Yohannas Demoz sees the world in his memory.
“My ears and memory – those are my eyes when I walk around campus,” says Demoz, who was deprived of sight in a 1986 bombing during the Ethiopian civil war.
Memorizing the campus layout and the grass edging help him walk straight along the sidewalk. Listening to cars helps him cross streets safely. “It is not difficult for him at all,” says fellow Ethiopian Takwam Taddesse, a vendor next to Funger Hall who has built a friendship with Demoz. “He knows everything about campus.”
The challenges of life without sight lie in artistic expression.
“I use my hands as my eyes when I mold clay,” Demoz says.
He molds his pottery from visions he has stored from his childhood.
He peers into his memory to envision his ceramic masterpieces – among which is his “Tribute to Duke Ellington,” honoring the jazz legend, which was exhibited in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in 1996.
“I thought back to when I was able to see,” Demoz said.
The 21-year-old GW sophomore reminisces about his native Ethiopia and the nine years he was able to see it.
“My mother was an operator in the police department, and I used to always go to the shows put on for the policemen because I was there a lot,” he said.
“I used to observe the smallest detail, even the strap on the instrument,” he explains. “It was a picture I remembered . I have been able to store everything.”
Demoz says he cherishes those memories as reminders of his childhood fantasies and games played on the playgrounds of Asmeria, Ethiopia.
“When I was a kid, all I ever did was play soccer from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and somewhere in the middle I went to school,” he says with a soft chuckle. “It was really hard to keep me inside.”
It was his energetic spirit and love for soccer that took him to the playground that day 12 years ago.
“I remember my mother was sick so she told me to stay home, but my friends easily convinced me to go play,” he remembers.
While playing soccer, they encountered a watch attached to a box with wires.
The friends could not contain their excitement because they had just discovered a treasure, which they planned to share. But Demoz and his younger friend, Daniel, found the watch suspicious-looking and turned it over to their 11-year-old friend, Merhowy.
“He was a real hyper kid and began to push the button and it started beeping,” Demoz says. “I started running to him, I was about four feet away when the bomb exploded.
“He was looking into it . it basically blew him to shreds. If I had been running full speed toward him the same thing would have happened to me,” he says in hushed voice.
He blacked out, and the shocks even rocked his house over the hill. Until that day, Demoz says he had never thought about the civil war raging in the Ethopia’s countryside. He had been safe in his urban setting until that moment.
The explosion knocked out a bone on the left side of his forehead, which hit a nerve in his brain, leaving less than a 15 percent chance that his sight would return.
“I woke up a day or two later all bandaged up,” he says. “The doctors put me back together only good enough to walk.”
Neither Demoz nor his mother would accept that fate for him.
“My mother would not give up on my sight, which is why we came to America,” he says.
The journey from eastern Africa to the United States presented several challenges.
The Ethiopian government would not let a disabled person out of the country. But his mother’s persistence won out as she pulled every string she could to ensure her son had the opportunity to recover. The two came to the United States through the sponsorship of Demoz’s aunt in Maryland.
Dreams of Demoz’s recovery seemed practically unattainable to the financially struggling mother and son when they realized the cost of the treatment – $57,000.
“We had to turn to fund-raisers,” he says.
The D.C Ethiopian community raised $7,000, Demoz says proudly. And the doctor who operated on his forehead decided to provide her services free of charge.
But several months had passed since the explosion and his diagnosis revealed he had no chance of recovering his sight.
“By then I had accepted everything,” he says.
From that point, Demoz, who understood neither English nor Braille, knew he had an “uphill climb.”
He attended John Tyler Elementary School in southeast D.C., which provides vision programs for disabled children.
“This was a defining period in my life,” he says. “My realization of where I was became clear.”
It was not Ethiopia.
The familiarity of the “Mayberry-like” Asmeria was replaced by the unfamiliar feel of Washington.
“Everybody knew whose kids were whose (in Asmeria),” Demoz says.
Everything in Washington was foreign. The only people he knew were those who appeared in after-school television shows and cartoons.
And everyone ate from separate plates.
“Everyone eats from the same plate in Ethiopia . when I came here I was like `What is going on here?’ ” he says with a smile.
His foreign tongue, unfashionable haircut and disability made him the butt of jokes during his early years in an American classroom.
“I just let them be,” he says. “It’s kind of odd that they were the same people who became my friends later on.
“I have a good sense of humor about the disability,” he says. “By doing that, I was able to make more friends. I try to see myself as a regular guy with a twist.”