Editor’s Note: Bezawit O’Neill ’23 earned Top Honors for Massachusetts in Level II of the annual Letters for Literature Contest. Additionally, Hana Shinzawa ’24 and Elizabeth Glaeser ’24 won Honorable Mention and Honors respectively. Below, you will find Beza’s beautiful letter to Enid Blyton, author of the Faraway Tree series.
I was born in Gonder, Ethiopia and lived with my aunt in Addis Ababa with my oldest sister, Mekdes, my two younger sisters, Selamawit and Rahel, and my baby brother, Andualem. My aunt had six boys and two girls, and we were a close family even though we didn’t have a lot of money. We were all very happy. That was until one day Aunty brought us to a strange building. She took me aside and explained that we were going to stay there and eventually go to America. She said this will give us a better opportunity to do something good with our lives. I nodded my head even though I didn’t really understand what she was talking about. There was a doctor there to see us, and I thought Aunty was coming back afterwards, but I was wrong. When the doctor was finished, we sat huddled together watching the big locked gate where the guards stood, and we looked for any signs of my aunt. As it got darker, one of the ladies brought us food, but I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. At that moment, I knew Aunty wasn’t coming back. I lied awake praying for God to take care of us and bring us back to our family.
Early the next morning, a large van was waiting to take us all to Afar, a long way from Addis Ababa and the safe life we once knew.
As we departed Addis Ababa, Rahel turned to me and asked, “Are we going back to Aunty now?” I knew the answer, but how was I going to tell her? I choked back tears of sadness as we bumped along the road. That day marked the beginning of our long journey.
Throughout our journey of three different orphanages, I became a mother figure for my siblings. My brother Andualem would hide behind my back speaking only to me. The older boys would pick on him, and I got into plenty of fights with them trying to protect him. During one occasion, one of the boys gave my brother gum, which was already chewed by a kid who had HIV. I was so angry and worried for Andualem. After that, I never let him out of my sight. Life in the orphanages taught me the importance of family, faith and love. There were days I felt abandoned, and lost, wishing I was back home. But I was no longer in a position to feel sorry for myself: I had to take care of my family.
One day, a caretaker came to tell me our family had arrived. I felt real joy for the first time as I sprinted out, expecting to see Aunty and Mekdes. Instead, there were two strangers standing by the door, but no sign of Aunty or Mekdes. I looked at the caretaker, confused. How can they be our family? They lived in another country, spoke a different language, and looked so different from us. I hope we weren’t going back to their country with them.
Four months later, we were getting ready for the biggest change of our lives. Aunty and Mekdes came over to see us, and as we sat together talking, Mekdes never mentioned anything about us leaving. I knew she was trying to hold back her tears, so as to not make us sad. Leaving my sister was the hardest thing, and I was miserable, but our parents assured me we would see them all again. As we gave each other final hugs, Mekdes whispered in my ear, “God has a plan for each one of us. Sometimes it’s hard to understand his plan, but if we trust him, everything will be alright.”
The first couple of months were definitely a challenge. My siblings and I did not know any English, so communicating was extremely difficult, but our parents were very patient. My mother encouraged us to go through picture books with easy words. Even though I couldn’t understand what was going on, story times became my favorite. We would all sit around my brother’s bed, and my mum would read us a story. Mum chose The Faraway Tree for our first book since she had read it as a child. As I sat with my brother and sisters listening to my mum read words I did not understand, I never imagined this book would change my life forever.
As each chapter went on, I began to slowly understand bits of the story. As the children climbed the faraway tree to an unknown adventure, it reminded me of my own life. The children went on adventures to the Land of Dreams, the Land of Do-As-You Please, the Land of Toys, the Land of Old Women, and so much more. Similarly to them, America was our faraway tree. My siblings and I went on adventures we would never have imagined before. Learning to swim in Cape Cod, sleeping on comfortable, warm beds, seeing snow for the first time, and tasting delicious chocolate ice cream. As my friends from The Faraway Tree explored more amazing things, so did I. The story was not a mere fairy tale, but a true story. I believed there was a magic tree, and I did believe that if you were to climb it, you would find an ever changing magical land above the clouds. I met new people each day who became my residents of my own faraway tree like Moon Face, Silky, Saucepan Man, and Mr. Watzisname. As Joe, Frannie and Beth had tea parties with their new friends, so did I with my family. We would sit around the table hesitantly tasting new food, and although it was not like the pop biscuits and google bun, we were astonished.
The days I had to step out of my comfort zone and try new things, reminded of the times where poor Joe, Frannie, and Beth were in trouble. I could relate to their feelings of hopelessness and defeat, but also to their courage and perseverance. Mum took turns reading with us, and when it was my turn to try on my own, I chose The Faraway Tree. It took me what seemed like a considerable amount of time to get through each page. Finally, when I finished the book, I rejoiced because it was my first greatest accomplishment. I felt I was finally beginning to master the English language.
The Faraway Tree took me on an adventure of great imagination, love, friendship, and courage. It began the journey of my love of books which continues to grow each day. I keep the book on the bookshelf of our bedroom and occasionally, I still travel back to my favorite adventures. Although I have grown older, the magic in the book still remains in my heart. As I was going through the biggest change in my life, The Faraway Tree offered me comfort.
That is why when Mrs. Roberts introduced the Letters about Literature project, in which we had to pick an author who has affected our lives personally, I knew Enid Blyton was my only choice without hesitation. I am truly honored that my letter was chosen to represent Massachusetts, but even more honored I was able to share my story with others.