They Called Him a Monster And Laughed At His Eyes. Years Later, They Regretted It a Lot

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In Ethiopia, a baby is born with the strangest blue eyes and becomes the object of relentless mockery. The taunting carries on for years until the boy’s strange eyes become a thicket out of pity, and they are left to regret their words and actions.

On the outskirts of Jena in southern Ethiopia, a young boy named Abush played on his own. The other kids shunned him, and the meanest even bullied him. He was an anomaly, and in this highly superstitious community, being different can quickly become a label of evil or a sign of a curse. He had been called a monster since the very first moment he had entered this world.

The moment Abush’s mom went into labor, the neighbors called the local midwife. It was a long, difficult labor with lots of pain. Finally, when Abush was born, the midwife took him away to allow his mom to recover. When she picked the child up in front of her and looked at his face, she staggered back in terror. Something was different here, very different. She didn’t know what it meant, but something this striking had to be a message from the spirit realm. Maybe it was a curse, she thought. Maybe it was a sign of things to come. Maybe it was an indication that the whole village was cursed.

Right after she returned Abush to his mom, the midwife hurried into the village, and from there, the news of the strange child spread like wildfire. A nervous tension spread over the settlement. People were curious, but at the same time, they were too afraid to visit the family and look at the child themselves. Thus, Abush’s life started in isolation, and this set the trend for many years to come.

The first glimpse the villagers caught of him was when his mother took him with her to the town square two weeks after his birth. Throngs of curious villagers followed at a respectable distance behind her. Now and again, one would work up the courage to come forward and congratulate his mom, and of course, she would lift the blanket so they could have a look at the child. And without exception, they all had the same reaction – they staggered back in shock, not understanding what they were seeing. And the belief in them that the child or the village were cursed flared up immediately.

By the time Abush was three years old, he was already the pariah of the village. Whenever he played outside the family hut, other children would throw stones or sticks at him. They were curious but afraid of this child. If he dared wander out of his mother’s sight, things immediately got worse. Other children would run up to him, smack him against the head, and run away. They called him the evil one and mocked him tirelessly.

By the time he was six, Abush had learned to ignore the other kids. Not because he wanted to, but because it was safer for him. At first, everybody thought this strange child was blind. This was a part of the rumor the midwife had spread on the day he was born. But slowly, as he started becoming mobile and walked into town with his mom, the villagers realized that Abush could see perfectly well. He wasn’t blind; his eyes were just the most astonishing shade of blue.

They were like two unimaginably deep pools of mountain water, and when Abush smiled, they filled with sparkles and lit up the world around them. What they didn’t know was that Abush’s eyes were the consequence of a rare medical condition called Waardenburg syndrome that affects an estimated 1 in 40,000 people. It is caused by a spontaneous mutation of the melanin gene in the eyes, which changes the amount of pigments in the irises. He wasn’t cursed; he simply had slightly less pigments than usual. But the fact remained – he was different.

And in this strange corner of the world, different wasn’t properly understood. And if it wasn’t understood, it was labeled evil. The villagers thought this poor, innocent child was a threat to their hometown, an omen of something awful that was about to befall all of them. None of them looked at him and saw the helpless, lonely boy around those deep blue eyes.

Despite the fact that he had no one to play with, Abush quickly developed an instinctive love for football. For Christmas, his grandmother gave him a bright red soccer ball. It was his prized possession. All on his own, with the other kids staring from a distance, he would reenact great football games, playing the roles of various of his heroes. He loved Lionel Messi most of all.

The child with his blue eyes and red soccer ball quickly became a familiar sight in the village. As far as possible, the grown-ups ignored him, but he was still the prime target of every bully in the region. Like boys do, Abush grew up, and suddenly, he was able to defend himself against the bullies. The once docile, introverted child started getting involved in street fights with the other kids.

He never instigated the violence, but he no longer sat back and just allowed himself to be bullied either. Out of necessity, he became a good fighter. But this just intensified the dislike the other children in the village already had for him. In the process, Abush became even more isolated, and his family became more hated, all because of his blue eyes.

Eventually, when it became too much for his parents, and his father lost his job for no particular reason, Abush’s parents decided to leave the village and travel 300 miles to Addis Ababa. According to local rumors, work was plentiful in Ethiopia’s capital, and the chances of both his parents finding gainful employment were a lot better than in their rural outpost in the south. Abush stayed behind with his grandmother.

Now that his parents were away, and only an old woman was left to care for him, the bullying intensified. The fighting became a regular occurrence, and Abush stopped going to school altogether. His grandmother remained the strength and comfort. Whenever the kids would bully him or call him names, she would tell them to forgive them. “They don’t know any better, Abush,” she would say. “You can hate them if you want, but you will only hurt yourself. Or you can forgive them. That will confuse them.”

