Since before his younger brother was born, Abe Clift prayed for a better life.
His father, Abe says, was a military man in Ethiopia, a downtrodden country in East Africa plagued with malnutrition, and he died when Abe was a toddler. His mother built bricks with her hands and feet for modest pay. He scrapped for food, lived in a tiny home with his mother and little brother Ash, and the two kids often slept on the ground. Abe had seen the path his father had taken and the one his mother was on — and he did not want himself, or Ash, to follow in those footsteps.
Abe was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, a kid of faith whose home was mere blocks from his town’s lone church. Abe’s uncle was a priest, he recalls, “and he was the only one who could pray to God.” But there was another pastor at the church with whom Abe became close. The two spoke early each day, many times before the sun rose, and Abe says he developed a strong connection with God.
That connection was the vehicle Abe, then 8 years old, used to plead for a better life — his only explanation, really, as to how he and Ash, after their mother placed them for adoption in an orphanage, were adopted by an Oregon family just after Christmas 2009.
His faith, says Abe, now a high school sophomore at Trinity Lutheran School in Bend, “was the biggest thing that helped me in Africa.”
With fellow sophomores Matthew Eidler and Cash Niemeyer, Abe Clift has led a turnaround for the boys basketball program at Trinity, a tiny school with a high school enrollment of just 50-some students. Last season, he helped the Saints snap a 43-game losing streak that spanned three seasons. He was second on the team in points per game (12.5) and led Trinity in rebounds (7.6) while helping the Saints to a record of 16-9 — best in the program’s history and nearly good enough to qualify for the Class 1A state playoffs. Now a 6-foot-1 post, Abe is part of a Trinity squad that is 6-4 this season and ready to contend once again for a Mountain Valley League title.
Abe’s full name is Abinet (pronounced “Ab-ee-net”), which in Ethiopia means “good example.” And that could not be more fitting. He is a leader for the Saints, always reminding teammates of expectations for on-court play and character.
Eight years have passed since Abe arrived in America, long enough that Greg Clift, his adopted father and a teacher at Trinity Lutheran, sometimes forgets that Abe is not originally from this country.
“He’ll act like an entitled American teenager,” says Greg.
All of which reminds Greg Clift, he says, of the strides Abe has taken in adapting to American life — from an 8-year-old Ethiopian, a father figure to his younger brother — to a typical American teen.
Only a keen ear can pick up on the inflections in Abe’s speech that hint at a foreign homeland. Eight years ago, Abe arrived in Oregon speaking practically no English. He relied on a grasp of rudimentary sign language to communicate the basics: hunger, for example. Now, though, Abe — and Ash, 10 — seem like regular American kids.
“He learned to read in English in a couple months,” says Tonja Clift, Abe’s adopted mother. “He learned to write. He learned a lot really quickly. I’m always amazed. He’s smart. How can the brain even fathom that?”
“Miraculous” is a word mentioned frequently by Abe and his adoptive parents. Abe, 16, says he was always something of a father to Ash (short for Ashenafi, pronounced “Ash-a-nah-fi”). He always had his younger sibling “on his hip,” Tonja says, serving as a caretaker as he looked out for Ash constantly. In many ways, while living in Ethiopia, Abe missed out on being a kid.
Yet he still played with friends. After his biological mother placed her two sons for adoption (“She knew she had to give us up,” Abe says, noting how his mother was aware she could not care for the two kids properly), Abe and Ash spent several months at an orphanage in Ethiopia. There was a basketball hoop outside, Abe remembers, though it went unused. Instead, the children wrapped socks around plastic trash to craft a soccer ball.
Competition was innate for Abe, he says. He competed for food, for respect and for fun. And that lifestyle helped him settle in with relative ease when the Clifts brought Abe and Ash to Oregon.
In early 2009, Greg and Tonja Clift caught up with some longtime friends who had adopted from Ethiopia. The Clifts had followed their friends along the adoption process and eventually decided to look into adoption themselves.
Greg and Tonja, who also teaches at Trinity Lutheran, a private K-12 school in northeast Bend, spoke with each other extensively about adoption. That same month, they began their own process of adopting from Ethiopia. After months of paperwork and court hearings and receiving only “a few paragraphs” of information about Abe and Ash, the Clifts headed to Africa on Christmas morning 2009.
Abe was aware that a couple was interested in adopting him and his little brother. Yet he remembers being skeptical.
