ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Changing Children’s Lives in Ethiopia

An on-site account of the plight of Ethiopia’s street children. CNEWA’s Needy Child Program is making a difference.

Yesterday I came out of a shop in downtown Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, a city with an estimated population of three and-a-half million people, more than half of whom are children.

As I was crossing the street, a boy suddenly knelt in front of me, blocking my way. At the same time another boy was moving his hands into my jacket and shirt pockets. As I tried to fend him off, I became aware of a third boy behind me, trying to get my wallet from my back pocket. I turned on him; he fled with me right behind him. But after about 300 yards I realized I was outmatched and gave up the chase.

As I walked back to the car, huffing a bit, I passed knots of people standing idly around, watching the show. I thanked them for coming to my aid. There was no response. It was an everyday occurrence; street children trying to survive in a hostile urban environment.

Recently I have become aware of stories in the media about child prostitution, child slavery, child labor and, of course, street children. It is good that someone is finally bringing these scandals to light. But simply bringing them to light is not enough. Tomorrow there will be another scandal. Then these exploited children will be forgotten.

For a long time, however, some people have been quietly ensuring that at least one child, “their” child, does not have to survive on the streets of Addis Ababa on his own.

His own? Yes. Sexist language? No. There are very few girls living on the streets of Addis Ababa. To survive, girls go into prostitution in this AIDS-ridden city.

Who are the silent minority who support children in need? They are the Pitters families of the world. Like Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Pitters of Spokane, each month they send a check to CNEWA to support “their” child.

Lisa and Stephen Pitters are old friends of CNEWA. Originally from New York, Stephen was an altar boy who frequently served Mass for Msgr. Robert L. Stern, long before he became Secretary General of CNEWA. The two have kept in touch over the years.

In many ways, Mr. and Mrs. Pitters are a typical American family. Mrs. Pitters is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserve. A civilian employee, Mr. Pitters works for the Air Force in the area of child abuse prevention. He is preparing for certification to teach English and speech. They have two children, Christopher, age 11, and Elise, age 7. Both are involved in all the activities that keep youngsters so busy these days.

The Pitters family first heard of CNEWA and the Needy Child Program through Msgr. Stern. They welcomed the opportunity to help a child in need, little knowing that their assistance would make a radical difference in the child’s life.

As Mr. Pitters put it recently, “We are bridges to other people. People have helped me over the years; I wanted to give something back.”

And who is the Ethiopian child they help? He is Amanuel Beyene Sisay, who came into the CNEWA Needy Child Program at the age of 11. His father had died when he was an infant; his mother suffered from mental illness; he had no brothers and sisters. There was no one to care for him. A perfect candidate for life on the streets!

Enter the Capuchin Sisters. Amanuel was brought to their attention and they took him into their orphanage. They cared for him, raised him as a son and, of course, sent him to school. Amanuel did not squander his opportunity.

Recently a survey was taken in a rural area 30 miles south of the region where Amanuel lived and studied. This survey revealed that only seven percent of the school-age children in the area attended school. Amanuel was lucky and he knew it. Amanuel loved to study. He applied himself and his diligence paid off.

When a student in Ethiopia completes the 12th grade he sits for the Ethiopian School Leaving Certificate examination, which qualifies the student for a high school diploma. In the past several years over a quarter of a million students have sat for this exam each May. From this number, several thousand became eligible to attend a school of higher learning.

When Amanuel sat for the exam, he not only passed, he passed with Very Great Distinction – the highest honor given by the examiners, given to only 366 students, according to government office statistics.

Amanuel is now attending the state-run university and has a promising future ahead of him. I wonder where he would be today if it were not for Stephen and Lisa Pitters. Would I be finding his hand in my back pocket?

What does Amanuel think of all this?

“You were by my side all these years,” he wrote in a recent grateful letter. “I wish you will also help me on my next stage of learning. I know that I have no one here to stand for me. I am in your hand until you make me be someone important.”

But Amanuel is only one of thousands of Ethiopian children in the Needy Child Program. More than 2,000 youngsters, each with his or her own heartbreaking history, are awaiting sponsors.

In the orphanages, almost all the children have no parents. Life is short in Ethiopia; parents often die in their 30’s and 40’s. Many of these deaths could be avoided if medical facilities were available, but most people do not have access to a doctor, and if they do, even simple medicines are not available. Moreover, AIDS is now beginning to take its toll. In the towns and cities we are aware of an increasing number of “AIDS orphans” and there is no organized program to deal with these youngsters.

Many of the children enrolled in our Needy Child Program are not orphans, but they are among the poorest of the poor. In the rural areas they live in one-room huts with no water or sanitary facilities. In some areas, livestock are also kept in the hut. Cooking is done over a fire on a dirt floor. Food is mostly grains, with very little meat and no desserts. Fuel is wood chips or dung. In such an environment, these youngsters are also at risk – almost as much as the children of the streets.

Poor children who attend school in Ethiopia walk to school – in many cases, for three or four hours. Often there is not enough food at home to send them with lunch. Nevertheless, like Amanuel, the children are eager to go to school.

Amanuel will soon be graduating from our Needy Child Program and the Pitters family must now think about sponsoring another child. If they decide to do so, they will help that child beyond measure. At the same time, they will set a generous example for their own children.

“We explain to them that a youngster like Amanuel does not have the options they enjoy. By helping him, we have given him the opportunity to make something of his life.”

‘“There are lots of kids who need assistance,’ we tell Christopher and Elise, ‘and they do not necessarily live in our neighborhood, or even in our country.’

“We hope to instill a sense of social consciousness in our children, because that’s the kind of people we are.”

The need is great, but there are still folks like the Pitters family who are willing to make sacrifices in order to give “their” child a better life.

Every child sponsored is a child saved.

Brother Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C., is Director of our Addis Ababa office.

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