ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Poorest of the Poor

Saving the children of Ethiopia is one man’s dream.

Ethiopia has suffered more than its share of crises. The plight of its homeless children is especially staggering; an estimated one million children live on the streets of its cities, especially the capital of Addis Ababa. Many have lost their parents to war or AIDS, which has reached epidemic proportions in this troubled country. Others are simply turned out onto the street – their parents have no money to feed them.

Without a doubt, children are the most vulnerable population in any crisis. In Ethiopia, AIDS has left scores of children infected with the virus (the United Nations fears that as many as one-third of all youths between 15 and 20 will die of AIDS). Some of them are children of single mothers; in this very traditional society, illegitimacy carries a very strong stigma. Many are left at orphanage gates or even abandoned elsewhere. If they are lucky enough to land on the doorstep of an orphanage with a spare bed, they must await government certification before they can be placed for adoption, and government certification is difficult to obtain. Children who lack this certification grow up at the orphanage.

Mulatu Tafesse is a Catholic layman who has worked with the poor and disadvantaged in Ethiopia for several decades. Surviving an automobile accident he credits with changing his life, he had vowed that if he could walk again he would dedicate his life to helping the poor.

In 1985, the devastating famine that raged in Ethiopia brought him back to Addis Ababa from the United States, where he had worked with Save the Children. In 1996, he established the Godano Street Children Program in the Cherkos region of the capital. The program provides shelter, food and basic health care to abandoned children. CNEWA was instrumental in providing startup funds to get the fledgling group off the ground.

The agency had received a major gift from Barbara and Leonard Miller of Downers Grove, Illinois. Longtime friends of CNEWA, the couple had asked that their gift be given to the “poorest of the poor.”

The Millers were interested in helping countries like Ethiopia that cannot help themselves. “We in the U.S. are blessed,” Mrs. Miller pointed out. “Some other countries are not so blessed.” CNEWA’s Regional Director for Ethiopia and Eritrea, Brother Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C., matched them up with the Godano Street Children Program.

Mulatu, the father of three sons and two daughters, has great empathy for the street children. Unfortunately, children are forced to turn to the street “rather than stay hungry at home,” Mulatu insists, so his program attacks poverty at the entry level. Employees at his center teach the children basic job skills, bolster their self-esteem and prepare them for a constructive future.

There are roughly 175 girls – some with babies – and about 35 boys in the temporary shelters. All receive counseling, including HIV/AIDS awareness, and basic hygiene and health care. The boys are housed only during the rainy season, but the girls are given eight months of temporary shelter.

Mulatu feels the female street children present the more serious problem because they are “more vulnerable than others,” he says. It is for this reason that there are many more girls than boys in his shelters. The destitute girls are usually pregnant and have been abandoned by their families.

Godano has a welding shop on site, which comes in handy. The center is made up of a collection of structures fabricated at the shop. Mulatu claims that the simple buildings are essential – the boys and girls would not feel comfortable in anything fancier.

The children are taught money-earning skills. No job is too small for these children in this poor country. For the boys at the center Mulatu has organized a “circus.” In a safe environment, they learn juggling and acrobatics; they are often invited to perform at municipal functions and embassy affairs. The circus allows the boys to experience success; they learn they can do something other people appreciate. They also learn discipline and teamwork.

Some of the younger boys receive shoe-shine stalls to support themselves while attending school; these stalls are made in the workshop and have “Godano” painted on their sides. Eventually the boys contribute a token payment to the center. Older boys and some girls run portable stationery stands, built on site. Metal boxes about the size of a refrigerator are crafted and divided into compartments with shelves. Paper and notebooks are stored inside and wheeled to the gates of schools, where students can buy supplies.

Most of the girls at Godano have been thrown out of their homes or have drifted into the capital from the countryside because their families can no longer care for them. Invariably they end up in prostitution. Because of the very high rate of HIV/AIDS among prostitutes, men in Ethiopia are looking for younger and younger girls; all of them are at risk.

Pregnant girls who arrive at Godano live in one of five hostels rented by the center. Each girl has a bed and a metal box for her possessions. After her newborn is delivered, a crib is also available. While living in the hostel and waiting to deliver, the girls receive training in sweater-making, candle-making, sandal-making and computer skills. The girls are also involved in income-generating activities.

In addition to stationery, the center gives the girls the materials necessary for selling food and beverages to laborers and passersby. Snack stands hold many different items and can be moved easily. They can also be locked when the girls attend school. The organization provides loans to help young entrepreneurs, both boys and girls, who want to open small businesses.

Seeing the lives of the desperate street children of Addis Ababa change for the better gives Mulatu his greatest joy, he admits. Deeply committed to his work with these children, Mulatu also hopes to interest Ethiopia’s young people in helping their own countrymen.

“Ethiopians should find an Ethiopian remedy for their problems. They should not always expect support from the outside,” Mulatu declares.

Though he does not involve the program in large fund-raising drives, Mulatu Tafesse does rely on some outside influence. “I believe,” he says, “that Divine Providence and Our Lady will provide.”

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