A U.S. delegation of 14 Catholic Relief Services staff members and Church partners recently visited CRS projects in Ethiopia. Steve Pehanich, senior director of advocacy and education for the California Catholic Conference, shares final thoughts from the field.
Our last day in Dire Dawa began with a tour of a warehouse where Catholic Relief Services stores food donated by the U.S. government for various relief activities. The warehouse is not at all like one we would think of in the States, but is instead a series of large tents. Stacked to the brim with wheat, rice, lentils and other sacks of food, the tents create a very orderly and neat compound.
The food sits in stacks on pallets for ventilation and protection from rodents. Great care is taken to address any spoilage or other issues that might arise. The food cannot be at the site for more than three months.
As part of our visit, CRS Ethiopia staff prepared typical dishes made by recipient families using the types of food donated. It was all very good and not all that different from what we might eat in the States: rice with tomato, porridge for the children, wheat cakes and so on. Several of us made a lunch of it, and the Ethiopian staff ate most of all.
The next day, after a moving visit to a Missionaries of Charity site and an interesting discussion with the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, we visited the Organization for Social Services for AIDS, another CRS partner in the capital of Addis Ababa.
This non-profit organization that helps people with HIV and AIDS was founded in 1989, when people still had almost no idea what the disease really was. OSSA is massive, operating in every region of Ethiopia, except one. They test for HIV, help orphans, educate communities and perform all the other necessary functions to reduce HIV infection and eliminate suffering.
Three clients shared their stories with us: Elesabet, an HIV-positive mother of five children, who is also struggling with breast cancer; Hannah, 18, and Zacharias, 10, who watched their parents die years before; and “Grandma,” an elderly woman caring for five grandchildren. OSSA is helping all of these people and many more. It is truly amazing.
As if this weren’t enough for one day, our final visit was to the home of seven orphans, five of whom were still living together. Our CRS vehicles turned onto a narrow alley, muddy from a recent cloudburst, and then stopped by an even narrower alley. We walked the last 50 yards, picking our way along a path that smelled of human waste, into an area with mud huts that housed seven or eight families—we couldn’t tell how many.
Eighteen-year-old Belin lives with her 22-year-old brother and three other siblings aged 16, 13 and 9 in a room no more than 16 feet by 8 feet. At the very back of the room is a bunk bed, with a poster of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger during his bodybuilding days hanging in the far upper left corner. Even in this humble home, which many would call a hovel, the orphans’ neighbor performed a coffee ceremony for us—greeting us with popcorn to cleanse our palates, followed by small cups of strong Ethiopian espresso. These orphans have supported themselves, with OSSA’s assistance, for the last five years since their mother died, their father having passed away five years before. And yet they greeted us with smiles and shared their stories without despair.
This was a very tough day and one that I will ponder for some time.
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