ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Every Child Has a Name

At Kidane Mehret Children’s Home in Addis Ababa, orphaned children receive love, care and a name.

One year ago, I made the first of two visits to the Kidane Mehret Children’s Home in Addis Ababa, one of the many Ethiopian child-care facilities enrolled in CNEWA’s Needy Child Sponsorship Program.

At one time, Kidane Mehret was run by a single nun who continued to work at the orphanage well into her 90’s. One can hardly imagine a 90-year-old nun caring for the children all by herself in a house that should have been demolished some 50 years ago. Poor maintenance and healthcare and rat bites on the unruly children were the norm. The local bishop tried to remove the old sister, but she remained dedicated to the children, refusing to leave until her death.

After the nun’s death, Sister Lutgarda Camilleri of the Franciscan Sisters of the Heart of Jesus was asked if her community would assume responsibility for the orphanage. Sister Lutgarda was told the sisters had two options: “Take care of the children or throw them back on the streets.”

If Kidane Mehret did not exist, chances are many of the children would have been aborted or died from exposure. The Franciscan Sisters receive what the government considers “reject children.”

My first visit to Kidane Mehret was to gain an overview of the orphanage and its children. Besides caring for 90 children, the sisters also provide meals twice a week for more than 150 displaced persons from the surrounding area, mostly women and children. Many of the displaced women reciprocate, working in the kitchen, preparing food and serving.

How do the children come to Kidane Mehret? They are often illegitimate. In Ethiopia, the shame of bearing an illegitimate child remains strong. Many children are just left at the gate of the orphanage. Sister Lutgarda told me about a small, very ill boy who was thrown over the fence into the garden. When the gardener went to work the next morning, his first thought was to scold the children for throwing their clothes in the garden. Then the tiny boy started to cry. He was taken into the orphanage. After much difficulty, Sister Lutgarda received government certification for the boy – without such certification, he cannot be adopted.

I was given a tour of a new building – much of it paid for by CNEWA – which was still under construction. At the rate the sisters are “receiving” children, I commented, there will be even more children in need by the time the building is completed.

“But,” said Sister Lutgarda, “if we don’t start now, what will we do?” I knew she was right. The children need help now.

Kidane Mehret receives little support from the government. In fact, Sister Lutgarda was recently denied government sugar because “there are too many in the orphanage now.” As a result, she was forced to buy sugar on the black market.

The Franciscan Sisters of the Heart of Jesus are currently in dispute with the government; the government wants to classify Kidane Mehret as a nongovernmental organization (NGO), thereby absolving the government from any responsibility for the support of the orphanage.

I returned to Kidane Mehret the following day to learn more about the children and the work being done there. Younger children at the orphanage sleep in a four-room house, the former convent; its rooms are small. Two of the rooms hold three sets of bunk beds, with two children sleeping in each bed. There is no extra space for storage, not even a tiny closet. Cardboard boxes are piled high with what few personal belongings the children own. Many wear clothes that are worn or torn; almost all the children wear shoes that have the toes cut out so they can still be worn as the children’s feet grow. Shoelaces are also long gone, so the children walk around in flapping, toeless shoes.

The orphanage’s dining area comprises two boxcar containers – not the boxcars themselves, but their containers. Construct-ed of metal, they provide adequate cover while the children eat. Old, long student desks, so common in the Middle East and Africa, have been turned into dining tables. Each child is given a bench seat and a plastic cup and plate. Both plate and cup have large white numbers painted on them. Initially, Sister Lutgarda told me, the children stole the plates and cups at the end of each meal. The sisters had to keep replacing them at great cost. Finally, the sisters developed the scheme of painting a number on each plate and cup – one number for each child. If a child’s plate or cup turned up missing, so did the meal. Once this procedure was in place, there were no more missing dishes.

If necessary, the sisters give names to the children according to the feast day on which the child appears at Kidane Mehret. This practice is carefully continued, since certificates in the past would list only “Boy X” or “Girl X” as a child’s name. Now, children coming to the orphanage are given a name of their own immediately.

Presently, there are 90 children receiving care at Kidane Mehret. Fifty of these children are sponsored through CNEWA’s Needy Child Sponsorship Program. Later, the Children’s Commission of the Government of Ethiopia will find homes for these children; the sisters work closely with government agencies to ensure safe homes for all the children. Foster homes are not an option; the government insists that adoption be the only reason for releasing a child. Once an adoption is “officially” completed (at least according to Ethiopian laws) the child becomes a member of the adoptive family.

Abel is three and a half years old. The Holy Rosary Sisters brought him to Kidane Mehret as a baby. Abel has a brother who is epileptic and lives with an aunt who is only 15 years old. Unable to shoulder Abel’s care, the aunt agreed to give her nephew over to the sisters, who could care for him until she was old enough to care for him herself. The sisters promised the concerned aunt that her nephew would return after she got a little older. Eventually, an Italian family who promised good medical care for the boy adopted Abel’s brother. Abel, however, lacks the necessary certification – so difficult to receive in this country – for adoption. His future is unsure.

Helen is four and a half years old. Her mother is dead and her father has disappeared. After her mother’s death, Helen went to live with an aunt. Shortly thereafter, the aunt was given an opportunity to leave the country and, while saving money for the trip, realized she could not afford to support her niece as well. The aunt did not want to abandon her – as many do – so she brought Helen to Kidane Mehret. Helen will soon be adopted by a couple from Germany who have already adopted a boy from the orphanage.

The Franciscan Sisters of the Heart of Jesus, with all of their lay helpers (several of whom were once abandoned children themselves), provide each child at Kidane Mehret with loving care and a profound understanding and tenderness.

A photojournalist, Mercy Sister Christian Molidor is special assistant to CNEWA’s secretary general.

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