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A Family for Feleke

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.

Sickness and a Hope for Health

A Family for Feleke

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 in tears.

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 for planting.

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.

An Extended Stay

A Family for Feleke

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 engineering camp.

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 cell phone.

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 Feleke's pediatrician.)

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.

A Father's Plea

A Family for Feleke

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.

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.'"

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 parties.

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?

The Road to Dafe Jema

A Family for Feleke

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, dafejema.blogspot.com.

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 lead."

The Missing Passports and Visas

A Family for Feleke

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 for Thomas.

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 to begin.

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 18 flight.

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.

A Home, A Family

A Family for Feleke

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

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