By Selam Terefe  |  September 2, 2022

IntSam Director in Ethiopia

‘Everyone deserves a second second chance’… This was the quote running through my head that afternoon, something my mother often said lovingly to me and my siblings growing up.  Little did I know the immense virtue it holds, but I was soon going to find out.

It was a rainy afternoon when my teammates and I sat across from a trembling Johanes.  As we took turns addressing him, he answered in a defeated tone, and not once did he look up.  There was so much embarrassment and remorse in his posture and voice.   

Johanes has always been a smart and humble boy.  That is why the events that befell him were met with disbelief.  He had done the unthinkable; he stole a laptop from the Family Life Center after his computer lesson.  When we discovered what happened through our security cameras, we simply couldn’t believe it. 

Johanes kept referring to his stealing the laptop as “the occurrence.”  When asked to state what the occurrence was, he struggled to speak.  He could not bring himself to utter the words, “When I stole the laptop.”  We couldn’t move forward if he didn’t.  When he finally did say the words, they were followed by a long sigh, and then an outpouring of tears. 

We finally asked him what he would want to happen now, at which point he looked up and said, “Forgiveness. Genuine forgiveness—that is all I want from you.”

Our scholars at the Family Life Center in Ethiopia.

“Everyone deserves a second second chance” percolated in my spirit.  Johanes’ story started playing like a movie inside my head.  His mother had migrated to the Middle East when he and his two siblings were very young.  His father worked at the dumpsite during the day and as a night shift security guard at night.  He was both a mother and father to Johanes and two siblings, providing for them not only in terms of finances, but also with so much love, care and understanding.  Their father made sure that his kids had strong spiritual lives; and Johanes grew up regularly attending church. 

Not too long ago, this beautiful family’s dynamics shifted unexpectedly.  Their mother came from the Middle East and while everyone expected this to be a welcome occurrence in their lives, it proved to be otherwise. Johanes’ mother was a belligerent woman who constantly was ill-tempered, getting into fights with everyone in a mile radius.

Johanes and his family’s household, which had been the source of envy in the neighbourhood for how peaceful, collaborative and united it was, suddenly became a chaotic mess.  Despite all this, Johanes still continued his education, as he believed it was the only way out for him and his family.  

One day, Johanes’ friend told him how a YouTube channel could earn him more than 20,000 birr ($385) a month.  Johanes was captivated by the idea.  He was a good artist, so he reckoned that if he painted pictures live for an audience on YouTube, he would actually have many followers and generate much revenue to help him support his family.  The only problem was that he had nothing to film the videos with.

Hence, he took it upon himself to obtain the means, albeit unethically.  And now here he was, trembling from head to toe and unable to look us in the eye.

The International Samaritan team in Ethiopia.

Restorative practice is what we opted for to deal with this situation, an approach we learnt from Mike Tenbusch when I called him for advice.  Our team took a few days to research the approach and to practice the conversations we planned to have.  In our small community in Kore, an allegation of stealing can ruin a family’s name for life.  And Johanes’ siblings needed the nutrition our food support provides.  Suspending Johanes carried severe consequences, but not addressing the situation would too.

We started off by having a one-to-one discussion with Johanes to understand his mindset before and since the incident.  This was followed by a group discussion with the people who were harmed by his crime. 

He mentioned the psychological turmoil he was in since the day he took the laptop, where he felt constantly anxious and the subject of everyone’s conversations.  He would change roads when he saw our staff on the street and had difficulty falling asleep at night. He was constantly blaming himself for what he did.  Johanes said what went in my head was a series of questions: How could I steal from my own home?  How could I take from my friends?  Why did I do this? 

I looked Johanes in the eye, and with the same intensity that my mother shared with me, I spoke these words, “Everyone deserves a second second chance.”  He looked up for the first time since entering the room.  I could see a hint of disbelief in his eyes.  We got up and embraced him turn by turn.  He swore that he would never commit such a mistake again, and with a last look at us, this time with gratitude on his face, left our office with his head held up.  Two weeks before we welcome Ethiopian New Year 2015, I saw a young man transformed and genuinely touched to embark on a new journey in life.

This is the power of forgiveness—it makes amends where there is no other fix, it restores when everything is falling apart.

Selam Terefe

Country Director (Ethiopia)

Selam has a Masters Degree in Sociology from King’s College and has also studied law, management, and women’s rights. Her research led her to work on women’s issues in East Africa with the United Nations. Her passion is reading, so she developed a book club for scholars to discuss books written by Ethiopian authors.

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