At this critical moment for the Tigrian people, the social but unspoken problem of Ethiopia's destitute children carries greater resonance as more are orphaned while conflict rages around them.
I decided to spend one afternoon with Fantahun Abebe’s 80 kids at his children’s home for children in Mekele, the capital of Tigray.
Soon after I arrived, unlike young people in other areas, the kids warmly welcomed me saying “እንኳዕ ደሓን መጻእኻ” (Welcome) in Tigrigna.
‘Wow!’ I said to myself as it was something I didn’t expect to hear. Later on, I came to understand that it was a result of discipline and other social values which had been instilled in the children.
Mr. Abebe was living in Addis Ababa before his grand project – Lola Children’s Home – came into being. When he first opened his refuge in 2009, Jerry, the first child he took into his care, was HIV positive. Mr. Abebe said it was very difficult at the time to find places to look after young HIV carriers as they were shunned because of ignorance about the disease.
Now situated on an area of 5,000 square meters, given to them by local administrators in collaboration with government bodies, the children’s home is a refuge for 80 orphaned children, some of whom have HIV.
Lola Green, translated from the local language, is a small village in southern Tigray where Mr. Abebe, the founder of Lola Children’s Home, was born.
Unluckily Mr. Abebe didn’t have the chance to grow up with his family. Because of the 1985 drought, they were taken to camps for IDPs, a measure the then government took to resettle people affected by famine to places with relatively better conditions.
The then Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) fighters and political leaders were firmly opposed to this idea of resettlement as they believed the move was driven by a desire to erase Tigrian identity. Whatever the intention was, this resettlement had its own socioeconomic and political influences on the lives of many people.
In 1985 Abebe's mother and father had to go to the so-called IDP camp. Abebe was thus deprived of his right to live with his parents as he was taken to the then Lesperance, later Elshaday. They later died because of famine.
Abebe may have survived an early grave himself, but despite living in a new comfortable home he was not leading a meaningful life. Affected by the loss of his parents, he began abusing alcohol and drugs but he shook off his addiction and studied language and literature at Addis Ababa University.
After graduation, he worked for free on social works and was finally given a job because of his understanding and empathy. Orphans during this time would be taken from Tigray to Addis Ababa. Abebe always asked if there could be another way to help these destitute children.
“I grew up as a street child and miraculously survived as many children did,” says Abebe. “After rehabilitating from substance abuse I got my true personality back. I had many sleepless nights thinking about helpless children from Tigray who had been dispersed around the country.”
Eleven years ago, having received the necessary license, Mr. Abebe took on Jerry and started helping children in need.
Lola Children’s Home has now become a hub for children in need. Programs include community outreach, daycare, and those orphans who permanently reside within.
The community outreach program includes 12 needy infants who are allowed to spend the whole day in the children’s home before they return in the evening to their families.
Clothes, medical treatments, educational help, and other support are provided.
W/ro Tirhas Gebremedhin and Abeba Gebre are some of the mothers who work in the children's homes. “Not only is Abebe a wonderful father and brother for the kids but also us,” they said.
Senayt Tarekegn, who repeatedly visits the home, and Simon Kflezgi, a volunteer who serves the children, speak about Abebe’s passionate, caring and dedicated personality. Above all, they both applaud his communication skills.
There are also partners from within Tigray and abroad who play a significant role at the children’s home.
Dr. Tesfaalem Hagos, a pediatrician in Ayder Hospital, is someone whom Mr. Abebe calls an important partner for his part in helping the children overcome psychosocial problems. University lecturers and other specialized people also give their assistance.
Whether they are born in Saudi Arabia, Addis Ababa, or Asmara all of the children are Tigrigna speakers. The home, however, ensures they are not selected according to their ethnic origin.
Mr. Abebe encountered doubt and mistrust when he first opened his home, not to mention social, administrative, and personal challenges. People asked, “how can you save others’ lives without being able to fulfill your demands?”
