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Seen and Not Heard

by Deborah Alden

about Yewoinshet Masresha, Executive Director, Hope for Children
2006 Connecting for Change participant

Yewoinshet Masresha screamed, cried and pounded her fists on the table for two days because her parents refused to send her to school. Girls in the little village of Babile, Ethiopia were brought up to be “seen and not heard”. They were taught to dedicate their lives to taking care of the household, children and their husbands. They certainly didn’t need to go to school. Masresha’s interest in school came as no surprise to her parents. She had always been curious and was considered an unusual child. She listened to adult conversations and constantly asked questions. Neighbours said to her parents, “What’s wrong with this child?” Her parents finally decided it was best to let her go to school. Masresha was the only girl in her class. She has been bucking cultural traditions ever since.

Masresha has dedicated her entire life to helping others through her work as a social activist.  The passion and fierce determination she demonstrated as a child revealed a strength of character she would need to call on to see her through the personal and professional challenges that lie ahead.
When only 17, Masresha joined the Red Cross during a period of war and political unrest in Ethiopia. She helped deal with the thousands of people who were displaced by the war.  Tens of thousands of people were killed, including many of Masresha’s friends. Many more were accused of political crimes and imprisoned. When Masresha refused to marry a high-ranking military officer, she too was sent to prison and placed in solitary confinement. “Most people who were imprisoned were killed,” says Masresha. “Somehow I was spared.”

After three years in solitary confinement, they decided to release her. They had no idea who she was or why she was there. There was no record of her imprisonment. She was given a card stamped with “political prisoner” and released. Masresha weighed only 39 Kilos (89 lb). “I stayed in the city for 20 days to try and gain a bit of weight because I didn’t want to scare my parents,” she said. She returned to her family and a very different Ethiopia. Her parents’ money and all of their land and possessions had been taken from them. Her father was in shock and extremely confused.

Masresha desperately wanted to go to University and complete her education but, with 12 younger brothers and sisters, her family needed her. She also felt guilty about attending school because her family couldn’t afford to provide all of them with an education. Instead of a lengthy university program, she chose a short, six-month course in home economics. She went to work for the Ministry of Agriculture, once again working in the community helping thousands of people who were displaced by the war. She provided instruction in childcare, nutrition and horticulture to help them survive during that very difficult time. Masresha encountered many sad situations. She saw parents who had lost all their children and children who had lost both parents due to drought and starvation.

No sooner had Ethiopia begun to recover from the war, the impact of HIV began to take its toll. Masresha went to work for the first counseling and social service organization set up to deal with the disease in Addis Ababa. There was great fear of AIDS throughout the community. Those who had the disease were ostracized and the stigma extended to those who were helping. When people asked her, “Yewoinshet, how can you do this?” she would explain that people with AIDS were everyone’s responsibility. She committed her life, day and night, to caring for those who were affected.

In Addis Ababa alone, there were 3,500 children who were orphaned and living with AIDS. When she cared for the parents of these children, they would beg her to take care of the children after they were gone. Without hesitation, she assured them that she would. “I told them, ‘Don’t worry. Pray for yourself. All will be taken care of’,” she said.

As more and more people succumbed to the disease, and more and more children were orphaned and abandoned by their community, the enormity of what she had agreed to do began to sink in. She was devastated. Neither she, nor the organization she worked for had the resources to care for all these children. She was so distraught her boss and mentor, Sister John Bird tried to convince her to find another job. She told Masresha that she was too soft for this kind of work. She said, “This will hurt you a lot. This is not your place.” Masresha knew that in one way she was right, but she also knew she needed to give her life to these children. Masresha said, “Once you join these children, you cannot go away from them.” She knew she must find a way to care for the children and decided to strike out on her own.

In 2000, with absolutely no money and operating out of a tent, Masresha founded Hope for Children, Ethiopia’s first non-government organization dedicated to providing care and support services for children affected by AIDS. “Something in my heart told me I would have the help I needed,” she said. “There are so many kind people, I was 100% certain.” Nine years later, the organization has 67 paid staff, 200 volunteers and serves 813 children.

Hope for Children works to promote community knowledge and support for HIV-affected and infected children and caregivers. Its services include providing food, clothing, shelter, education and medical assistance to those living with HIV/AIDS, as well as advocacy on behalf of AIDS patients and psychological support. The organization’s success has been praised by local, national and global leaders in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS.

As Executive Director of Hope for Children, Masresha was invited to attend the 2006 Connecting for Change dialogue. Jim Hoggan of Hoggan and Associates sponsored her attendance and he also became her conference partner. When asked about the circumstances that brought her to the conference, Masresha says simply, “It was kindness that brought me.”

The conference was a powerful experience and an awakening of sorts for Masresha. The Dalai Lama’s teachings around cultivating happiness and educating the heart resonated with her. She said, “All my life I have been dealing with sadness and talking about sadness. After meeting the Dalai Lama and hearing his teachings I thought, ‘All right, now what about happiness? What can we do to cultivate happiness?’” It occurred to her that individuals such as Hitler and Stalin were orphans who grew up with no one to care for them or teach them about love. She realized that since she was dealing with orphans, educating their hearts and helping them to be happy was not only desirable, it was an essential part of their education.

Hope for Children already had programs in place to entertain the children and add fun to their lives. But now, these programs took on an even higher purpose. Masresha is proud of the many programs that she has in place to help educate the children’s hearts: “The children participate in dancing, choir and music programs. They also have English instruction and Tai Kwon Do to help build their confidence. They attend Saturday entertainment programs to help them make friends and become happy together. The Scout program teaches them to work together as a team and about doing good things for others. The scouts help to take care of young children. They also help teach Tai Kwan Do and theatre. There are so many ways they can give.”

Another powerful insight Masresha took away from the conference was the importance of dialogue. She said, “I knew that dialogue would turn out to be the best way for Ethiopia.” She explains that Ethiopia, and in particular the small town of Babile where she grew up, was extremely community oriented. “Everyone comes together to help one another in times of trouble and sickness,” she said. With the onset of the AIDS pandemic, everything changed. Community support was no longer there because of the fear and stigma attached to the disease. She hoped that by initiating a dialogue about AIDS, the community would come together to deal with it.

She started a community dialogue centre in Addis Ababa, gathering 25 to 30 people together at a time to talk about thought provoking questions. She asked them, “What should happen to children when their parents die? How can they get appropriate care in the community? What if you were in the shoes of the children? What about HIV? Is there HIV in your house? What if it knocks on your door? Should we fight it? Should we allow it to overburden us?” She said once the dialogue began, it has never stopped. The people are becoming more and more aware.

Through dialogue, great things have also been accomplished in her little village of Babile. The practice of mutilation has stopped, women have more rights and there is no longer any stigma around AIDS. The community has united and is standing up for children’s rights. A group of 13 elected officials are demanding land from the government to build a kindergarten and a home for the children.

Masresha acknowledges that by attending the conference, she met many people she may never have otherwise known. Many of whom have become strong supporters of her organization. She says she is grateful for everything that has been given to her children. She said, “It’s all about giving whatever they have. What impresses me is the heart. Coming out to help is all that matters.”

Masresha sums up her journey in a few sentences: “In one way or another, I have been caring for children my entire life.” She says she is certain of one thing, “If you take one step to do kind work, you can do a long march. It is just about taking the first kindly step. The rest, the Universe will teach you. The Universe is the best teacher.”