ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Flicker of Candlelight Amid the Darkness

With no social welfare system in place in Ethiopia, CNEWA’s needy child program is a lifesaver

Anduamlak Getnet was too young to remember the night six years ago when he was gently pulled away from his dead mother’s breast. Nor does he remember the moment when his father died – both parents succumbing to AIDS. According to the Ministry of Health, Anduamlak is one of the one million AIDS orphans living in Ethiopia right now. With no social welfare system in place, their childhood memories will be short and not always sweet.

Yet 7-year-old Anduamlak and his brother, Melesa, 10, are more fortunate than many orphans. They moved in with their blind grandmother – their lone relative. She tries her best to help them, but at age 80, disabilities limit her. So rather than care for them, Anduamlak and Melesa care for her. They wash the clothes, prepare the food, scavenge for firewood, water the chat plants and, when they find time, study their textbooks.

In spite of having no parents and no income, and living in a country that the World Food Program claims has the lowest primary education enrollment rate in the world, the brothers actually do study. Anduamlak and Melesa have this opportunity thanks largely to CNEWA’s needy child program. This program, which assists just over 29,000 children in 10 countries, provides assistance – in the form of school tuition, uniforms, materials, food, medical care, counseling and even shelter – to almost 5,000 of the neediest children in Ethiopia.

While the program is funded by generous individuals in the United States it is the religious sisters and lay women working at a grassroots level throughout Ethiopia who drive it. These women direct and staff some 60 orphanages, day care centers, church groups and schools that the needy child program partners in Ethiopia.

They know their community intimately and handpick those families most in need for the program.

Moreover, these women represent the only chance these children have for a future beyond illiteracy and hand-to-mouth survival.

Like candlelight flickering in darkness, they offer a glimmer of hope.

The field. In the Bole section of Addis Ababa, they call it “the field,” an innocent enough name for land long slated as the site of a future sports stadium. However, the sight of trash scraps jumbled together into huts, the sound of rats scratching through debris and the smell of human waste permeating the area violate the senses. A more apt name might well be “the dump where people live.”

Fleeing famine more than 10 years ago, many families migrated to the city in hope of a better life. Hundreds of these families squatted on this wasteland fearfully anticipating the day when the government would arrive with a bulldozer. Daily survival is challenging; so much so, some mothers have resorted to renting their newborns to beggars for a pittance in the hope the child will draw spare change.

At first, the families lived on the land for free, but eventually the government demanded rent. Sister Mary James Clines, a Good Shepherd Sister from Dix Hills, New York, who has worked in Ethiopia for eight years said, “It is hard to believe some of these people are paying rent. I mean I could hear rats. The squatters pay about 50 birr ($6) a month, a lot to them, but at least this is a roof over their heads.”

Fortunately, many of the youngsters growing up in the field also have Sister Mary James and the Bethlehem Day Care Center across the street. The Good Shepherd community is dedicated to serving marginalized women and children.

The sisters founded the day care center in 1986 for the single mothers employed at their women’s development program, the Bethlehem Training Center.

At its height, the center employed 150 women, produced some of the finest crafts in Ethiopia and marketed them all over the world. In June 2002, the government suddenly confiscated the sisters’ land for the never-built stadium, effectively forcing the closure of both programs and leaving more than 100 women out of work.

While changes in market conditions made it impractical to reopen the jobs center, the sisters wanted to continue the day care center.

The task of finding a new home seemed daunting; but two weeks later they succeeded. Today, the Bethlehem Day Care Center is back in operation and, through CNEWA’s benefactors, serves more than 160 youngsters.

Need everywhere. Selecting needy children in a country as poor as Ethiopia may seem an easy task. In almost any direction, blight, poverty and despair are visible. Ethiopia has the third largest number of H.I.V.-positive people in the world after India and South Africa.

