Haftu Strintzos isn’t your average teenager. The thirteen-year-old has only recently started using electricity, turned on a television and used a toilet. Up until two years ago, Haftu was another statistic in war torn Ethiopia.
Orphaned at a very young age, Haftu had to grow up quickly. In an impoverished, isolated village, he slept on the ground in a tiny hut, and worked sifting for gold in the nearby river.
He barely made enough to feed himself, let alone his aged grandmother and brother.
Yet, everything changed three years ago in a chance meeting with Australian aid worker, Maria Strintzos. Ms Strintzos has over 20 years experience in Ethiopia and has lived through wars, genocide and witnessed HIV AIDS ravage the country’s 84 million people. Maria has helped the town of Tigray get back on its feet with programs on water irrigation, food aid and schooling via her work with the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), but it was her self funded program that brought her together with Haftu.
Eight years ago, Maria started a support network for Tigray orphans. Starting off with 10 children, the group has now grown to 58, and the network continues to support schooling, financial assistance and medicine for the young orphans.
At one of her specialised events for the orphans someone caught her eye. A young boy was sitting down away from all the commotion, attending carefully to his grandmother.
That was when Maria met Haftu.
“He was a little runt, stood out for many reasons,” she tells Neos Kosmos with a laugh.
At 50, Maria decided to become a mum and adopted Haftu. It was something unique in the country, when international adoption had been exclusively the right of rich westerners looking for a baby.
“There had never been a foreigner adopt like that before in Tigray,” she explains.
“You’ve got all these wealthy westerners with their fancy little kids, and in walks my boy. It’s very unusual to adopt such an older child. All the Ethiopians were looking at us.”
For Haftu, the experience was life-changing and a bit traumatic. Maria says it took him a good month to get used to riding in a car without vomiting. He marvelled at lights, stood baffled at the shower and stared at the TV wide eyed.
Now in Australia for about a year and a half, Haftu has come a long way.
Once shy and overwhelmed with everything, Haftu found a new calling. Where language was failing to bridge the gap, sport has become his new form of communication. Watching kids playing in the playground, Haftu went up to his mother and asked to be put in a sporting club.
After enjoying school sports and PE, Haftu was enrolled in Oakleigh Little Athletics Club.
“He did a few runs and he was so brilliant there was no competition for him,” she says.
“I couldn’t believe it – I didn’t realise he had this talent.”
His talent was so pronounced that in his trial runs for the 1500 meter, Haftu didn’t even break out into a sweat.
“Everyone stood still and just watched. He’d lapped the other kids,” Maria remembers.
For Haftu the thrill of winning was new. Without even knowing how to start, and with no training, Haftu was running against much older kids and winning. Little did they know, Haftu had been inadvertently altitude training for most of his life. His home town in Tigray sits nearly three kilometres above sea level, and running was a part of daily life.
“Running was like looking after animals,” Haftu reveals about his life in Ethiopia.
But, in Australia, running has taken on a new meaning. Haftu now runs to win.
“It is [my favourite thing to do] of course, who wouldn’t like winning?” he says with a laugh.
At Oakleigh Little Athletics Club, Haftu’s ability has been growing quicker than the coaches can keep up with.
Currently, the teenager’s 1500 meter record sits at 4.32 minutes. The world record is 3.26 minutes. More impressively, his 800 metre lap is 2.11 minutes, and the world record is 1.42 minutes.
Haftu’s running ability and his bashful character has made him an Oakleigh superstar. The Greek community loves him (he always smiles and says yeia sou to passers-by); his classmates adore him, while his teachers always go that extra mile for him.
Training with coach Cheyne Sherman for the first time, it was after only one week with Haftu that he was compelled to call up Haileybury College and recommend him.
Haftu now has a scholarship to the exclusive private school and competes for Haileybury at school events and at state level.
Outside of his club training, Haftu makes sure to train individually everyday. During the recent March heat wave, Haftu was out running 10-12km on his days off. Dedication is an understatement.
Even when he’s resting, you’ll see Haftu on the iPad, watching his favourite races on YouTube.
“He plays all the famous Ethiopian runners on YouTube every night. They are his heroes and he gets inspired,” his mother says.
Apart from running, Haftu has his eyes set on football, a sport he has never played before. But regardless of his football skills, one thing will remain certain – he will definitely outrun all his teammates with the ball.