737209.jpgE.T., 15, and M.T., 14, are shy sisters, and like most teenage girls, they giggle a lot. The two like to play soccer (football, they call it) and volleyball, and work on reading and writing in school. Typical teenagers, right?

But these teens are anything but typical — the siblings are in survival mode, in a fight for their life, living in one of the poorest parts of Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa. Their parents divorced nine years ago, and they live in a government-owned, sub-standard apartment with their mother and grandmother. Barely affordable and only one room, it’s a cramped space for four people to eat, cook, bathe and sleep in. Their mom, who’s riddled with health problems, works in a small restaurant when she can, which isn’t much.

Since the beginning of 2015, these young women — along with 33 other girls, ages 9-16 —  have been coming to Studio Samuel’s Training for Tomorrow after their school day ends and on weekends. Chosen for the training center by a government agency because they are among the poorest of the poor, they can escape the hardships of their gritty, impoverished life for a few hours a day in hopes of finding a better way. They learn karate for self-defense and to build self-esteem, take acting workshops, sew, receive group counseling (private when needed) and discuss teen issues. New classes, such as computer training, will be added throughout their two-year program.
“The girls are showing great progress in Training for Tomorrow and make it fit in their schedules. They are very busy in their school,” says Hilawi Alemayehu, the country director and for the purposes of this call, translator.

The older sister, E.T. likes karate best and hopes to be a karate instructor. M.T. is learning to sew and proudly holds up a small skirt she made to the Skype camera. “I want to be a fashion designer,” she says. She and the other girls have also learned how to sew menstruation kits, necessary so the girls don’t have to miss days and days of school (or work, when they are older) when their periods come. For these girls who live in such dire situations to even have goals is an achievement in and of itself.

E.T. also needs the counseling sessions. She’s aggressive and yells a lot, which hurts her friends and family. “If she’s not happy with a girl, she speaks hard,” says Alemayehu. But there’s hope. “She’s solving this problem. She’s nicer. She’s a good leader.”

It’s hard on E.T.’s younger sister, who gentler and more even tempered. And the burden falls to M.T. to help control her older sister, a big task for a young girl. E.T. can help “stabilize her sister when she’s too hard,” says Alemayehu. “They are different girls. M.T.’s good in theatrical arts. She played a mother.”

At the center, Alemayehu wants to help them realize their dreams. “They told us their interests — to be a karate instructor and to sew good clothes for themselves,” says Alemayehu. “I hope we can fulfill them.”

Yet even though the sisters are living the hardest of hard lives, when they speak thousands of miles away to America, their smiles shine through.

Studio Samuel will post periodic updates of these two girls along with others enrolled in Studio Samuel’s life skills program, Training for Tomorrow.  — Mary Huhn

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