Feature

The Father to the Fatherless

A couple brings hope to their homeland

By

I looked out the window of the airplane as it took off from the airport in Addis Ababa. With great effort, I had received a student visa to study engineering at a university in India—but I had no idea whether the military dictatorship that ruled my country would actually allow me to leave. I had heard horror stories of people being removed from airplanes even as they were sitting on the runway. Only when the plane rose high into the sky did I relax a bit.

“Ethiopia,” I said, “I will never see you again.”

Ethiopia, situated in one of the most volatile regions of the world, has endured numerous wars with invaders and internal civil conflict for centuries. Even when it has a respite from violence, it remains a haven for refugees from trouble spots in neighboring countries. In addition to its man-made calamities, the nation is plagued by drought and famine. Though it is endowed with natural resources, it is one of the world’s poorest countries. I knew if I were to prosper, I would have to break free from the poverty and political oppression of my beloved homeland and seek an education elsewhere.

While doing undergraduate work in India, I began reading the Bible and came to know the Lord. After I finished my degree, I applied for a visa to several countries, including the United States, but was denied. Three years after graduation, I moved to Australia. From there, I had a chance to visit America, where Connie Bisrat, a high school friend who had come to Christ as a teen, had immigrated. Connie and I had continued our friendship through the mail during my time in India and Australia, but being in the same place made all the difference. We married and settled in New York in 1989, becoming naturalized citizens of the United States.

The military dictatorship that had terrorized Ethiopia’s citizens for 17 years was overthrown in 1991, and in 1995—despite what I had whispered on the airplane to India—Connie and I returned to our homeland for a visit. In Addis Ababa and northern Ethiopia, we saw firsthand the devastation, poverty and human misery that the irresponsible dictatorship had left behind.

Our love for God and humanity motivated us to want to make a holistic difference in Ethiopia. Our visits continued each summer until 2003, when we felt God’s call to move back permanently. We established a local nongovernment organization (NGO) called Hope Community Services to help the neediest members of society: orphans, destitute families and the blind. For seven years, we have lived in Mekelle, the capital of Tigrai state in northern Ethiopia.

People here think we are crazy for leaving successful careers in the United States, but we are happy to serve where our efforts touch lives. There are many challenges to living in a poor country; the needs are overwhelming. A number of times we were tempted to give up and return to New York, but we are glad we remained. Now, we are beginning to see the fruit of our persistence.

The Ethiopian government gave us eight acres to start an orphanage so we could provide homeless children with a family atmosphere where they can develop physically, emotionally and spiritually. Several American Jewish kids that Connie knew in New York gave their bat mitzvah gifts, birthday gifts, funds from bake sales in their schools and their own pocket money for the orphans in Africa. Their parents also contributed generously, which enabled us to start building. The three-story dormitory will be home to 75 orphans as well as house a library and study area for neighborhood children. In 2009, six children were adopted by Americans and now live in the United States.

AIDS is a pandemic in Ethiopia: it is estimated that up to 5 percent of the nation’s 80 million people are living with HIV. Children are the innocent victims. More than 800,000 are already orphaned by AIDS. The elderly who lose the support of their children to AIDS are driven to begging to survive. In Tigrai state there are 32,000 registered orphans, most of whom are living with HIV passed to them from their parents.

Embaba Teklai lost both her parents to AIDS-related illness when she was four years old and was living with her paternal grandparents. When we met Embaba, she was covered in wounds and in poor health. She was barely moving. We suspected that she was HIV positive, and we were not yet prepared at the orphanage to receive medically challenged children. However, we felt drawn to her and took her as one of our first four kids. A blood test confirmed our suspicion of HIV, and we started Embaba on anti-retroviral treatment (ART). With continued ART, plus a lot of love and care, Embaba began to run around like any other kid her age. Her memory improved significantly, and she began to get great grades in school.

After nearly three years with us, Embaba and another child were adopted by a couple from Indiana. Embaba now lives in a Christian home where she is lavished with love and attention. Because the virus is dormant, she no longer needs medication.

Although both of Embaba’s parents had died, many children in Ethiopia are half orphans, living with widowed mothers who have no income but must care for two to six kids. In most cases, the women are illiterate and unskilled; many are HIV positive and hence too weak to do manual labor. For most of the children, getting one meal a day is a luxury. Hope Community Services helps these families before the kids end up on the street. We assist 103 children in 40 families. The need in this area is enormous, and we will continue to expand as much as resources will allow. We hope to open a clinic to serve the surrounding semi-rural community, particularly focusing on the children.

In addition to our work with orphans and poor families, every year Hope Community Services trains 30 to 50 blind students in Braille literacy so that they can attend public school to get a better opportunity instead of begging as a way of life. We have trained 250 blind children and helped to provide them with slates, styluses and Braille papers.

This is just the beginning of a new chapter in our lives, and we look forward with great anticipation for the completion of the remaining chapters, which will have even more eternal significance. The need is overwhelming, but our cooperative efforts will rescue many. When things get rough, we remember Embaba, who would have died before turning six were it not for the intervention of the Father to the fatherless. Our efforts were worth it for her and will be for the others as well.

O God, fulfill Your will in our lives to help humanity created in Your image.

Ethiopia

Unique among African countries, the ancient Ethiopian monarchy maintained its freedom from colonial rule, with the exception of a short-lived Italian occupation from 1936–1941. In 1974, a military junta deposed Emperor Haile Selassie (who had ruled since 1930) and established a socialist state. Torn by bloody coups, wide-scale drought and massive refugee problems, the regime was toppled in 1991 by a coalition of rebel forces. A constitution was adopted three years later, and Ethiopia’s first multiparty elections were held in 1995.

Like many African countries, the median age of Ethiopia’s population is young—just under 17 years (in contrast, the median age in the United States is nearly 37, and in Canada, 40). Fifty percent of Ethiopia’s people are Orthodox Christian, and10 percent are Protestant. About 33 percent are Muslim.

Ethiopia’s economy is agriculture based, relying heavily on coffee exports, but war, frequent drought and poor cultivation practices adversely affect production. As a result, more than one third of Ethiopia’s citizens live in poverty.

—Adapted from the World Factbook
(www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html)

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