Yared Wolde was six years old when he lost his entire family.
His father died in the Ethiopian Army. His mother and three siblings died of tuberculosis.
Fearful of the disease, the neighbourhood turned its back on him and Mr Wolde was forced to fend for himself on the streets of Addis Ababa.
He found work in the city’s markets, slept in a drain and ate food found in garbage bins.
Motivated by his mother’s dying words, he continued to go to school and paid for his own tuition.
“She told me we are the poorest in this area and reason your father not educated, I am not educated and sister not educated so you have to educate yourself,” Mr Wolde told Living Black.
After three years on the streets, he was taken in by an orphanage where he learned to speak English.
He became an interpreter and at the age of 22 founded the School of St Yared to educate the city’s poorest children.
“What we’re trying to do with these kids is produce a new generation who can look after our country,” Mr Wolde said.
“Because my mum told me that the educated person, they can have whatever they want, they can have a house, they can eat good food, they can spend money, they can have fun. So I want all people to have that.”
Australian teacher Amanda Huxtable, who volunteers at the school said she has never met anyone so selfless.
"He's such an inspirational man,” she said.
“Yared comes from the same background as the kids and they see him giving back and that role modelling is massive.”
Mr Wolde travels the world to raise funding for the school and on a recent trip to Sydney was welcomed to country by Bidjigul Elder Uncle Vic Simms.
“We have a wonderful, wonderful history that we could unite with,” he said.
“When you go back home you’ll take good memories of the people of Bidjigal, Gorualgal, Threawal and Cannalgal the local tribes.”
He also visited a Catholic girls high school and shared his life story.
“It brought tears to my eyes to see those children like that when we have everything," said one student Mary Vouros.
“He's shown me you can keep striving for your goals and you'll get there,” said another Lauren Leung.
Meanwhile, Mr Wolde has a vision to expand the school he co-founded to have more than 1000 students in the next 10 years.
“I want my school to become a centre of excellence for Africa not only this country, because nothing is impossible,” Mr Wolde said.
Living Black airs 9pm Wednesdays on NITV (Ch.34). Or catch up at On Demand.