A Family for Feleke
By Katie Vloet
Photography by Leisa Thompson and Kyle Logue
Before the lost visas and passports, before the treacherous travel and the frantic
search for prednisone somewhere in the middle of Ethiopia, before one father asked
another to keep his son on the other side of the world—before all of that, Kyle
and Ruth Ann Logue had a conversation.
Ruth Ann had 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—and who had
been offered free treatment near Detroit. A donor had put up money for the plane
ticket. As the Logues understood it, the boy would just need a place to stay for
about five weeks and transportation to a clinic in the Detroit area for radiation
treatments for 15 days.
They looked at a photo of the boy online and learned more about his story: because
the boy had been sick on and off since age 5, his father had been forced to sell
the family's two oxen to pay for chemotherapy, but treatments still were stopped
early. 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 a place in their home?
Kyle is the Wade H. and Dores M. McCree Collegiate Professor of Law at the U-M
Law School, where he teaches tax, torts, and insurance law. Ruth Ann is a trained
nurse who was home-schooling two of their kids at the time; another was in high
school, one was a junior at U-M, and the oldest was a 1L 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 help
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, Dr. Rick Hodes from the mission
in Ethiopia where Feleke had been diagnosed flew with Feleke to Detroit Metro Airport
and drove him to Ann Arbor.
Feleke saw snow for the first time that night, amazed by the white blanket that
covered the ground. He was terrified of the passing cars on the interstate, fearing
the whoosh of wind would blow him into the air.
He couldn't convey any of this at the time, though. He could only say a few words
in English then, so he thought it, silently, in the back seat of the car on his
way to Ann Arbor.
Feleke was just 5 when his family first 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
His father knew treatment was necessary and that they would need to travel to
Addis Ababa—which is 80 miles from Dafe Jema as the crow flies but eight hours as
the human travels. The doctors decided he needed chemotherapy for what they identified
as a malignant tumor. Feleke's father did what he had to do to raise the money:
sold the family's two oxen, the ones used every spring to plow the fields in preparation
Feleke hated the hospital and the treatments; once, a chemotherapy IV missed
a vein and ended up burning all of the tendons in his left hand and causing damage
that may be permanent. The treatment was halted early when the money ran out. As
Feleke waited—his chemotherapy incomplete, his illness worsening—his family heard
about the Mother Teresa Medical Mission. There, they were told, Feleke could be
seen by Dr. Rick Hodes, an American doctor who had been treating patients in Ethiopia
for more than 20 years.
The family took Feleke to see Dr. Rick, as he is known, and it is safe to say
that the encounter saved Feleke's life—or, at least, began the process of saving
it. A visiting oncologist, Dr. Jeff Forman, as well as a biopsy sent to a lab in
the States, confirmed Hodes' diagnosis: Feleke had Hodgkin's lymphoma on one side
of his neck. He began receiving treatments at the mission.
The next step in saving Feleke's life: Dr. Forman offered to treat Feleke for
free at his practice in Michigan. Dr. Rick 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.
The "Detroit area" became Farmington Hills. 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. "His first English sentence,"
Ruth Ann recalls.
The Logues' two youngest children, Mary Claire, now 10, and Caroline, 14, helped
him communicate in the early days by getting markers and paper for him to draw his
village and his chickens. They, in turn, drew pictures of their family's house and
barn. Thomas, a 16-year-old who plays high school basketball, shared with Feleke
his appreciation for U-M sports, and Feleke became a big fan of basketball star
Trey Burke and football star Denard Robinson.
In time, he shared stories from home—an encounter with a hyena, how to cook corn
over an open fire. He had some testy moments—the occasional hunger strike at dinner,
for example, in silent protest of the lack of his favorite foods on the menu—as
he adjusted to a new culture, new household rules, life with a new family. But he
also was very loving with his new siblings and with the people he called Mama and
Dad. He loved playing soccer, taking swimming lessons, and making a robot at an
And, of course, the treatments continued. Back and forth, back and forth they
went. Dr. Forman's office in Farmington Hills, northeast of Ann Arbor, was the destination
on 23 days during those first weeks because the lymphoma had progressed more than
the doctors originally thought. Through it all, the Logues were awestruck by Feleke's
fortitude and courage during the treatments, by the maturity he showed.
Feleke's return flight to Ethiopia had to be postponed because his treatments
and CAT scans were stretching out longer. He missed his family—parents, 10 brothers
and sisters—terribly, but kept up with the family through one of his brothers by
As Feleke's neck began to shrink, his spirits grew. Ruth Ann taught him, as well
as Mary Claire and Caroline, at home. His vocabulary expanded each day. He looked
for broken things to fix in the home and in the garage. He repaired a fan, a record
player, radio—whatever he could get his hands on—building on a skill his father
had taught him in Dafe Jema.
