, the boy disappeared, returning for only a portion of his mother’s weeklong funeral ceremonies. Sisay’s father, also sick, offered no apologies when his son reappeared, only a long, silent hug. Sisay cared for his father until he died weeks later. “I’ll never hold anything against him,” Sisay says. “I think most fathers were like that.”
Sisay’s younger sister, Bethlehem, then 6, was taken to an orphanage in Addis Ababa, but Sisay was deemed too old and was left in the streets. Initially, he reveled in the newfound freedom from his father’s tyranny. He aligned with other friends who had lost or escaped their families, stealing food, working odd jobs and protecting each other in a dangerous city. But days spent relishing his father’s absence gave way to nights lamenting his mother’s. That cycle persisted for more than a year. Then Bethlehem was adopted by an American family. They asked that Sisay be placed in the orphanage, which would allow someone to adopt him. So he left his close friends behind on Addis Ababa’s streets for the slim chance that he would get to see life outside the tunnel. “Everybody wants out,” he says. “I don’t know how long I would have survived.”
From the orphanage, which rested near Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport, Sisay studied airplanes for hours, watching their wheels lift off the only ground he had ever known. He watched those planes for more than a year. Then, in 2005, Sisay – by then almost 12 years old – finally stepped onto one with the American family that had come to retrieve him.
He was frightened, but the fear wasn’t generated by being thrust thousands of feet into the air in an instant. What scared him most was not that the plane would tumble back to Earth, but that it would turn around.
Vincent Connelly and Hope Ricciotti, active in their suburban Boston community and parents of two boys, were certain that Leo, their youngest, was in trouble.
That thought raced through both their minds when his elementary school principal approached them at a school conference in 2005. Leo wasn’t on the verge of expulsion, but the principal’s words would nevertheless rearrange their lives. A new student from Ethiopia wasn’t meshing with his adoptive parents, he told them. Would they be willing to take the boy temporarily so he wouldn’t disappear into the foster system? Connelly, a chef, and Ricciotti, an obstetrician, oversaw a tutoring program for underprivileged youth in Boston, so neither hesitated. Of course we will.
Ricciotti was unsure of what to say to her quiet new houseguest when he arrived at the green house with a green lawn only four subway stops from Fenway Park’s Green Monster. Sisay, though, was overcome by an unfamiliar feeling – contentment – when he saw his neatly made bed with two pillows. That night, Connelly entered the boy’s room to say goodnight and tuck him in, and Sisay learned a new lesson about fathers. “It felt real,” Sisay says. “I was home.”
Forced to be a man at age 9, Sisay, 12, yearned for a childhood. So he played basketball and soccer and refused to be the shy immigrant, making friends at a breakneck pace despite learning a new language with a new alphabet. Soon, he was hanging Celtics posters on his wall, watching Patriots games with his brothers and collecting shoes, which had been a luxury in Addis Ababa. That life and its trappings brought fragile happiness, so he made a silent pact to maintain it. “I disassociated myself from (Ethiopian) culture, the whole culture, by choice, just deep inside of me,” he says. “I tried to forget the past.”
Connelly watched Sisay closely, looking for manifestations of a troubled past, but he didn’t snap at Connelly or ignore Ricciotti or grow violent with his brothers. In return, the only rules imposed upon Sisay were that he couldn’t wear shoes in the house, and that he must find a passion and approach schoolwork diligently. For Ricciotti, Sisay became more than the stranger in the spare bedroom when she sat with him every night, bonding over sixth-grade arithmetic and English. She wasn’t alone; compelled by his earnestness, a gaggle of teachers and tutors in Brookline’s public schools eagerly nudged Sisay along.
Though Sisay felt at ease around his new parents from his first night in their home, he hesitated to connect too deeply for fear of the consequences. He waited to call them “mom and dad” or to say “I love you” because a tinge of dread wouldn’t disappear. After knowing only turmoil, he worried that he would do something to ruin his newfound nirvana. What if the plane turned back around?
But almost as soon as he began living with Connelly and Ricciotti, they began working with the state's Department of Children and Families to formalize adoption. Within a year, they had a third son. “I’m not a spiritual person or religious person,” Ricciotti says. “But I feel like we were meant to have him.”
Sisay adored playing soccer, but at only 5 feet 6 inches with a slender frame, sharing the field with larger players battered his body. In ninth grade, he developed a stress fracture in his back. Connelly was – and remains – an avid runner, rising before dawn every morning to log 13 miles before Boston wakes up. So, after the injury, Connelly steered his new son toward running after noticing how much endurance he displayed on the soccer field.
Sisay trained at Brookline High School under Mike Glennon, whose blunt methods instilled discipline that permeated into the rest of Sisay’s life. He led Brookline to a pair of state cross country championships in his final two years at the school, finishing 10th overall in each race. “I cherish when he does really well,” Connelly says.
Though “I love you” and “mom and dad” arrived near the end of high school, Sisay revealed little about his past and, when his voice would drop or the light would leave his eyes, his new parents quickly learned not to probe.
The only advice Sisay refuted from his coach came when Glennon tried to cajole him into using the horrors of childhood as fuel. “He didn’t really like to go to those places,” Glennon says. Instead, when Sisay hit the wall in a race, he dug for memories of painful training sessions with his tough mentor, not survival in the streets. “I don’t think that’s motivation,” he says. “I feel like it would break me.”
For the second time in his life, Sisay’s mother left him behind.