“When I was told I was being adopted, I didn’t believe it until I saw their faces,” Abe says. “I have trust issues with parents. I never believed I was being adopted until I saw them.”
Dec. 28 is now known as “Gotcha Day” in the Clift household. It is the day eight years ago that Tonja and Greg officially met — and left Ethiopia with — Abe and Ash. The Clifts, including daughters Calah and Megan, also celebrate “Forever Family Day,” which falls on Jan. 1 — the day Abe and Ash arrived in Oregon and met the rest of their new family.
“I really felt like I had kids in Ethiopia,” Tonja reflects. “We just had to get them.”
As he had in Ethiopia, Abe struggled to trust his parents. The feeling was exacerbated when he and Ash were adopted by the Clifts, he says, because he was afraid to move to America. “Because it was just random people taking me,” he remembers thinking.
In addition to learning a new language, Abe had to develop a respect for his new mother and sisters and other females in his new life. In Ethiopia, Greg says, “women are pretty much below dogs in that society. … It’s really bad. He grew up in this world where women are worthless.”
On one of Abe’s first nights in his new Oregon home, Greg recounts, Calah and Megan stayed up later than the boys. They were older and were allowed later bed times. Yet Abe, Greg remembers, “got so upset” because he had to go to bed earlier than his sisters.
Then there was the relationship between Abe and his new parents, particularly with Tonja. For several years, Abe had been his brother’s caretaker. He looked after and tended to Ash like a father. Abe’s prayers for a better life had been answered with adopted parents, but now Greg and Tonja — not Abe — were Ash’s primary guardians. For years, Abe concedes, he did not trust his new parents. Rest assured, those feelings have since dissipated.
“It’s pretty overwhelming,” Tonja says. “It’s amazing. Before adoption, you just don’t know the road you’re going to travel and the journey you’re going to take with these kids. The process can be really hard and really tough. … To come out on the other side of it, just our relationship, when you come through it, you’re so much stronger. Our bond, he’s my son. He was my son from day one, but I just feel like the love with mom and son is unbreakable. And to watch him physically grow up and emotionally and academically and now with sports, it’s miraculous, really. It is overwhelming. We get teary and emotional about it.”
Abe had never picked up a basketball before he arrived in Oregon. In Africa, he stuck with the sock-wrapped-trash soccer balls. He was a soccer player through and through. In fact, when the Clifts first handed Abe a basketball not long after arriving in America, he dropped it on the ground and began kicking it. On the pitch in youth-league games, Abe would score five, six goals before being subbed out by coaches.
Yet Abe eventually gravitated toward the hardwood. Eidler and Niemeyer, two of his best friends in Bend, were basketball players. It did not matter what sport Abe was playing, though. The competition was all he needed — a key tool in Abe adjusting as quickly as he did to a new home.
“If it’s a ball, it’s, ‘I have a mission, and I’m going to compete like crazy,’” Tonja says, referring to Abe. “That nature of competition, that’s just him. When I see him on the court doing amazing things, I go back to that day when we handed him a ball and he starts kicking it around. You just think about that growth, to where he is now, it’s amazing. I mean, you can’t really even put it into words about how much growth he’s had.”
“It’s really helped him make friends,” Greg adds. “Almost too fast. Almost too easy.”
In explaining why she and her husband decided to follow their friends’ lead and adopt children from Ethiopia, Tonja says the Clift family “wasn’t really complete.”
Abe argues, however, that his prayers were passed on to the Clifts, that they somehow heard his pleas for a better life and came halfway around the world to the rescue. Kyle Gilbert, the Trinity boys basketball coach, has called Abe an “inspiring story of courage and success,” and Abe’s parents agree, adding that he is a survivor and a savior himself who looked out and cared for young Ash as the two Ethiopian children scraped by in Africa.
Abe, however, sees it differently. Perhaps he is an inspiration, but he will not boast as much. He simply wants to be a role model and live up to the meaning of his name: good example.
He rarely thinks about life back in Africa, though he often thinks of his birth mother. Yet, Abe says, “I think I’ve been here so long, it just kind of feels like that was a dream I went through.”
“I’ve been told by other people that it was a miracle (that he survived life in Africa), but I don’t see it like that,” Abe says. “It was just life, and I just went through it.”
—Reporter: 541-383-0307, firstname.lastname@example.org.