Meanwhile, a Logue family friend, Steven Weinberg, a student in the U-M Medical
School, planned to travel to Ethiopia to work with Dr. Rick. Weinberg—the son of
Susan Weinberg, a 1988 Law School graduate and former director of the Office of
Career Services—offered to make the journey to Dafe Jema and connect with Feleke's
family. (Indeed, the Weinberg family played a large role in this journey of the
Logues and Feleke; Steven had known Dr. Rick for a while, and he helped the Logues
to make the decision, over coffee at Sweetwaters in Ann Arbor's Kerrytown, to house
Feleke in the first place. Dr. Neal Weinberg—Steven's dad and Susan's husband—is
Steven made the trip to Dafe Jema, taking with him photos of Feleke, the Logue
family, and America, along with a video of Feleke speaking English (to impress his
family) and telling them he was OK. Steven Weinberg sent back snapshots of Feleke's
family from Dafe Jema.
He also sent a video that would change the Logues' lives forever.
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, the Biru Kumbis, wanted Feleke 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 afford or access 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.
"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.'"
They talked to their children about it as well and asked what they thought about
the idea of Feleke staying. After an emotional discussion, and a candid confession
of concerns all around, a consensus was reached that this would be best, though
not without some sacrifices. The two youngest girls, for example, have had to share
a bedroom so that Feleke could have a room to himself, an arrangement that is dutifully
accepted though periodically (and reasonably, Kyle says) revisited by the interested
The Logue family in Ann Arbor had figured out that they could make this work.
But Kyle needed to talk with another family before he could move forward. He needed
to see the Biru Kumbis of Dafe Jema, Ethiopia, to talk face-to-face with Feleke's
parents and ask them, are you sure this is what you want?
To get to Dafe Jema, Kyle, son Thomas, and Feleke took a 15-hour plane ride to
Addis Ababa, with stopovers in Amsterdam and Khartoum. From Addis, Feleke went ahead
to be with his family, while Thomas and Kyle explored the country. Also during this
time, Kyle was able to meet and conduct research with a former student—Professor
Taddese Lencho, Michigan LLM '99—who now teaches and writes about tax law in Addis.
When all of this was done, Kyle and Thomas made the journey to Dafe Jema.
The Logue team needed a knowledgeable, experienced, and trustworthy driver. And
they found one, in Shimeless Fisseha, a prominent geophysicist at Addis Ababa University,
recommended to them by his sister, Dr. Senait Fisseha, who happens to be a physician
at the U-M Hospital and an assistant professor at the Medical School. Shimeless's
Land Cruiser took the Logues over the one main road between Addis and Adama, which
is a main route for infuriatingly slow trucks that haul cargo, made more dangerous
by the Ethiopian drivers trying to get around them.
"Ethiopian drivers, however, fear nothing, not even oncoming traffic. They will
happily pass a long line of large trucks, even on a curve and even across a bridge.
It doesn't matter, so long as they see some theoretical daylight between them and
where they are heading," Kyle wrote on his blog,
Luckily, Professor Fisseha knew the terrain well. He also shared some unnerving
stories about a time that he and an American researcher were among Somalis on the
same day that Somali pirates were killed by American Navy Seals. He recalled how
they had lied and told the Somalis that his friend was German. "We planned to use
France in the unlikely event we found ourselves among Somali pirate sympathizers,"
Kyle later wrote.
They picked up two of Feleke's older brothers during the drive, one of whom is
a police officer in the town of Dera. For all its horsepower, the car eventually
got stuck so deep in a mud ditch that a group of men and boys came "to offer advice
and then to offer their shoulders," Kyle reported. Rather than the unfriendly encounters
they had feared, they had instead met a group that would help them on their way.
One of Feleke's brothers taught Kyle to say "thank you" in the local Oromo language,
which made the villagers gasp and then laugh.
When the Land Cruiser could no longer take them through the rough terrain, they
rode small horses that the Biru Kumbis had sent for them. An hour later, they approached
the family's home, and immediately spotted Feleke in his Angry Birds T-shirt; it
was clear to Kyle that he had enjoyed the week with his family.
The family greeted the visitors with a seat of honor, on a University of Michigan
blanket that had been brought to them by Feleke (as a gift from Susan Weinberg),
and a meal of doro wat, a spicy chicken dish. Kyle, Thomas, and Feleke handed out
gifts: T-shirts, a solar-powered radio, backpacks. They talked about Biru's new
cattle, which friends and family of the Logues had chipped in to replace.
The visit would be short. Everyone wanted their pictures taken with the Logues,
and they were especially fascinated by the 6-foot-4 Thomas. Kyle and Biru, the two
dads, sat down together over a beer and talked, through an interpreter, about what
should happen next.
Biru, as well as Feleke's mother, Elfinish, assured Kyle that keeping Feleke
in the States 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. They had Biru's signature and now needed to have Elfinish sign
the papers as well. She inked her finger and made her mark on the document.
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.
