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Albuquerque student helps bring books to Ethiopia

Saturday, November 22, 2008

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —  When Yohannes Gebregeorgis talks about books, it becomes clear that what he values is their power to convey new ideas to readers, who he hopes one day will bring about social change in his native country of Ethiopia.

That's why the founder of the nonprofit Ethiopia Reads has a mission to build libraries and publish books in one of Africa's poorest nations, where 99 percent of schools have no library and more than 57 percent of people over 15 years old are illiterate.

"This is really my way of changing society, starting with children, who connect to other cultures, to other ways of thinking," Gebregeorgis said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. "Books have changed me, have changed my world view."

One of 10 finalists from about 10,000 nominations for a CNN special program on heroes airing on Thanksgiving, Gebregeorgis is touring America to thank those who have donated to his cause.

His visits include Georgia O'Keeffe Elementary School in Albuquerque where a third-grade student, Tobyn Pulice, along with his classmates raised $6,000 to build a library at Biruh Tesfa public school in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Gebregeorgis also plans to visit Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; New York; and Minneapolis on his tour.

Tobyn said he read about Ethiopia Reads in a magazine last year and wanted to do something to help Ethiopian children.

He started by raising $1,800 selling "Shout Outs" _ complimentary messages to friends _ for a quarter apiece to be read each morning on the school's public address system. Then parents organized a community golf tournament to raise the rest of the money.

"I kind of feel, like, really bad that they don't have too many libraries. I really kind of want to reassure the children that we will build more," said Tobyn, who handed Gebregeorgis an additional $1,000 donation Wednesday along with about 700 books collected by the schoolchildren.

Gebregeorgis himself grew up with so few books he can remember each one he read until he was 19 years old.

He recalled a British teacher delivering textbooks to his school in her Volkswagen, a Peace Corps volunteer introducing him to American literature and reading his first fiction book, called "Love Kitten," cover to cover.

"It was the first book I read outside school. I was also young at that time, 19, and I was in love and it was a romance book and that was the magic," he said. "That was what did it."

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union launched a literacy campaign, forcing students and parents to attend classes, but with that effort came a military dictatorship.

Gebregeorgis said he eventually fought against the Communist-backed regime, but after seeing many of his friends killed, he became a political refugee and was granted political asylum in the United States in 1982.

Eventually, the boy who had no books went on to become a librarian, taking a position at the children's department in the San Francisco Public Library.

Gebregeorgis founded Ethiopia Reads in 1998.

By the end of the year, Ethiopia Reads expects to have opened 30 libraries in Ethiopia and 100 libraries by 2010.

By building libraries and bringing books to his country, Gebregeorgis hopes children connect with millions of kids around the world who have read about Harry Potter or Curious George.

"If you read about Anne Frank, for example, the kids would know what other people have gone through. That really connects them with people. Otherwise, how could they know about Anne Frank or what happened in the Holocaust?" he said.

Ethiopia Reads also wants to publish books to keep Ethiopia's folk tales, history and culture that has been handed down in an oral tradition for thousands of years alive.

Gebregeorgis showed a collection of books he found in Addis Ababa before his libraries opened. Several were used books published in the 1980s that contained Russian folk tales written in Amharic, a widely used language in Ethiopia, a throwback to the Communist literacy campaign. Others were Ethiopian folk tales with black and white pictures that looked like books published in the United States six decades ago.

Gebregeorgis said his organization has helped to publish eight books in four Ethiopian languages and English that depict Ethiopian folk tales. Ethiopia has more than 80 indigenous languages.

Gebregeorgis has returned home to Ethiopia, where he has lived for the last six years.

"When I see the kids, that's when I say I have to keep doing this because maybe it will change their future, as it has changed my life," he said.


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