Msgr. John E. Kozar visits the students at St. Gabriel School in Saesa. (photo: John E. Kozar)
A local resident greets the Rev. Abraha Hagos with a gift of goat milk. (photo: John E. Kozar)
School food programs provide students with nutritionally dense biscuits daily. (photo: John E. Kozar)
Women prepare coffee and snacks at a clinic operated by the Daughters of St. Anne. (photo: John E. Kozar)
Students collect their daily meal at the Mariam Tsion School in Saesa. (photo: John E. Kozar)
A child naps in a home between Saesa and Idaga Hamus. (photo: John E. Kozar)
Priests lead the community in prayer during a mountaintop funeral. (photo: John E. Kozar)
Students attend class at St. Michael School in Aiga. (photo: John E. Kozar)
One of the most prominent outreaches of Catholic Near East Welfare Association is serving the needs of children. We have made a concerted effort to be as responsive and timely as possible, especially when there are wars, natural disasters or economic realities that threaten the very lives of these little ones.
Recently, I was extremely blessed to have visited children in Ethiopia. This is a large country. Overwhelmingly rural, Ethiopia has limited infrastructure and is suffering through a severe extreme drought, and fears of the resultant famine that could follow. My primary objective was to demonstrate the loving solidarity of CNEWA with the poor children of Ethiopia, with their parents, their teachers, their church leaders and those who minister to them.
Most of my visit was concentrated in the extreme northern reaches of the country bordering Eritrea. This is a vast mountainous area that has very challenging “roads” to reach remote villages; in many instances there are no roads at all, only dangerous mountain footpaths.
After a tortuous two-hour, nail-biting trip in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, our director of programs, Thomas Varghese, and I arrived in a remote village named Aiga, where we stopped at the humble parish school of St. Michael. There, the children warmly greeted us with songs and prayers and welcomed us lovingly into their classrooms, which have only the barest hint of outside natural light for the classes.
After visiting with each of the classes, we went outside the school, where they lined up to receive their “CNEWA” biscuits: a two-biscuit pack that would sustain them as the school day went on and would give them enough energy to walk home to their mountain dwellings. Most of the children walked over steep mountain trails for two or three hours each way to come to school. This simple nutritional supplement means the difference between these beautiful children coming to school or staying at home.
There were two very touching moments for me as they were enjoying their biscuits. The first came when I saw many children only eating one biscuit and wrapping up the other one to take home to be shared with others in their family; and the second was when a little girl offered me one of her biscuits. Tears came to my eyes at this gesture of kindness and generosity. What a demonstration of the Christian values that they learn in school and practice in their humble homes.
There was a huge irony to this visit: We were there to document the effects of the drought and the fearful reality of famine, but once we arrived we encountered torrential rains. For the record, these horrific downpours did not end the drought or diminish the fear of famine. In fact, they have brought an entirely new catastrophe — devastating floods with the loss of life, both human and livestock, and more irretrievable loss of soil. And so the hunger continues.
But the powerful faith of these suffering souls endures in these most difficult of times. Their participation in the faith life of the church in their remote villages was evident at liturgical celebrations. One such celebration was a mountaintop funeral liturgy in Aiga. Some 500 mountain dwellers from far and wide came to pray for the eternal reward of the departed. Not only did some of them walk over dangerous mountains footpaths — some traveling for up to seven hours each way — but they carried the body on their shoulders for about ten kilometers, or six miles.
I was also privileged to visit some of the poor in their mountain homes. With a gentle traditional greeting — kissing my hands — they warmly welcomed us into their homes and immediately offered us their provisions for the day: bread, goat’s milk and coffee. For them, it was an honor to have a priest visit them. For me, it was an honor to be in the presence of holy people. I noticed that the cross was prominent, both in their homes and around their necks.
Your gifts to CNEWA allow these children and the faithful of Ethiopia to endure in their faith. And in these very difficult times of drought, hunger and now the deluge, their needs are even greater. Please continue being generous and know how much the poor of Ethiopia love you and remember you in their prayers.
May God bless you.