Before they mounted the horses to return to the car, Biru asked for his photo
to be taken, sitting on one of the horses. In the photo, his back is straight and
his expression serious. "I think he realized," Kyle wrote on his blog, "this would
be a picture that Feleke would someday treasure—his father on a horse, dignified
and in charge, almost majestic." They headed back to Addis.
Kyle later wrote on his blog: "So there you have it. The lives of the Biru Kumbis
and Logues have been changed forever, inextricably intertwined. There really isn't
any going back.
"We, all of us, are on a journey together now, and we're not sure where it will
At first, at least, it led to a scary incident—or, rather, a series of them:
It turns out that Thomas is severely allergic to horses. He learned of this, unfortunately,
on the return horseback ride to the car from Feleke's village. By the time the group
got back on the road, hives, red and teary eyes, and pure misery had hit Thomas
full-force. Kyle called Dr. Rick on the cell phone he had rented from one of Dr.
Rick's kids, and Dr. Rick advised that Thomas needed to take Benadryl and 40 mg
of prednisone. No problem—except they were in a remote part of Ethiopia.
By some miracle, the Logues' web of friends with ties to Ethiopia—the ones they
had met since Feleke's arrival—came through again. Two of them, who live in Ann
Arbor, were visiting nearby Adama, Ethiopia. They were able to get the medication
After this adventure, Kyle, Thomas, and Feleke returned to the hotel in Addis,
exhausted and, in Thomas's case, feeling rotten. They slept, and, the next morning,
Kyle started to assemble everything they would need for the trip home, scheduled
for August 12. Passport, money, credit cards, visas. They were in the money belt.
Which was ... wait, where was the money belt?
With an epic sinking feeling, Kyle realized that it was gone. Everything was
gone. Their IDs, their money, their ability to get back to Ann Arbor. All of it
had been taken from their hotel room during the confusion of arriving, paying for
their stay, and having the room cleaned.
Thankfully, Kyle is clear-headed and resourceful. And, thankfully, Ruth Ann had
made copies of all of the original documents before the trip; those were still in
Kyle's suitcase. Still, the flight scheduled for the next day had to be postponed.
What followed was a series of phone calls: To the U.S. Embassy (closed on weekends);
to the emergency number for the embassy (a young marine who guards the door said,
"Sir, I think you'd best hunker down till Monday and try again then"); to the credit
card companies, to deactivate the stolen cards; to a friend in Ann Arbor, who helped
them change the day of their flights.
A visit to Dr. Rick and his passport expert offered little hope; they would need
Feleke's father to navigate the unreliable bus system from Dafe Jema to Addis so
he could be present for the issuance of a new passport. They went to the police
station with one of Dr. Rick's sons to report the theft, but they were told there,
as at the U.S. Embassy, to return on Monday.
In a driving rainstorm, they went to the embassy first thing on Monday. They
were told to come back later in the day; then, they were told it would take several
weeks for Feleke's new passport—after Kyle's classes at the Law School were set
Another person jumped in to help: Kyle's former student, Taddese Lencho. He drove
them to the police station, the embassy, to get passport photos taken, to another
police station, back to the first station to have the report amended, and through
a series of roadblocks and frustrations.
They were getting bad news everywhere they turned. Finally, Kyle called Ruth
Ann and asked her to reach out to everyone they knew with connections to Ethiopia,
the federal government—anything. This was a good time to work with professors who
are politically connected in Washington; they learned that the embassy would stay
open late for them, but that they needed the police report translated and to get
larger passport photos. Finally, some help, but also more hoops to jump through.
Somehow, Biru, Feleke's father, was able to make it to the immigration office;
Thomas was sent on an earlier flight than Kyle and Feleke, though he was without
an exit visa and had to navigate a flight transfer (which he did); and, finally,
Kyle and Feleke got the paperwork they needed to return to Ann Arbor on an August
At long last, his adopted family having gone a great distance and through miles
of red tape to make him a part of their lives, Feleke was on his way home.
It's a Thursday evening at the Logue house on Ann Arbor's north side, nearly
a year after Feleke first stepped into the home, fascinated by the refrigerator
and shower, and unsure of what anyone was saying to him. The Logues have become
his permanent legal guardians, and Feleke has been approved by the United States
Citizenship and Immigration Service for an F1 student visa, renewable as long as
he remains a student, with the Logues as his sponsor.
Feleke waves his arms in excitement—"Mama, daddy, I got 100 points on my spelling
test today at school," at Christian Montessori in Ann Arbor, where he is in a class
with fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, and where he has a half-tuition scholarship.
They ask about the words he spelled, and he rattles off: f-r-i-e-n-d, c-a-s-h-i-e-r.
Ruth Ann explains to him what a cashier is: "You know when you go to the store with
Mama? It's the person I pay." Kyle tells him he did a good job spelling friend,
especially since the vowels are tricky.
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.
Online Extra ...
Feleke rides for the first time