ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Bright Lights, Big Problems

Ethiopia’s churches face the challenges of urbanization

The knife blurs in the young woman’s hands as she quickly slices a green-striped zucchini into thin strips. At another table in the sunlit kitchen, other women — identically attired in crisp chef whites set off by black trim and black aprons — finish seasoning the zucchini spaghetti, making meatballs and tossing the salad. Ursuline Sister Abrehet Tesfaye wanders among the dozen aspiring chefs, communicating through sign language with those who are deaf, who make up about half the class.

As the lesson draws to a close, the students arrange their food on plates and, finally, the time has come to take a fork and judge the results.

In the heart of the Italian-inspired Piazza neighborhood of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, the Women’s Promotion Center runs vocational training courses to enable young Ethiopians — mostly women — to find employment. Many students are not from Addis Ababa, but have come to the city from the nation’s vast interior rural regions.

“I came to Addis Ababa when my husband, a soldier, was assigned to the city,” says Selam, 24, during a lull in the kitchen. She originally lived in the city of Adigrat, in the Tigray region far to Ethiopia’s north, close to the border with Eritrea. “This training will help me cook better for my family and help me get a job, I hope. My husband’s salary is not enough for us.”

But most women who come to Addis Ababa from Tigray are not as fortunate as Selam. During the day and late into the night the streets of the capital are dotted with women who came in the hope of finding work — their distinctive Tigrayan hairstyles and clothes denoting their origins. Some are reduced to begging for money to feed their children. Others resort to prostitution.

They come from all over Ethiopia because the young think Addis Ababa is the best place to live, says Sister Abrehet. “But that isn’t the reality. They think they can change their lives, especially the women. Some are fleeing a difficult marriage. Some want to go to an Arab country. Often they run out of money; they can’t return home because of shame.”

Once a woman has a child, it becomes even harder to work. Sister Abrehet remembers a woman who suddenly went into labor as a crowd gathered around her — alone, terrified and unsure what to do.

Among migrants, these feelings are all too common. In the face of this growing problem, church-sponsored initiatives, such as the Women’s Promotion Center, strive to help.

In the women’s center, students attend a clothing design course. On the walls are illustrations of mannequins and body outlines partitioned into geometric sections. Sewing machines sit atop the tables, beside piles of cloth ready to be transformed into garments.

“I came to the city to look for a means of living,” says 18-year-old Alemu, originally from Arsi, about 170 miles southeast, as he stitches a priest’s vestment. “When I finish the course I would like to go home to start a clothing business there.”

Sister Abrehet explains how she first encountered Alemu shining shoes on the busy streets near the city’s Catholic cathedral, which houses the center. Two other young men worked alongside him, but they chose to continue shining shoes. In the afternoons Alemu goes back to work with them, although his preference is clear.

“This is much better. My favorite clothes to make are trousers; I’ve always been interested in them since childhood.”

“That’s vocational!” Sister Abrehet exclaims in response, smiling at Alumu.

“There was work at home, but the work in Addis is better,” says Abeba Shifrew, 29, with a tape measurer dangled around her neck and the sleeve of a blue work shirt under her hands. Born in the town of Debre Birhan, about 75 miles to the northwest, she came to live with relatives in the city, where she learned of the center through her aunt. Having completed the 11-month training course, Ms. Shifrew now pursues more advanced work experience at the center.

“Afterwards, if I can afford it, I’d like to buy my own sewing machine,” she says. “So many other women face problems; even if they came to join relatives, life can still be uncomfortable. I was lucky with my aunt.”

Historically, rural-to-urban migration in Ethiopia has been driven by various economic, climatic and political factors: drought, war, forced migrations and poverty — the last of which remains a main driver. Today about 29 percent of Ethiopia’s population still lives on less than $2 a day.

A 2014 study of southern Ethiopia’s rural population estimated that between 2007 and 2013, 14.8 percent of the area’s youth and adolescents — aged from 10 to 30 — migrated to cities. Many of these migrants encounter harsh working conditions, low pay and sexual exploitation.

Underpinning this is the youthfulness of Ethiopia’s population, coupled with high population growth. In a nation of approximately 92 million people, nearly half is under the age of 15, and up to three-quarters is under 30. The overall population could exceed 127 million by 2037, according to the Ethiopian Central Statistical Agency.

Based on these and other factors, some project Addis Ababa’s population to double in the next 20 years.

A common issue among the students, Sister Abrehet says, is that they dropped out of school, which greatly reduces the willingness of employers to hire them. Yet at the same time, there is a limit to the opportunities the traditional education system can unlock.

“Providing education is not enough; there must be job-creating opportunities also,” says Argaw Fantu, regional director in Ethiopia for CNEWA.

“Internal migration is a relatively new phenomenon and so it is a new need for the church to tackle,” Mr. Fantu adds.

As ever, he says, the crux of the problem is limited resources. Meanwhile, urbanization continues apace, driving increasing demand for domestic workers, which in turn fuels problems from human trafficking to sexual abuse.

“Unmet needs are always increasing,” Mr. Fantu says. “This has to be looked at by the church, by CNEWA, by everyone, to find solutions.”

Not far from the cathedral, the streets are full of rubble piles and metal girders taking shape to eventually support an overpass for the city’s new light rail system. Amid the detritus are scores of construction workers, primarily young men.

“I got a diploma at college and wanted to get a job based on my qualifications. I couldn’t find one, so I came to Addis Ababa,” says Addisu Shibiru, 21, during his lunch break from his construction job. He only started work four days ago, having recently arrived in the city. Back in his home of Aleta Wondo, 200 miles to the south, he sold mobile phones and took a second, seasonal job selling coffee before making the decision to head north.

