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Religious in Ethiopia offer a future to those in need

Strength in unity

 Strength in unity  ING-045
10 November 2023

Abebech, an Ethiopian mother who arrived in Addis Ababa from Zwai in search of work, was taken in by the Missionaries of Charity to help her give birth to her baby. She then went to live and study cutting and sewing at the Mary Help College of the Salesian Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, and she now works in a clothing company. Ruth, an Eritrean migrant, left the Mai-Aini Refugee Camp in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, knocked on the door of the Jesuit Refugee Service (jrs) refugee centre in the Ethiopian capital, and now studies hairdressing at the jrs training centre. If she receives assistance to open her own small business after graduating, then she will stop looking for opportunities in Europe. Samuel, who grew up on the streets, in the Addis Ababa suburb of Mexico, accepted Father Angelo’s invitation to go to the Don Bosco Children Centre, and thanks to the Salesians’ training, he now makes 4,000 birr a month (67 euro, which in Ethiopia is a decent salary) working at a leather-bag factory, and lives with friends in a home they rent.

They are some of the 1,500 internally displaced persons, ‘returning’ migrants, and refugees from other African countries, whose lives have changed thanks to a pilot project launched in late 2020 in Addis Ababa by the Global Solidarity Fund ( gsf ), in collaboration with women’s and men’s religious congregations, that, with gsf , have the aim of working together with private companies and international organisations to strengthen their commitment to improving the lives of vulnerable people. The Global Solidarity Fund supported the establishment of a consortium that now involves the following five religious congregations, coordinated by the Archdiocesan Socio-pastoral Commission: Salesians and Salesian Sisters (Daughters of Mary Help of Christians), Ursuline Sisters, Missionaries of Charity, and Jesuits (through the Jesuit Refugee Service). Each congregation, with its own specificities, has its own role in creating a pathway that has enabled many beneficiaries to acquire skills, through vocational training, that have enabled them to enter into the local labour market, either through employment in a company, or by starting their own small business.

The Missionaries of Charity, in the inter-congregational network, provide healthcare, especially for the many women displaced from rural Ethiopia or by the recently-ended war in the nation’s Tigray region, but also for those expelled from the Arab Gulf countries where they had emigrated after traumatic experiences. Many arrive in Addis Ababa with unwanted pregnancies or after being abandoned by their partners. The sisters assist them in childbirth free of charge, and often convince the young women who initially did not wish to keep their children, or give birth, to reconsider. Mothers and their babies are taken in for a few months in facilities, such as the Nigat Centre. From there they are directed, with the help of social workers, to training courses by the Salesian Sisters, in fashion design, domestic help or IT; by the Salesians, in leatherwork, carpentry, graphic design, welding, electrical work and printing; by the Ursuline Sisters, in clothing production; or by the Jesuit Refugee Service, in IT, catering, hairdressing and manicuring. Some of these congregations, such as the Salesians and Jesuits, are involved in the graduates’ job placement, with jrs having extensive experience in supporting the start-up of small enterprises.

Migrants and refugees from other African countries, adding to the more than 4 million inhabitants of Ethiopia’s ever-expanding capital city, also find a first welcome in the jrs refugee centre in Addis Ababa. An example of this welcome is Ruth, who said she left Eritrea because she wanted to “change the life” of her family. There are about 62,000 Eritreans who have arrived in Addis Ababa, says Solomon Brahane, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Ethiopia, mainly because of the conflict in Tigray. Another 11,000 are Yemeni, Sudanese, South Sudanese, Congolese and other nationalities. “Since 2017, Saudi Arabia’s government has started a policy of repatriation and expulsion of refugees from Ethiopia,” explained Solomon Dejene, head of the Global Solidarity Fund project in Ethiopia.

“So, every month about 40,000 Ethiopians return from Saudi Arabia. Most of them have nothing left. The government gives them a small amount of money to return home, but many stay in the city. We are taking them in, to offer them new possibilities, training them with the help of the different congregations.”

This is what happened to Jerusalem, who returned to Ethiopia after a painful experience in an Arab country in the Gulf. We met her at the Nigat Centre, a Salesian structure given, in use, to the Missionaries of Charity, and opened in October 2022. It accommodates 38 displaced women with their children. At Mary Help College, Jerusalem and the other young mothers at the Nigat Centre, have studied or are still studying, cutting and sewing, domestic help, and computers. The Salesian Sisters welcome the little ones of pupils and former pupils in their kindergarten.

Another training centre in the clothing industry is the Ursuline Sisters’ Sitam boarding school, where we met Bethlehem, an internal migrant from Bole Subcity, a mother of four, who, once graduated, started her business with the help of the local authority. “They gave me love, they gave me skills, and knowledge,” she told us. “The only words I have are ‘thank you.’ If I had financial support, to buy sewing machines and especially consumable equipment, I could expand my business and give work to others, who are also graduating.”

In the St Michael’s Centre, which houses the offices of the Socio-Pastoral Commission of the Archdiocese of Addis Ababa, the heads of the various congregations involved in the project are meeting to consider how to move from an experimental phase to a more stable one. An agreement has also been signed with a bank and another financial institution to provide micro-credits to migrants who want to start their own businesses. Here, we met the head of the commission, Father Petros Berga, who reminded us that in the past “each congregation, with its own training centre, only worked individually.” But now, “thanks to this Global Solidarity Fund consortium programme, they are working together, and are stronger than before. We have been able to train more than 1,500 young people, and more than 70 percent have found work in this project period.”

The unitary training hub, the priest noted, has been created: “the job placement hub, and then, the job-creation, and self-employment hub, and also the health hub.” Father Berga is convinced that it is important to continue this good work for the benefit of young people and women “who need our assistance. It is an important project, because it saves lives. The government and other institutions, along with the companies we have been contacting,” the priest said, “are very supportive of the project because we give solid training to these young people and women. In the next phase, hopefully a three-year programme, with the help of Global Solidarity Fund, we would like to train 10,000 beneficiaries.”


By Alessandro Di Bussolo
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia