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Feleke’s journey from Ethiopia to Ann Arbor

June 5, 2013
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Ruth Ann Logue heard from a friend about an 11-year-old boy in Ethiopia who had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma—a cancer of the immune system. The child had been offered free treatment near Detroit. A donor had put up money for the plane ticket.

As Ruth Ann and her husband, Kyle, understood it, the boy would just need a place to stay for about five weeks and transportation to a clinic for radiation treatments for 15 days.

They looked at a photo of the boy online and learned more about his story: He had been sick on and off since age 5, so his father had to sell the family’s two oxen to pay for chemotherapy. His prognosis if he stayed in Ethiopia did not look good. Already the parents of five children, the Logues quickly developed a soft spot in their hearts for the boy, named Feleke (feh-LEH-keh). But was there a place for him in their home?

Kyle is the Wade H. and Dores M. McCree Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan’s Law School, where he teaches tax, torts and insurance law. Ruth Ann is a trained nurse who was home-schooling two of their five kids at the time. Another child was in high school and one was a junior at U-M. The oldest was a first-year student at Michigan Law. The couple was always driving one of their children to practice, picking up another from an after-school activity or a church event. They had plenty on their plate.

But maybe, Ruth Ann thought, she could enlist the help of friends who could assist with the transportation. OK, they thought. This will be tough, but for a few weeks, we can do it.

So, on a bitterly cold night in January 2012, Feleke was flown to Detroit Metro Airport and driven to Ann Arbor.

A hope for health

Feleke was just 5 when his family realized he was sick. Dental pain led his family to get him injections at a clinic near their village, Dafe Jema. When Feleke was 7, his father noticed swelling in the boy’s neck. Doctors could not identify the problem. He was not treated.

At 11, Feleke’s neck grew larger. His fellow students laughed and called him “Fat Neck.” Usually a top student who loved school, he now returned home every day in tears.

His father knew treatment was necessary and that they would need to travel to Addis Ababa — eight hours away. The doctors decided he needed chemotherapy for what they identified as a malignant tumor.

The two dads—Kyle and Biru—relax at the family’s home in Dafe Jema.

The two dads—Kyle and Biru—relax at the family’s home in Dafe Jema.

He was taken to the Mother Teresa Medical Mission, where he was seen by Rick Hodes, an American doctor who had been treating patients in Ethiopia for more than 20 years. Feleke’s diagnosis was confirmed by visiting oncologist, Jeff Forman. The child had Hodgkin’s lymphoma on one side of his neck.

The next step in saving Feleke’s life: Forman offered to treat Feleke for free at his practice in Michigan. Hodes set an impressive fundraising machine at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee into motion and found a donor who would pay the airfare. Then the Logues heard about Feleke and agreed to take him in for his treatment. Their time with him, they figured, would be meaningful but would end in several weeks.

They had no idea what was to come next.

An extended stay

Five weeks turned to six, seven, 12. Fifteen treatments grew to 23. All the while, Feleke’s place in the Logues’ home—and hearts—also grew.

A network of Ethiopians who live in Ann Arbor brought food, translation help, a dose of the familiar. Feleke learned to sled, and shouted, “Oh, my goodness!”—a phrase he’d heard from Ruth Ann—as he raced down a hill.

Feleke’s return flight to Ethiopia had to be postponed because his treatments and CAT scans were stretching out longer.

Meanwhile, a Logue family friend, Steven Weinberg, a student in the U-M Medical School, planned to travel to Ethiopia to work with HodesHoHH  . He offered to visit Feleke’s family.

Feleke with his new siblings.

Feleke and the Logue kids, clockwise from left: Caroline, Thomas, Hannah (now a Michigan Law 2L), Mary Claire, and Molly (an undergraduate math student at U-M).

Weinberg took photos of Feleke, the Logue family and America, along with a video of Feleke telling them he was OK. Weinberg sent back snapshots of Feleke’s family from Dafe Jema.

He also sent a video that would change the Logues’ lives.

At first, the translator did not want to say what Feleke’s father, Biru, was asking on the video that Weinberg sent to the Logues. He looked at Kyle and Ruth Ann with big eyes.

Finally, he explained that Feleke’s family wanted the boy to live with the Logues. Forever.

The family in Ethiopia was thrilled with how well the treatments were working, and they worried that if Feleke should need treatments in the future, they would not be able to get the care he needed.

“They made their position clear: We love Feleke and miss him very much, but we want you to keep him in America where he can be close to the American doctors and go to an American school, if you are willing to let him live with you,” Kyle says.

Well.

“We sat down with Feleke at the kitchen table and asked him, ‘What do you think about that?'” Ruth Ann says. “I thought he was going to say he didn’t want to stay. I know he missed his family, especially his mom, who was sick and hadn’t seen him for two years before he left Ethiopia. And I told him he wouldn’t be able to get back every year, but we’d get him there as often as possible.

“He looked really thoughtful, and said, ‘Yeah, I want to stay.'”

Back to Ethiopia

The Logue family decided they could make this work. But Kyle needed to talk face-to-face with Feleke’s parents and ask them: Are you sure this is what you want? So they flew to Ethiopia.

Feleke’s family greeted the visitors with a seat of honor, on a U-M blanket that had been brought to them by Feleke, and a meal of doro wat, a spicy chicken dish.

Biru, as well as Feleke’s mother, Elfinish, assured Kyle that keeping Feleke in the U.S. was what they wanted. They wanted what was best for their son.

Kyle and Ruth Ann had begun the process of becoming Feleke’s legal guardians in probate court.

Before long, it was time to say goodbye. Feleke hung his head as he said goodbye to his sisters, brothers, and parents. He may have cried, Kyle says, but if so he kept it hidden and maintained his composure. Kyle asked him one more time: Are you sure you want to come with us? Feleke nodded.

Feleke today

It’s a Thursday evening at the Logue house, nearly a year after Feleke first stepped into the home. The Logues have become his permanent legal guardians.

Feleke waves his arms in excitement—”Mama, daddy, I got 100 points on my spelling test today at school.”

They ask about the words he spelled, and he rattles off: f-r-i-e-n-d, c-a-s-h-i-e-r. Feleke remembers another word from the test, and spells it with confidence, a word he now knows well in two languages: f-a-m-i-l-y.

(A longer version of this story first appeared in the Law Quadrangle.)

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