“Be ambitious, be determined, be positive, regardless the circumstances then you will get far in life.” – Merhawi Wells-Bogue
Merhawi grew up in Mekelle, Ethiopia where he and his siblings lived in several orphanages over the course of seven years. They lived in Ethiopia until Merhawi was 14, when he and his siblings were adopted by an American family from Lebanon, NH. As a child Merhawi always wanted to do something to help homeless children in Mekelle, but he didn’t have the voice or the power to make a difference. As a college student at UNH he was afforded an amazing opportunity to do just that.
Merhawi knew UNH was the school for him as soon as he stepped on campus. UNH wasn’t his initial plan, but the sense of community he felt gave him the confidence to be successful in college. While in high school, Merhawi discovered his passion for writing and filmmaking. He chose to major in Journalism to gain skills in writing, interviewing, video, and audio. The Journalism field is competitive, but Merhawi is confident that UNH gave him the skills to work his way up the ladder.
In spring 2011, Merhawi completed an internship with Save The Children through The Washington Center in Washington, DC. While there, Merhawi applied for and was granted a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) grant from UNH. He had always wanted to make a documentary about street children from his home city of Mekelle, Ethiopia, but was unsure about how to get started. Dr. Antonio Henley, who at the time was the director of the McNair Scholars program, helped Merhawi write his research proposal to make his dream a reality.
The SURF grant provided Merhawi with funds to travel and live off of while in Mekelle, but he had to purchase video equipment and microphones on his own. Merhawi got creative with his Ethiopian cooking skills, using it as a means of fundraising at his internship at The Washington Center. He asked for donations from people who wanted to taste his native food and was able to raise $1,000 to purchase the equipment necessary for his research.
When Merhawi returned to Mekelle, he needed permission from the government to conduct his research. Once clearance was granted, he wasted no time getting started. His first subjects were the street children, and Merhawi was mindful as he approached them. Fortunately he still speaks his native language of Tgrinya, and could easily communicate with them. He didn’t want the children to view him as an outsider. He understood what they were going through and was interested in giving them a voice and telling their story.
Most of the children Merhawi spoke with have one parent families due to war, HIV/AIDS, and abusive step-parents. Many ran away to escape emotional, physical, or verbal abuse. Poverty is a major issue in Mekelle; families are simply unable to take care of their children. Many children drop out of school because they lack the necessary financial support for food, clothes, and school supplies. As a result, they look for jobs and live on the streets, eating leftovers from restaurants.
In addition to interviewing children in Mekelle, Merhawi also interviewed government officials. They said they have limited resources and are only able to help a small number of people. Merhawi then interviewed people who run local orphanages, including one he lived in as a child. Orphanages provide the majority of care to street children, receiving financial support from Europe and America through sponsorship and donations. They are still lacking the funds to meet the needs of all of the street children.
When Merhawi finishes his documentary this semester, he hopes raise awareness in the U.S. by holding screenings. He plans to encourage people to sponsor a child and hopes to eventually create a nonprofit organization to help the children in Mekelle. The money will go towards food, clothing, and schooling. When a child is sponsored financially, they are able to gain skills and knowledge to give them the opportunity to become independent.
Merhawi has made the most of his time at UNH through this project, as well as his involvement with various organizations. He was a member of MOS DEF, participated in the MLK Jr Leadership Summit, and lived and volunteered at The Waysmeet Center. Merhawi was also a Resident Assistant his sophomore year, where he had the opportunity to influence students in a positive way, building strong relationships with his residents. Merhawi’s advice to students is, “Don’t be afraid to come out of your comfort zone if you want to grow as a student as well as a person.”
After graduation, Merhawi plans to move to New York City to pursue a career in Journalism. He intends to produce his own media productions and travel the world sharing important stories. He is well on his way to accomplishing his goals. When Merhawi imagines life in ten years, he hopes to be building a school for the children in Mekelle, creating scholarships to send children to U.S. colleges. If everyone had the dreams and drive that Merhawi has, we would live in a more compassionate world.