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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Hope for a Peaceful Future

Caring for youth in Ethiopia’s ongoing regional conflicts

Blasts jarred Soliyana Samuel awake. It was a Wednesday morning, 2 August, in Gondar, a city known for its historic castles and fortresses in Ethiopia’s northern Amhara region. Ms. Samuel’s mother ran to the neighbors to find out the source of the noise.

To their dismay, a fierce exchange of gunfire had erupted less than a mile away, on Goha Hill, in plain view from their home. In the moments that followed, the truth settled heavily on their hearts — the armed conflict that had begun in the Amhara region four months prior had intensified.

Two days later, amid the escalating conflict, Ethiopia’s central government declared a six-month regional state of emergency. The heavy fighting blocked roads, severely impeding the delivery of goods and making travel dangerous for civilians.

Ms. Samuel, a third-year student at Injibara University, was home on a semester break at the time. Her school, located about 175 miles south of Gondar, was among 10 universities in the region to announce the immediate and indefinite suspension of classes. In total, about 2,000 schools were closed, impacting 2.5 million children and young people. About 42 school buildings were significantly damaged in the fighting.

“All of this conflict and war is between brothers and sisters. No one came from the outside.”

Several regions in Ethiopia have experienced periods of fierce violence and civil unrest in recent years. The Tigray conflict (2020-2022) in the country’s northernmost region between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front killed about 600,000 people and displaced about 2.5 million. A peace agreement was signed in November 2022, and more than 1 million people have returned to Tigray.

“However, the implementation of the peace process is so slow,” says Argaw Fantu, director of CNEWA’s regional office in Ethiopia. “Families of young people who lost their lives in the miscalculated war have not been properly consoled and supported. Young people seem hopeless. Lawlessness in some parts of the region is the biggest fear of people, as silent attacks and robberies are happening in many places.”

The two-year conflict damaged farmlands, drought increased food insecurity, and children have dropped out of school due to lack of food, he says. Catholic churches are seeking to start their meal programs for children, usually slated for the summer, in an effort to save lives, he adds.

Students in an upper grade attend class at Blessed Gebremichael Catholic School in Bahir Dar. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)

The Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south, had allied with the federal forces during the Tigray conflict. However, the federal government’s decision in April 2023 to integrate all regional special forces into the national defense force triggered widespread violent protests. Inhabitants in Amhara interpreted the decision as an attempt to diminish regional autonomy and feared it would make them more vulnerable to attacks from other regional groups.

Regional security forces in Amhara refused to disband and took up arms, as did the Fano, a militia that claims to represent the Amhara people, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic community. Reports issued by the United Nations indicate this conflict has killed more than 230 people.

By mid-January, relative peace had been restored to the Amhara region, and the universities announced classes would resume in February. Ms. Samuel was looking forward to returning to her studies in food science and post-harvest technology. However, many of her peers had given up hope that school would restart and dropped out.

During the suspension of classes, Ms. Samuel got involved with the local university chaplaincy program, run by the Cistercian monks. The chaplaincy operates in a church located on the grounds of Debre Selam Mariam Catholic School.

“We provide them with spiritual guidance and teachings every Sunday, especially on how to cope with the conflict using the sacred words of God,” says Father Tamiru Adugna, O.Cist., who has served in Gondar since 2017.

The chaplaincy also supports university students by covering transportation costs to and from Sunday liturgy, offering breakfast along with their programming, and providing assistance for new clothes or other items on special occasions, such as graduation.

In the previous academic year, the chaplaincy accompanied 34 students from the nearby University of Gondar and Debark University. Although the chaplaincy program could not restart last October as usual, due to the suspension of classes, the monks have kept in regular contact with those students who are waiting at home, in various parts of the country, for classes to resume.

“We are greeting each other, and we are encouraging them,” he says.

Father Tamiru Adugna addresses the student body at Debre Selam Mariam Catholic School in Gondar during the school’s Christmas celebration, 5 January. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)

In addition to serving with the university chaplaincy, Father Adugna is the chairman of the board of Debre Selam Mariam Catholic School. The private school was founded by Comboni Missionaries in 1961 and transferred to the Cistercians in 1980. Currently, it has 160 staff members and 3,300 students, from kindergarten to grade 12.

“Despite the challenges, we consistently excel in national examinations,” he says. “In the school, we focus on moral education, adapting to recent changes in the government program. Our unique environment fosters inclusivity, welcoming students of all backgrounds.”

With the regional crisis, the school faced delays in acquiring educational materials and families have had difficulty paying tuition on time.

“Adapting to the situation, we collaborate with families to address challenges, emphasizing the need for peace to ensure a conducive learning environment. Despite these difficulties, we maintain hope for a peaceful future and normalcy in our educational services,” he says.

“As monks and as priests, we are praying for peace in the region for everybody.”

In Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region, about 105 miles south of Gondar, Bishop Lesanuchristos Matheos Semahun of Bahir Dar-Dessie speaks of the struggles faced by communities caught in the crossfire: a lack of access to water, food, electricity and means of communication.