So far, construction is the only work he has found. Two colleagues — 18-year-old Degnet Tilahun and 19-year-old Deresse Demissie, who also herald from Ethiopia’s south — have worked in construction for two years and receive a higher daily wage of about $4.

“I’ve saved about $400, which I sent back to my father, who bought three cows on my behalf,” says Mr. Tilahun, who plans to return home if construction work dries up.

All three say they would advise friends back home to come to Addis Ababa for the work, even though they miss their families and the culture of the south. They also describe sacrifices of a more practical nature.

“If we were living at home at least we could wash regularly in the river, but here we have to pay for a bucket of water, so we don’t wash for several days usually,” Mr. Demissie says. The three share a small shelter with five others in a nearby workers’ camp with no washing facilities.

Despite the challenges, they do not regret the decision to move to the city.

“I came here to get money and only had a low education beforehand, so overall I’m happy with how things turned out,” Mr. Tilahun drawls. “It’s better here, as there’s so much construction — you can always find a job.”

Indeed, Addis Ababa has grown geographically by more than 80 percent in the last 20 years.

For some who come to Addis Ababa, especially women working as domestic help, the intention is to earn enough to finance a further move: emigration to places like Dubai, where wages are usually much higher. As a result, rural-to-urban migration is intrinsically linked to the wider issue of international migration, a major focus of the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat (E.C.S.), which facilitates and coordinates the social and pastoral activities of the Catholic Church in Ethiopia.

“I wouldn’t say we are not focusing on rural-to-urban migration, rather we are addressing it through another way,” says Woldamlak Abera, E.C.S. department head for migration, internally displaced persons and refugee affairs. “Some of those traveling outside the country are being tortured, so that calls for urgent attention right now.”

Human traffickers working the northern migration route through North Africa toward Europe often sell migrants to gangs operating in the Egyptian Sinai. The telephoned cries of tortured migrants are used to convince families abroad to pay steep ransoms.

“We run a number of programs but they affect very little, as migration touches so much,” Mr. Abera says.

For a better understanding of international migration, which in Ethiopia compounds the rural-to-urban movement, the Jesuit Refugee Service (J.R.S.), which has operated in the city for 19 years, offers some insight. Its compound is alive with activity, ranging from an energetic game of volleyball to people sending emails from more than a dozen computer terminals. The grounds resemble a microcosm of Africa’s troubles, hosting refugees from South Sudan, Congo, Uganda, Somalia, Eritrea, Yemen, Burundi and more.

“This is a welcoming center where we provide three main services in the form of education, community and emergency support,” says Hanna Petros, the center’s director. “There are all types of refugees here, those who’ve suffered political and religious persecution, and economic migrants. Our target is to assist 1,700 people in 2015.”

To place that figure in context, Ethiopia hosts about 680,000 refugees, the largest number of any African country.

Inside the office for emergency support sits James from South Sudan, who holds a sheet of paper containing passport-sized photos of his family. Next to him sits his wife.

“I hadn’t seen my family for over a year,” James says. “I thought they had all been killed. I made it to Ethiopia while they managed to escape to Kenya, where we were just reunited before I brought them to Ethiopia. Now I’m trying to get them processed.” He slowly exhales, eyes wide below his forehead, marked with ceremonial tribal scarring.

“I can’t find the words to describe the relief,” he says. “J.R.S. has been tremendous, and I’m not just saying that because they are here.”

Others in the center echo this praise, although such compliments are not so forthcoming when it comes to the state-run Administration for Refugee and Returnees Affairs (ARRA) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“All they care about is their budgets; they don’t care about the refugees,” says a 33-year-old man from Kinshasa in Congo, who fled to Ethiopia five years ago to escape the fighting and government persecution of his minority Banyamulenge tribe.

“It’s a form of psychological killing, living here, because we aren’t allowed to work,” he says, referring to the laws governing refugees. “We are hopeless. But at J.R.S. at least we can discuss things, which helps mentally.”

Guilain, 35, from Guinea, has lived in Ethiopia for 11 years and has formed a seven-member band of fellow Guineans who practice in the center’s music room. Two years ago his wife and daughter managed to immigrate to the United States, where he hopes to join them.

“I miss them, but I must keep my heart intact, so I can’t think about it too much,” he says. “The music gives me hope. I am happy when I come here; you see people enjoying themselves — it helps you to forget.”

In a corner of the compound is a small café staffed by the indomitable Wube, who has one of her four grandchildren strapped to her back as she cooks lunch. Nearby, one of her eight children, 29-year-old Ababa, makes traditional Ethiopian coffee.

“I still want to go to America for the sake of my children,” says Wube, an Ethiopian who married a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her husband died after 40 years in Ethiopia, waiting in vain to be resettled. Through her marriage, Wube and her children are classed as refugees and therefore cannot find employment.

This conundrum is just one example from the labyrinthine bureaucracy that refugees must navigate. Helping hands and sympathetic counsel are available through Jesuit Refugee Service. But according to those involved, current provisions are simply not enough to match the scale of the problem.

Yet, those intimately involved with this important work refuse to give in to despair.

“Our strongest weapon is prayer,” CNEWA’s Argaw Fantu says. “We must pray continuously for a better future.”

James Jeffrey is a business journalist based in Addis Ababa. His work has appeared in African Business magazine and the Austin Business Journal.

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