Monday, February 10, 2014

How An Israeli Stranger Helped An Ethiopian Girl Escape Prostitution

Sofiya Nigatu was working in a remote Ethiopian brothel when a traveler’s act of kindness helped transform her future.

If kindness were a religion, Ishay Hadas would be its pope.

Back in 2004, Hadas, a 58 year-old advertising producer from Israel, was traveling through Ethiopia when he stumbled upon a young girl by the name of Sofiya Nigatu. She was 19 at the time, working as a waitress at a sketchy makeshift bar in a small mining town 460 miles north of Addis Ababa.
An orphan, Sofiya had dropped out of high school to support herself. She had only been at the bar for two weeks when Hadas walked in. The place was no more than a tent with a few chairs and tables. It also doubled as the local brothel.

Hadas, whose archeological expedition camped at that small tiny town for the night, decided to check out the only bar in the area. That’s when he noticed Sofiya. There was something about the young girl that touched his heart.

“She looked so out of place,” said Hadas.“The other women seemed to have already accepted their fate. But Sofiya had that innocent look on her face.”

So Hadas did something rather unexpected. He turned on his camera and started interviewing the young girl. “I asked her if she had enough money to do anything she wanted, what would it be?” recalled Hadas.

Sofiya didn’t ask for clothes or even a home. Her dream, she told Hadas, was to become a nurse. That caught Hadas by surprise.  “All I could think of was how I would love to give her the money to get out of this hell hole,” said Hadas. “All I wanted was to help her.”

And then it occurred to him, he could.

Right then and there, Hadas made Sofiya an offer she couldn’t refuse. He would pay for her tuition and board until she graduated both high school and college. But he had one condition: she would have to leave the bar and her line of work immediately.

At first, Sofiya was skeptical. She had no reason to trust this stranger and his too-good-to-be-true offer. But when you have nothing to lose, you can take otherwise unthinkable risks. She agreed.  “I think she knew it was her only ticket out, and luckily she grabbed the opportunity with both hands,” said Hadas.

Hadas made her sign a contract, which he wrote down on a piece of paper. In it, she promised to stay in school, take an HIV test (she was negative) and stay away from prostitution. The next morning, he drove her to the closest big city, more than 200 miles away. There, he left her with $300 (a small fortune by Ethiopian standards) and a promise that if she held up to her end of the bargain, he would wire her money every month.

    There was no way to verify she was actually in school. But Hadas is a believer in the goodness of people.

“I left not knowing what would happen to her. I wasn’t even sure she’d call, or even what she would do with all that money I gave her.”

Needless to say, his wife back in Israel was less than thrilled. She was worried he was being taken for a ride. But when Sofiya’s email arrived with her banking information, Hadas began sending her $100 a month.

Nine years went by. Hadas continued to deposit the money in Sofiya’s account. He also paid for a new laptop so she could study properly. Other than that, communication between the two was sporadic at best. Her English was less than basic, and Internet access wasn’t always available. But every now and then, he would get a quick message, asking him how he was, and letting him know she was doing fine.

There was no way to verify she was actually in school. But Hadas is a believer in the goodness of people. “Some of my friends and family asked me why she was taking so long,” recalls Hadas. “But I just told them to be patient.”

Then, almost a decade after they signed a symbolic contract, Hadas received an email from Sofiya. She was finally graduating with a degree in pharmacology.  “I couldn’t believe it,” said Hadas. “After all these years, she had done it. She managed to change the course of her life and live her dream.”

Hadas booked a ticket to Ethiopia. He was her only guest. At her graduation ceremony, Hadas surprised her with a speech. There wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd.

After the ceremony, Sofiya had another big surprise. She introduced Hadas to her three year old boy. “I’ve always wondered why it took her so long to graduate, and why she never married,” said Hadas.

Sofiya confessed that she had gotten pregnant by her boyfriend but refused his marriage proposal twice, because she was afraid Hadas would see it as a breach of their contract. She couldn’t have been more wrong. “I was so happy to hear that she was a mother. That she found someone who truly cared for her and loved her,” said Hadas.

A friend of Sofiya, who also served as a translator, told Hadas not only was Sofiya committed to her education, she was fanatic about it. Five days after giving birth, she got out of bed and showed up to school to take one of her exams.  “She’s restored my faith in the human spirit,” said Hadas, who is now working tirelessly to find her a job.

“I thought I’d be done once she graduated,” said Hadas with a smile, “but now that she’s in my life, I can’t seem to stop worrying about her.”