From one-to-one

Sharing a Cup of Coffee, Meeting an Unforgettable Woman Posted: Jul 11 2018 9:59AM

Netsanet prepares a cup of coffee in her humble home in an Ethiopian refugee camp. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)

In the June 2018 edition of ONE, Emeline Wuilbercq takes readers to camps in Ethiopia where the church is helping refugees waiting for a better life. Here, she tells how she met one of the women she profiled.

As journalists, we sometimes think like novelists.

Since one of our goals is to raise awareness, we look for the story that will move our readers, provide them with new information and, above all, share an amazing character with an incredible life story. Often, even if we search, we cannot absolutely control what we find in the field. And yet, it is not uncommon to have surprises. It is when you stop searching that you come upon somebody whose personality, or resilience, is striking. By accident, you can find something other than what you were looking for.

When I was a student, I remember an experienced journalist telling me that this is what we call “serendipity.” In French, we translated it as “sérendipité”, which sounds a bit weird for a word-lover. This word was invented in 1754 by the British politician and writer Horace Walpole, who defines it as “accident and sagacity while in pursuit of something else”. Many accidental scientific discoveries were made by serendipity, such as penicillin. The concept applies perfectly to journalism. In a Le Monde article published in 2012, the journalist says that serendipity is “a matter of chance, of course, but also of sagacity, curiosity, agility, mental availability to stay on the lookout for new and surprising things.” Because you always have to be alert.

That is exactly what I thought when I met Netsanet, the main subject for my story on the Mai-Ani refugee camp. There are about 40,000 Eritrean refugees living in northern Ethiopia. Ethiopia is sheltering over 900,000 of these people on its soil according to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. We were about to go 11 miles further to another camp, Adi-Harush, when veteran photographer Petterik Wiggers came to me. He has been working in Ethiopia for 20 years and knows a great subject when he meets one.

He explained to me that while I was interviewing another woman whose story was really interesting, he sat down in a small café set up by an Eritrean refugee to have a coffee. (He is consciously addicted to caffeine.) He met her with the help of a social worker from the Jesuit Refugee Service (J.R.S.) who speaks her language, Tigrinya. He quickly discovered that her story was compelling. He had no clue he would come across such a woman, but sometimes the Lord works in mysterious ways!

We both decided to go back in Netsanet’s house and we had another round of strong coffee. While talking with her, we discovered all the challenges she has been through in her life: the loss of her two husbands, the escape to Ethiopia, the life in the camp… it was all remarkable and inspiring.

If Petterik had not decided to have a cup of coffee before leaving the camp, we would have never met this amazing woman you will discover in ONE. Check out our story and see for yourself what serendipity can do!