Poorest of the Poor

An Ethiopian Catholic layman starts a program for street children.

compiled by CNEWA WORLD staff

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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.

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Tags: Ethiopia CNEWA Children HIV/AIDS