So for a while, Abush tried. Whenever the kids started their bullying tactics, he would simply smile at them. That smile that lit up his eyes and brightened the world around them. But instead of confusing them, it made the kids even angrier. The fights became more violent, and children started getting hurt. Abush ended with a long scar on his face after someone hit him with a sharp-edged rock during one of the scuffles.

Village elders started sub urging Abush’s grandmother to take the boy and move somewhere else. But she was tough. This was her home, and she was not going anywhere. Neither was Abush. She told the elders that they had done nothing wrong, and if anyone had to make changes, it was the villagers. They had to change their attitude and accept Abush’s striking blue eyes. They were just eyes, after all.

But then one night, while Abush and his grandmother were in town, someone set fire to their hut. The drive wouldn’t tach went up in flames and burned to the ground

in a matter of minutes. By the time the two got back, they had lost all their earthly possessions. They were suddenly poor, homeless, and without a single earthly possession to their name.

“This is because of me,” Abush said, holding her hand and staring at the pile of ash that was their home until an hour before. “I wish I was dead. It would be easier for everyone.”

“Nonsense, child,” his grandmother scolded. “This is just stupid people doing stupid things. It is they who should learn, not us.”

She sat down on the ground and pulled him into a hug. Then she started explaining to him that different was good, not bad. People who were different often have more opportunities than those who aren’t. And on some level, the other kids and grown-ups in the village knew that. They knew that Abush could have a special future because of his blue eyes, a future they could never dream about. That was why they bullied him or ignored him.

Suddenly, Abush burst into tears. His grandmother hugged him again and gently told him everything would be all right. Through his tears, he said, “It’s not that, Grandma. My soccer ball was in the hut. The ball you gave me for Christmas.”

It was as if his lost soccer ball opened the sluices of Abush’s heartache. He cried until he couldn’t cry anymore. He cried because he was an outcast, because he was subjected to the most inhumane insults every day, because he was bullied, and above all, because he was alone.

His grandmother let him cry. She held him tight and gently rubbed his back. Eventually, when Abush was all cried out, she pushed him off the ground, took his hand, and walked toward town.

“We’re going to get what we need to build the hut again,” she said. “There are still people that will help us.”

Over three weeks, Abush and his grandmother rebuilt their home. Every day, the village elders would come by and scold her for not learning her lesson. And every time they did, she would scold them back and tell them the village didn’t belong to them.

Then the day came when Abush finally realized the magic of his special eyes. A French photographer, Eric Lafong, came to the village to take pictures for a photo essay about Ethiopia. Abush sat there, mostly quiet and unbothered. He was eating by an netu, an assortment of meat-free dishes spread on fermented inera bread. Now and then, he’d look up from the plates and catch the photographer staring.

Eventually, the man broke the silence. Abush was a little startled when the man asked, “How old are you?” He wasn’t used to people acknowledging him, never mind speaking to him.

“Almost 14,” Abush said.

“And what do you want to be when you grow up?” the man asked.

Without hesitating, Abush said, “A soccer player.”

Then the man asked the question that would eventually change Abush’s world. “What about a fashion model?”

Abush replied with a hint of sass, “It could be interesting, but I don’t know exactly what fashion models do.”

Spontaneously, he started telling the man his own story. “When I was born, they thought I was blind. When they realized I could see, some people called me cursed, and the children in my village refused to play with me. They used to warn me, ‘You need to fix your eyes.’ I got into a lot of fights. That’s how I got this scar here,” he pointed to the arch carved next to his right eye.

From the moment the photographer’s photo essay was published, Abush’s life changed. Foreigners started coming into Jena and asking if they could take his pictures. And for the first time in his life, Abush had money in his pocket.

And his sudden fame changed the mindset of the villagers in Jena. Abush went from being an outcast to being a hero. And his status increased even further a while later when someone showed them an article on a cell phone. The title was “88 Most Beautiful Eyes in the World.” Abush was dumbfounded. His picture was the cover photo.

“Did you know that you’re listed as having one of the 88 most beautiful eyes in the world?” the man asked.

Abush’s face changed. His eyes lit up like the sun reflecting on the ocean. “How many people are in the world?” he asked.

“Eight billion,” the man said.

Abush’s eyes were like saucers. They looked even brighter than usual. And for the first time, so did his future.

In a few short months, Abush’s strange blue eyes became his ticket to freedom. People came, and still come, from all over the world to take pictures of him. And the villagers who once rejected and mocked him now revered this little man of the world. What a great payback.

Do you think that being different can be a ticket to great things? If you have a story about someone who was born different, tell us in the comments.

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