The road blockades severely hampered the church’s pastoral activities. The Ethiopian Catholic Eparchy of Bahir Dar-Dessie was established in 2015. Its vast territory, with an estimated population of about 23 million, extends beyond the Amhara region and includes the Afar region to the east and the Benishangul-Gumuz region to the west, where armed conflict surfaced in 2019.

“We are passing from one war to another war, from conflict to conflict. Especially in this area, it is a continuous problem,” he says. “All of this conflict and war is between brothers and sisters. No one came from the outside.”

Although Catholics are a minority in the region, the bishop underlines, the eparchy operates more than 20 schools, including a school for children who are blind, and 44 medical centers.

“Our presence has two dimensions,” he says. “One is a witness, and another is service.”

Due to security concerns, the bishop ordained two priests outside the eparchy in the Roman Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Jimma-Bonga in southwestern Ethiopia.

Young women have suffered the greatest adverse effects of the conflict, he says. Confined to their homes in dire situations, many were forced into early marriages and, as a result, dropped out of school.

The conflict has had traumatic effects on children, especially orphans, he adds. He expressed concern about the mental illness the conflict was precipitating in children, including depression and mental breakdown.

“Our presence has two dimensions. One is a witness, and another is service.”

The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul work with children experiencing the trauma brought on by conflict at Blessed Gebremichael Catholic School in Bahir Dar. About 1,200 students, from kindergarten to high school, are enrolled at the day school, which includes a nursery and a day care.

Sister Weinitu Woldesenbet, D.C., the school administrator, recalls the day two bombs fell on Bahir Dar, one perilously close to the school. Students and parents became frantic.

“When something [unsettling] has happened around us, they shout, they cry, they look for the older ones, and they run here and there. ‘What is happening, Sister? What is going on?’ These kinds of questions are very challenging for us,” she says. “We are afraid for their psychological health, and we are afraid for their future.”

The school was temporarily closed, and students hesitated to return. However, a directive from the municipal government mandated the school to reopen, promising them added security.

Nigist Aslake, the secretary, underlines the school’s commitment to equal access to education, with tuition ranging from 100 birr to 600 birr ($2 to $11). Students are provided meals daily and those in need receive financial support in the form of sponsorships and tuition assistance.

Many of the students are orphans, whose parents either died of AIDS or were killed in an armed conflict. Other children come from low-income or single-parent homes.

Sister Weinitu says the school is well loved by the local community, but the staff is unable to accept more students due to lack of space.

The sisters also offer a sewing workshop at the school for adults. Upon completion of the program, the school provides the graduates with sewing machines to foster self-sufficiency, empower them to start their own businesses and contribute to the local economy. In their 35 years of service in Bahir Dar, the sisters also funded the construction of more than 200 homes for the poorest families in the community.

Poverty in the Amhara region — already higher than the national average prior to 2020 — has been exacerbated by civil unrest, but also by soaring inflation and unemployment rates.

Sister Weinitu Woldesenbet teaches students the alphabet at Blessed Gebremichael Catholic School in Bahir Dar. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)

“Students want to stop their study because of the economic crisis,” says Father Adugna, adding that inflation has also made it difficult to pay teacher salaries at Debre Selam Mariam Catholic School.

Inflation has impeded the pastoral and humanitarian work of the Eparchy of Bahir Dar-Dessie as well, as some basic expenses have tripled in cost, says Bishop Matheos. Furthermore, while the church continues to walk with those who suffer, donations from abroad, on which Ethiopia is heavily dependent, have been more difficult to come by as other conflicts around the world, such as the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, have captured a great deal of attention.

“All we have is our good will, our good heart, our compassion, our humanity. We are people who live with them, and we share what we have with them,” he says about the church’s work with the poor. “But we are really 100 percent sure the providence of God will come.”

Addressing the armed conflicts within the territory of his eparchy again, the bishop reiterates his observation that there is “no enemy who came from abroad. It is all brothers and sisters, we among ourselves, who are fighting.”

“Hopefully, with the help of the prayer of many people, mainly ourselves, it will stop, and we will live the way we lived before — peacefully.”

The CNEWA Connection

CNEWA’s longstanding support of the church in Ethiopia has been at the service of the country’s most vulnerable. CNEWA’s commitment has been recognized by church leaders, including Bishop Lesanuchristos Matheos Semahun of Bahir Dar-Dessie, whose eparchy includes areas of the country currently undergoing armed conflict and civil unrest. Despite years of strife and natural disasters, the bishop says, the church in Ethiopia knows it can rely on CNEWA’s continuous solidarity and support for its pastoral and humanitarian work, including for its schools, food programs, university chaplaincies and priestly formation.

Help the church in Ethiopia that is relying on our support. Call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or visit:

Read this article in our digital print format here.

Hikma A. Abdulmejid is a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism and communications at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia.

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