When Ricciotti dropped him off at High Point in the summer of 2013, his subdued emotions assured her he was ready to leave the nest, but he wept after she began her 700-mile trip home. Sisay’s family, friends and Boston itself provided the only happiness and safety he had ever known. What if he lost his balance without his support system? What if he dropped the egg? What if it shattered?
Sisay, though, refused to wallow or worry. Once he had wiped away the private tears, he put on a public smile that has yet to fade. On one of his first days on campus, the diminutive cross country runner approached Christian Spaulding, a 6-foot-3 javelin thrower, reached up to place a small hand on a bulky shoulder and introduced himself, speaking quickly. Throwers and runners don’t often interact, so Spaulding was confused by the aggressive introduction, but Sisay’s charms disarmed him.
Sisay attributes his affability – his biggest asset – to the culture he has tried to escape. To counter daily drudgeries, he says, Ethiopians are outgoing and try to make joy out of moments as small as introducing yourself to a stranger or savoring a conversation over coffee. In the years since they met, Sisay has engaged Spaulding and others in those long talks. “Chewy has a lot of wisdom,” Spaulding says. “He had to grow up fast.”
Chewy? The nickname is the byproduct of a girl’s inability to pronounce his name (Chur-net) while simultaneously taking note of his Chewbacca shirt. Now, as he strolls through High Point’s immaculate campus, frequent shouts of “Chewy!” emanate from shuttle drivers and sorority sisters alike. Despite his initial fears, college didn’t rob him of the new life he had carefully cultivated. It has enhanced it.
Just as he had hoped, his life now is no different from millions of other college kids. The boy who grew up with only a radio is quick to espouse his admiration for Quentin Tarantino movies, and in the wake of surgery to remove his wisdom teeth, he binge-watched “Breaking Bad.” He is two years away from a degree in human relations with a minor in strategic communications. Sisay and Mike Esposito, High Point’s cross country and track and field coach, talk about more than the 75 miles Sisay runs per week. They engage in the banter typical of a Steelers fan from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and a Patriots fan from Boston. The scandal regarding deflated footballs? Like any true Patriots fan, “I kind of took it personally,” Sisay says.
Roommate and teammate Paddy Grandinali notices Sisay reading constantly. He is catching up on sports via Grantland or Sports Illustrated, but his interests delve into science and politics. The New York Times opinion section is one of his regular stops. That he is well-read and has mastered the language is apparent in conversation, but subtle mistakes occasionally emerge. The TV room at home where he watches Patriots games with his brother? “A “man cage.” The rustic dwelling where he stayed when he was training in the mountains? “A cabinet.” When friends and family note those gaffes, Sisay laughs along with them.
His interests may extend beyond running, but his schedule is built around preparing his body for his sport. Despite casting a wide social net, he avoids the temptation of parties on Friday nights and milkshakes at a favorite fast-food stop near campus. He wants, badly, to contribute more to a team that won the Big South Championship last year. He was the eighth High Point runner to cross the finish line at the 2014 conference meet but hopes to help propel the team further in his final two seasons.
Stress fractures sidelined Sisay for several months during his sophomore year. Malnutrition in his childhood was a likely cause, namely a lack of calcium and vitamin D, High Point physical therapist Eric Hegedus says. Through the tedium of recovering from the injuries, Sisay even revealed details of his past to Hegedus during their rehab sessions. “I think when you have his background, it does one of two things: It either destroys you or it makes an exceptional human being,” Hegedus says. “He’s an exceptional human being.”
Many whom Sisay has encountered share that sentiment. He thanks the people who have helped him by refusing to forget them, so he spends much of his time on the phone or Skype. Glennon, his high school coach, says he has remained closer to Sisay than many of the other runners he has coached over a two-decade career simply because Sisay makes a consistent effort to stay in touch. And Ricciotti hears from her son frequently. He tells her about his life at High Point, yearning to maintain their connection across 700 miles by offering more details than the “doing fine” she is accustomed to hearing from her two biological sons.
Ricciotti hopes to one day take her son back to Ethiopia, where she can volunteer at a hospital and he can work as a translator and reconnect with old friends and family. Much like when she dropped him off at school, he has given her the impression that he is ready for another big step. Privately, though, Sisay worries that returning too soon might risk much of what he has gained. He doesn’t know how he might react when he discovers what his old friends’ lives have become – if they are even alive at all.
“I just happened to be the lucky one,” he says.
If he does return, though, he will search for a photo of himself as a small child. His choice to forget worked, perhaps too well; he can’t picture what he looked like when he was a boy.
Sisay spent several days last summer walking Boston’s streets in solitude, unearthing more of the city with every step and every photo. The silence cleared room for reflection. While he has sustained himself by never looking back, now, he occasionally peers forward. When he does, he realizes he has escaped his childhood’s tunnel and that a vast horizon, speckled with ambitions, lies ahead. He sees himself running a nonprofit to help underprivileged children in the city where he can walk alone while never feeling alone.
He wants to find the neglected children – the ones who, if someone would listen to them and be patient with them and give them direction, could go on to win state championships or go to college or whose mere presence might one day make people smile and shout their names.
“I want to be able to put those kids in a position where they feel like they matter,” he says. “It means a lot to me that I got that opportunity.”
To make that dream real, Sisay will have to rely on the sole piece of him that remains Ethiopian, the talent that, even as he worked so hard to forget his past, came to define him – his ability to relate, to empathize, to coax a smile.
He wants to use that gift when the children he works with confront life’s sliding doors. He wants to trigger the drivetrain and the cables that force them to glide open.
The ones he helps will pause and wonder before striding through: Someone must be watching.