Brehanu had a good childhood growing up in Northern Ethiopia. He was close to his parents, and started herding goats at age 14 to earn extra money for the family. He spent most of his days in the forest with the livestock, and eventually became sick with an aggressive bacterial infection. His illness grew worse, and his body ballooned up – so swollen that he couldn’t walk. Brehanu’s parents tried traditional medicines and prayer, but he did not improve. It had become apparent that he would not recover, and as the fever broke and swelling went down, Brehanu could no longer use his legs. Because people with disabilities were shunned in his small town, he was rejected by his community. Even his family no longer wanted him as their burden. Brehanu said, "I fled and came to Addis Ababa. I couldn’t find shelter in the city and was forced to live on the streets. I tried creating my own portable shop, where I sold soap and household items. While doing that work I met Melkam, who was working at a small local restaurant. ” Brehanu became friendly with Melkam, and she confided that a man in the community was violently molesting her. She was terrified and felt trapped because no one would protect her.
Melkam said, "Brehanu said he had an idea to help me. He spoke to the abusive man in a peaceful manner explaining the laws of violating women. After that, that man never bothered me again. I couldn’t stop thinking about Brehanu and his kindness, and realized I had fallen in love with him. We became closer, and he asked to visit my family. Originally I said ‘no’, but he insisted. Finally, I agreed, and he asked my family for my hand in marriage. I said yes, but my family was not happy with my decision. They challenged me constantly, saying ‘why are you with a disabled man when you are healthy and beautiful?’ We faced a lot of challenges and oppositions." But 20 years later, Brehanu and Melkam are still happily married.
Brehanu said, "I am very grateful for her commitment and kindness. I have no words to express how much she sacrificed to live with me. Despite the heavy challenges, we both enjoy our loving relationship and beautiful kids.”
Despite his disability, Brehanu is hardworking and creative. He currently runs a shoeshine stand. Because his makeshift wheelchair is heavy and cumbersome, Melkam goes out with Brehanu every morning to help push the chair up the hill, and then returns home to take care of their baby. Brehanu is also in the process of getting his commercial license to drive a bajaj, which is a three-wheeled taxi much like a tuk-tuk. He has learned to modify the pedals to the handlebars so that he can drive safely.
Brehanu’s family lives in an unzoned area of Ethiopia with very little governmental support for the community. His family recently joined Lelt’s programs. He said, “I never had the opportunity to receive support from nonprofit organizations before. Last month was the first time I got help from anyone, with the distribution of Lelt’s food rations. We didn’t have anything at home to eat and all the money I earn goes to rent. But, Lelt’s intervention has sustained my family's lives. We’re so grateful for the support and care from Lelt’s staff at Suki-Mariam Community Center!”