By Victor Porcelli
Gonder, Ethiopia is a village known for being the home of Fasilides—an ancient Ethiopian Emperor. It is also the birthplace of Hailemichael Geiger.
Geiger spent the first nine years of his life in Ethiopia. Originally, Geiger stayed with his grandmother while his sister, Lena, grew up with their mother and his father served in the military. During this time Geiger was unable to attend school.
“If you don’t have the money to pay for school, that means you don’t go,” Geiger said. “My grandmother didn’t have the money, so I didn’t go to school.”
With education as a nonoption, Geiger focused his efforts on simply surviving. Rather than going to school every day, he begged on the streets in need of food and money.
His situation worsened when, after his second sister was was born, his mother died. With three children, no mother and few available resources, it was time for his father to make a decision. Wanting the best for his children, Geiger’s father decided he had to try and enroll his children in an orphanage where they could be adopted and perhaps lead a better life outside of Ethiopia.
However, it was not that easy. Already having made the tough realization that his children’s best chance at life did not include him, Geiger’s father searched for an orphanage that would accept his children.
According to UNICEF, 13 percent of Ethiopian children are orphans, which means trying to get an orphanage to accept Hailemichael, Lena and Jordan was roughly the equivalent of trying to get into Harvard. This did not stop Geiger’s father from traveling all across Ethiopia for months in search of an orphanage that would accept them. He ended up at Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. One orphanage in particular called Kid’s Care seemed promising.
Yet instead of being welcomed, Geiger and his family were turned away and told there was no room. There seemed to be no hope. However, just as they had given up, the CEO of Kid’s Care fatefully drove her car into the complex. Geiger’s father did the only thing he could think of.
“[He] went on his knees and begged her to ‘Please take my kids in.’”
Now it was Geiger’s turn to make a decision. His father gave him the option of staying with him or his sisters. An impossible choice to be made—Geiger was only about eight at the time. To protect his two younger sister’s, Geiger decided to stay with them, thus beginning his time in the orphanage.
In the next couple years, Geiger’s life would change in many ways. One major change was his faith. Converting from Orthodox to Christian, Gieger found God. Now all he needed was someone to adopt him.
After trials, paperwork and a family test-run, Geiger and his sister’s were finally adopted and moved to America. The whole process took about a year. Now nine years old, with no education and no knowledge of English, Geiger was forced to try and adapt. What was bound to be a difficult and grueling road to assimilation, his adopted parents expected to be easy and painless. Rather than giving Geiger and his sisters time to adjust, their adopted parents disliked when they spoke to each other in their own language and were easily frustrated when they had trouble adapting.
“It’s very hard for us to get used to the culture, the language the food and they thought it was going to be easy stuff.” Geiger said. With no other option, Geiger was forced into an uncomfortable and difficult situation in unfamiliar surroundings.
Luckily, this did not last, as Geiger found a new home with his current adopted parents, Fiona and Chris. Although his sisters could not come with him, they too fled the family in Pittsburgh and found a home only an hour away from Geiger. Working hard to learn English, get through school and pursue athletics, Geiger found support from his new adopted family (with 13 new siblings) and the Allentown community in general. Now he finds himself somewhere he never expected to go—college.
Not only is he going to college, he is going for free. As one of the winners of the DeSales leadership scholarship, his tuition is paid in full. Geiger is much better off than he ever expected to be, so much better off that he is afraid of forgetting his past by getting wrapped up in the luxuries he enjoys today. For the memory of being on the streets, begging and starving, is what has driven him to be the successful young man he is today. Geiger’s fears are justified, but his constant amazement at where he ended up, how he talks of his culture and how he expresses his wish to become a missionary himself, to give back to God what he was given, shows that perhaps he need not be afraid.