Airman Kelemwork Tarriku-Shotts: Airman Lives ‘American Dream’

Relates to:
Date: 2005-09-02
Source: US DODnews

U.S. Air Force
Airman Kelemwork Tarriku-Shotts Airman Lives ‘American Dream’

By Airman 1st Class Owolabi Olufemi, 47th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, Sept. 2, 2005 — An airman here will never forget what it meant to leave a country plagued with poverty and disease to live the “American dream.”

From the verge of death and hopelessness, she journeyed to where “dreams and hopes come true” in America. And, through her quest, Airman Kelemwork Tarriku-Shotts, a 47th Operations Group air traffic controller, has found solace in three families — her mother's, her adopted mother's and her Air Force family.

Tariku-Shotts' story began in 1991 when Cheryl Carter-Shotts found her on the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “Baby Kelem” had been wandering the streets destitute when Carter-Shotts provided an opportunity for the 5-year-old to escape poverty and disease. The airman now calls Carter-Shotts “mom.”

“My mom was walking down the street, and all the kids embraced her, but I was the only one just sitting there with a blank stare,” Tariku-Shotts said. “My mom thought it was weird that I didn't approach her. She threw a little ball at me to see if I would play with it, but I didn't.”

Carter-Shotts became curious. She inquired and found out Kelem needed critical medical attention if she was to live. She also found out where Kelem's birth mother, Truiwork Tariku, lived.

“Then, I was starving and had a lot of medical problems,” Tariku-Shotts said. “I was really skinny and tiny.”

Carter-Shotts volunteered to take Kelem to the United States to receive necessary medical attention — something her birth mother was unable to provide in the hardship-ridden country. They had nothing, and this was Kelem's slim chance for survival, so Kelem's mother decided to let her daughter go, in the hopes that it would save her life.

“My mother had no choice to let me go, since we had nothing, and she didn't want me to die,” the airman said. “It was the toughest decision for a mother to make.”

With tears in her eyes, Tariku allowed Carter-Shotts to take Kelem to America, hoping to see her daughter again one day, if she survived.

“Because Ethiopia was a communist country at the time and rebels were seven miles away from the capital city of Addis Ababa, it was very hard to get me out of Ethiopia,” Tariku-Shotts said. “But (Mrs. Carter-Shotts) went through a lot of processes to get me out of there.”

Carter-Shotts was able to procure a “student visa” for 5-year-old Kelem, and they both left for America.

The airman arrived in America and received the necessary medical attention. Six months later, she had fully recovered and was finally healthy.

“I came to America, lived and grew up in an amazing household, got (much-needed) attention and quickly recovered,” Tariku-Shotts said.

A year later, Carter-Shotts returned to Ethiopia to personally deliver the good news.

“When (Mrs. Carter-Shotts) got back to Ethiopia, she showed Ms. Tariku a recorded video tape of me playing in America and all the photos taken after my recovery,” Tariku-Shotts said. “It was the happiest moment of her life. According to (Mrs. Carter-Shotts), when Ms. Tariku saw the photos she jumped with joy, and all that came out of her mouth was ‘Oh! My God! Thank you."

Photo, caption below.
Airman Kelemwork Tariku-Shotts was brought to America and adopted when she was 5 years old. Her adopted mother found her on the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1991, and soon after brought her to America to live a life free from poverty and disease. Thirteen years later, she joined the U.S. Air Force and is now an air traffic controller with the 47th Operations Support Squadron at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. U.S. Air Force photo

Photo, caption below.
Airman Kelemwork Tariku-Shotts communicates with an aircrew on the flightline at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. Tariku-Shotts was adopted and brought to the United States from Ethiopia in 1991 when she was 5 years old. She is an air traffic controller with the 47th Operations Support Squadron. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Owolabi Olufemi

After careful thought, Tariku decided it would be best if her daughter continued to stay healthy rather than return to a life of poverty and despair. She decided to ask Carter-Shotts for a big favor — to adopt her daughter, Kelem.

According to Tariku-Shotts, her birth mother said, "Can you please keep her (Kelem) there and let her get an education and a good life.' She did … I became an American citizen when I was 8 years old after Mom did all the necessary paperwork.”

In 2004, Tariku-Shotts graduated from Brebeuf College Prep High School in Indianapolis and thought about going to college.

But the young woman made a serious decision about her future that she felt was best for her and her family.

“In January of my senior year, I told my mom I wanted to join the military,” Tariku-Shotts said. “My mom asked, ‘Why the military instead of college?”

Tariku-Shotts told her mother she owed America for giving her a good life. She also knew the military would pay for college.

The reply brought tears to Carter-Shotts' eyes. It was a decision the airman said she has never regretted making.

In June 2004, the new recruit kissed her mother goodbye and set off for a journey to a different family — the U.S. Air Force.

“I joined the Air Force because I wanted to grow up,” she said. “Patriotically, I wanted to (dedicate) some years to all those who fought for the freedom I am enjoying now. I am very proud (to be a servicemember).”

Furthermore, she said the Air Force has great benefits.

“Where else can you get a job that pays, allows you to go to school, and get full tuition assistance at the same time?” Tariku-Shotts said. “It is only in the military.”

The airman said her mom has taken her to Ethiopia to see her birth mother about four times. She recalled the first time she went back to Africa.

“It was like a shock for her when she saw me,” she said. “Everybody said I had grown fat.

“I am very grateful,” she said. “Now, I don't want to go through life without making an impact. If everybody could try to make a good impact in this world, it would be a better world.”

Tariku-Shotts said she is a very motivated person, especially when it comes to education. Her goal is to become a scientist and research HIV/AIDS.

“I know it's a very tough goal, but I can achieve it through the Air Force,” she said. “I am going to start taking college classes as soon as I am done with my on-the-job training.”

Despite her goals and responsibilities in the Air Force, Tariku-Shotts said she does not forget her responsibility to her Ethiopian family — her mother, stepsister and cousin.

“I am sponsoring my sister and cousin in Ethiopia to go to school full time,” she said. “My goal is to eventually bring my family to America.”

But most importantly, she said she will always gratefully remember what Carter-Shotts and America gave her — a healthy, happy life free from poverty and disease.


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