The children the home cares for have a multitude of problems. With the help of partners in pediatric, sociology, and psychology, experts work with infants to tackle mental as well as physical problems. Because they have a formal partnership with Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital in Mekele, medical care is also at hand.
On my second trip to the home to take pictures of the kids, Tamrat, one of the kids was singing with an interesting melody:
ዜማ ቅኒትኪ እዝል ኣላላይ
እዝልውን ናትኪ ቅድስቲ ትግላይ… ትግላይ ዓደይ…
The song is one of the songs produced recently as a result of the war recently outbroke in the Tigray region.
One aspect of the conflict in Tigray is the disturbing sound of bombs and shells which particularly traumatizes the children, if not everyone.
It has become customary in Tigray to watch children going out to see whether the sound in the sky is of a helicopter/jet or an Ethiopian Airlines Plane.
Here in the children’s home, this phenomenon has become a new normal.
“In the early days of the war, one day when a plane came with a disturbing sound, one of the poor kids came to me crying if I could save him,” said Mr. Abebe.
Now when the planes buzz, the children are taken underground so that they can feel safe. The effects of war are felt daily. When we speak, I am told that seven children who have been disconnected from their families are given to Abebe from the social affairs bureau.
Amanuel Abebe, on the right, is a baby infant. He was found around Kola Tembien after the war broke out in Tigray and was given to Mr. Abebe on January 22. Hiyab Abebe, on the left, is another child who was recently given to the Lola Childrens’ Home.
The issue of security remains a worry as girls and young women are vulnerable to rape. Because fewer policemen are around, thieves are also a threat.
Mothers who have been displaced from different parts of Tigray also come to the aid center. The money which will be used to help them is taken from funds meant for school construction and a business attraction has become another way of income generation.
A new building under construction Photo: Solomon Berhe
Abebe evaluates what he has done so far as “good,” saying: “Success is not about personal satisfaction but leaving an immortal legacy. Many people will follow in my footsteps. It is not about the number of children and the buildings, but about the continuity of the idea.
“We are not working only for today but tomorrow. These kids will be the ‘social fruits’ of tomorrow. People have started taking kids home and adopting them. This change in attitude is another achievement.”
Ever since he started the job Abebe has faced many difficulties and experienced wonderful days. Most of all, the children's welfare is what concerns him.
‘’They all call me ‘father.’ While that is not true I feel the responsibility,’’
“There is nothing that can make you happier than helping people when they need you’’ said Mr. Abebe.
They have food, shelter, and other needs being fulfilled like any other children outside the garden. This is what makes him happy.
It is a natural process that we start to ask about things when we grow up. Especially for these kids, one question is imminent: Who am I? Where is my father? Where is my mother? I had to ask Abebe how the children react as they get older. While telling one child that his mother had died, another asked him ‘What’s death? Why did she die?’
Mr. Abebe and his colleagues read repetitively on how to manage identity crises so that they can easily find solutions.
Another critical issue is religion. Mr. Abebe is a Protestant. If they are found with signs or evidence of their religion they are accepted as they are. But if the children are found with no birth card, denoting their faith, what happens then? He immediately told me that they are baptized right after they are found. Asked how he knows they are Christians? No answer, but he agreed that this is the norm.
Mr. Abebe tells me there is a clear account for transactions and how he has received funding. In addition to this, there is an annual audit on Dec 31 by an external auditor with the members of the General Assembly available. A receipt is given for every money spent.
Good hearts don’t hunger for widespread recognition or clap amid public gatherings. But the harder one works the more renowned and respected he or she becomes. That’s what Mr. Abebe’s decency and hardworking personality have delivered. But still, he insists that he has not worked harder.
The problems the Tigrians are currently facing demand both short and long-term solutions. In addition to the former works being carried out, the home has decided to construct a building to make it a living room for the displaced women with their children. Abebe, who survived from the grave and underwent a long march to make himself brave again, calls anyone with a sense of humanity to help him realize his aim.