Date: Tuesday, 18 April 2017
SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Choice is a gift for the fortunate. It was not always given to Ghabriela Donnelly, an immigrant from Eritrea, who now lives in East Greenbush.
“Sometimes there are no good choices -- you do whatever you got to do to survive,” said Donnelly.
Growing up and throughout her teenage years, she struggled to find a safe place to live and work. For most of her adult life, she has kept these experiences to herself.
It's taken her years to open up about her life story. But she’s finally found a way to tell it with the help of author Ellie Porte Parker.
Parker worked with Donnelly to pen “Escaping the Lion and the Leopard,” a book detailing Donnelly’s childhood, and her journey to America.
As the title indicates, Donnelly views much of her early life through the lens of a story she was told growing up called “The Lion and the Leopard.”
“The story goes that you see a lion and you run away from it, as fast as you can, and you find the first tree you see and run up it for shelter. You are so happy to find that tree, you don’t see the leopard on top of it and it jumps on you and eats you up in one bite,” Donnelly said.
Throughout her childhood in Eritrea (situated on the Red Sea across from Saudi Arabia) and Ethiopia, Donnelly felt as if she was running from one bad situation to another.
She went from living in a home where her family members abused her to an orphanage where she had to compete for everything. As she grew older she ran away from her factory job (where she would often work double shifts for little to no money) to work for a bar that expected her to have sex with customers.
Every time that she thought she was finally in a better place, that she had finally escaped the lion, the leopard would jump out and surprise her.
But she managed to get away from both.
In 1972, she befriended a few Americans on the United States army base in Eritrea. One soldier, who the book refers to as Jake, asked her to come to the U.S. with him. He hoped that Donnelly would marry him once she got there, but the relationship fell apart and she eventually married Wally, another soldier she’d met on the army base. The two settled into Saratoga Springs.
“Those first few months in America were crazy for me. I feel like I’m in outer space. . . Years later, when I see the movie E.T., I know what he feels like and there is no one to talk to that I know,” wrote Parker, in Donnelly’s voice.
Even as Donnelly got to know the locals, learned English and began working, she kept her past to herself. She focused instead on her future and on the kindness she found in the people around her.
Capital Region residents may remember one example of that kindness from 1985. When the Ethiopian/Eritrean war broke out, Donnelly wanted to adopt two children from Eritrea to get them out of the war zone. The children, Arseima and Temnit, were relatives of Donnelly's who were malnourished and ill.
Donnelly said she knew they wouldn't survive in Ethiopia. However, when Donnelly tried to bring the children to the United States, they were denied entry by Immigration Services because they weren't technically orphans.
The Gazette featured several articles detailing Donnelly’s struggle to bring Arseima and Temnit to the U.S. and it became a national story. Former Congressman Gerald Solomon stepped in and rallied for Donnelly’s case. He was able to convince Congress to bypass laws that were in place which prevented Donnelly from bringing the children to America.
Although Donnelly could identify with some of the experiences her children went through, Arseima and Temnit were too young to remember it. So Donnelly made a point of not discussing her own childhood with them.
“I wanted my children to have very American lives,” Donnelly said.
While her children are a source of love and joy for Donnelly, it was difficult to raise them in such a different culture than she'd grown up in.
But this challenge became a catalyst for Donnelly to start talking about her background and her story.
“I think I decide to do it the day they [her children] whine they don’t have the right designer sneakers. I feel like saying to them be glad you have any sneakers. Actually, I think, be glad you have feet. Be glad you’re alive,” Donnelly said.
Shortly after the book came out in 2016, Donnelly's phone rang constantly. Friends and family were stunned by her life story. Even her daughters couldn’t believe what she had gone through. Whenever people talk with her about the book, Donnelly said they often get teary-eyed, but that wasn't her aim for the story.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” Donnelly said. Instead, she hopes people see the kindnesses she's known and that they see how she's able to be grateful for her life now, despite her past.
Opening up about her life in Eritrea and Ethiopia has lifted a weight from her shoulders and in some ways, it's brought her closer to those around her. Especially with her children, who have children of their own now. While Temnit still lives in New York, Arseima lives in Las Vegas.
“I feel like I’m in a cloud. I’m so happy and relieved,” Donnelly said of releasing her story.
In celebration, Parker and Donnelly are slated to host a book signing at Caffe Lena. There will be refreshments, appetizers and music.
WHEN: 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, April 23
WHERE: Caffe Lena, 47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs
“Escaping the Lion and the Leopard,” by Ellie Porte Parker is available on Amazon and Barnes and Nobles.