Spiritan Father Brendan Cogavin, director of CNEWA’s needy child program in Ethiopia, said, “If you look at the files, they show case histories of children who are genuinely orphaned. The father and mother have died from AIDS or AIDS-related illnesses. They are desperately poor. If you don’t work, you don’t eat, and you don’t get any education either, because the government doesn’t provide it for free. So without sponsorship, many of these kids wouldn’t have any education at all.”

While need is everywhere, the sisters take seriously the task of selecting the neediest children for the program. Working closely with the local municipality, the sisters survey the community for families and individuals who appear to meet their criteria. Orphaned children, children of single mothers, children between 3 and 6 years of age and children from low-income families receive the highest priority.

Orthodox? Muslim? Catholic? Religion does not matter. “We see the person, not the religion,” said Sister Enatnesh Eshetu, who is on the selection committee for the Good Shepherd Day Care Center, the congregation’s other day care center in Addis Ababa.

To verify that the information gathered on the children and their families is accurate, the sisters make unscheduled home visits. Sister Enatnesh who just recently completed her studies in social ministry in Kenya, explained the process. “We are aware that families may try to seem as poor as possible,” she said. “So, for our home visits, we don’t fix a date. We just go and see them. That way, they can’t hide their poverty or their assets. We see them as they are.”

The sisters are also quick to point out that the rewards of the program extend far beyond educational benefits for the children. Sister Mary James described the positive chain of events. “It helps the whole family for a child to go to school. Since most of the children are from female-headed households, you’re also supporting the mother. This frees her to do some kind of work or even to come here for a class.”

Since the CNEWA program can sponsor the child through 18, the effect on the family is long lasting. Sister Mary James noted another benefit, “The proof of what’s happening is their happiness. For some, school is the best time of the day.”

Mother to the poor. Different from lay social workers who advance to better, higher paying jobs, religious women aim simply to help those in need. Sister Enatnesh embraces this. “My role is to be with the disadvantaged people at a grassroots level, to try to raise their living standard, to be there as a model of somebody who cares,” she said. “People know we are here to help them.”

When asked how she thought the community viewed her, she responded, “They view us like a mother, caring for them. Because we don’t have our own family, we can give ourselves to them.” In Amharic, the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia, “Enatnesh” means “You are a mother.”

All over Ethiopia, women religious shine light in the darkness and offer a flicker of hope to a young generation.

In Addis Ababa, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity have opened their second orphanage in the city to meet the growing needs of children with AIDS. In a tiny village near Debrezeit, 25,000 villagers attended a funeral service for Sister Hildegard, a Medical Missionary Sister from Germany, who had dedicated more than 30 years of her life to the youth of Ethiopia. While in Bahir Dar, the Daughters of Charity run the primary school that Anduamlak, Melesa and 35 other CNEWA-sponsored children attend. School administrator Sister Ababa Fishu said, “If I want to help my mother, my father, my sister, my brother, I should not be here. I chose to leave my family to work with the poor. I am fully committed to them and I take them as my own family.”

No matter how selfless, these sisters admit it can be frustrating when years of work in one community do not produce positive results. Since 1976, sisters at the Good Shepherd Day Care Center have been trying to help families in the Gotera section of Addis Ababa. During her recent evaluation of the program, Sister Enatnesh realized that in more than 25 years, the sisters “started by helping the mothers in a cooperative, then continued to help the children, and now we are continuing to help their grandchildren. “That’s really depressing. You want to see improvement – you help somebody and then they can go on by themselves. To keep helping the same families over and over is depressing.”

But in the struggle there is joy. Joy that so many children have passed through the center. Joy in seeing the children clean, happy, in uniform and at play in the school compound. “At school, they have a day off from their situation,” Sister Enatnesh said.

Equally, Sister Mary James added, “The highlight of my day is when I can be at the day care center.

“The children hold and kiss your hand. And when I look in their eyes…I see hope.”

Peter Lemieux is a San Francisco-based photojournalist who reports worldwide on aid programs.

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