In the late 1970s Asfaha Hadera, from the Tigray region of Ethiopia, found himself walking to Sudan to escape the oppressive Marxist regime of Emperor Mengistu. In eastern Sudan, Asfaha found a refugee camp of Ethiopians who were also seeking asylum. Immediately he engaged in organizing the refugee community – transporting water, setting-up make-shift schools, self help programs and also providing spiritual guidance.
Through the International Rescue Committee Asfaha was eventually resettled to New York City in 1979 – after a brief six months in France. Though Asfaha enjoyed a relative life of ease and steady employment in France, he remembers it as, “a dark six months.” In France he was unable to work at what he felt was, and remains, his moral obligation – giving back to fellow refugees and disadvantaged persons.
Shortly after adopting to life in the Bronx, Asfaha began work as a photographer – providing passport photos, license photos and other such essential photos to resettled refugees. Recognizing a need for a more full-spectrum support system for refugees, Asfaha formed an advisory board, composed of dedicated friends, and founded The Committee to Aid Ethiopian Refugees. The year was 1981, and the headquarters of this humble organization was apartment 28, 2327 Andrews Avenue, the Bronx – also his home.
The goal then, as now, was to aid and assist fellow refugees as they transitioned into life in America. Specifically, that entailed providing refugees with referrals to health care, English classes, and Social Security registration among other services. The operations were funded from Asfaha’s meager salary: $86 USD/ week, and with help from many volunteers. As the organization grew, it required more and more of Asfaha’s attention and eventually his employer gave him an ultimatum: either focus more energy on your job, or quit. Refusing to turn his back on his responsibilities to the refugee community, Asfaha quit his job as a photographer.
Simultaneously, it became apparent that a real office was going to be necessary if operations were to continue to expand; the challenges were mounting. Even in apparently dire situations however, things have a way of working out for those striving, in earnest, for the betterment of their fellow man.
Asfaha described the search for rent free office space,
“One Sunday afternoon in June, 1982 I knocked on every door from the Bronx to the Upper West Side to Harlem, looking for office space. On 35th street, between Park and Madison, I happened upon the Community Church of New York. It was raining, so I walked in.”
Much to his pleasure, Asfaha enjoyed a wonderful sermon on social justice by minister Bruce Southworth. Following the sermon, he told minister Southworth he was working to assist refugees, but in desperate need of free office space. Astonishingly, the pastor told him of an available, rent free office just next to the church in building 28.
Around the same time, Asfaha also passed an aptitude test and was employed by the UN in the Department of Conference Services. This job provided more funds for The Committee to Aid Ethiopian Refugees’ operating budget. For the first time in a long time Asfaha was living a relatively comfortable life and feeling secure about the future of his budding organization. Eventually, however, Asfaha would also leave his job at the UN to focus full-time on the development of The Committeee to Aid Ethiopian Refugees.
Today, some twenty six years later the organization operates under the name African Services Committee (ASC). While the name has changed, programs have been added and others expanded, the spirit and mission remain very much the same – focused on giving back and providing for refugees and disadvantaged persons. Along the way, in 1985, Kim Nichols joined ASC as a volunteer – today her and Asfaha are married and she is co-executive director of ASC in New York.
In New York, ASC continues to provide health, housing, legal and social services for resettled refugees. In 2003, ASC expanded operations into Ethiopia, with the goal of supporting the local community in the fight against AIDS. Services provided by ASC-Ethiopia include: HIV prevention outreach, condom distribution, HIV counseling and testing, diagnosis and referral to care, CD4 testing and monitoring patients for treatment, pediatric HIV/ AIDS case management, reproductive health and family planning, nutritional supplements, and training in HIV counseling and testing.
ASC brought the same time tested, grass roots approach – developed in the New York offices – to Ethiopia. The staff is entirely Ethiopian, and many of them are themselves HIV positive. The operating budget varies from year-to-year, depending on funding, but the entire operation was begun with a $25,000 grant from American Jewish World Services.
At the time, it was not clear from where future funding would come. But, Asfaha trusted it would come and, slowly but surely, it has trickled in. Mainly, this is due to the effectiveness of outreach, support and awareness African Services Committee provides HIV/ AIDS patients in Ethiopia. From January, 2003 to July, 2008 ASC-Ethiopia, with a total staff of 47, has achieved the following: counseling and testing to 69,857 patients, awareness and public sensitization for testing – 110,763 patients, 1,307,395 condoms provided, reproductive health services to 2,760 patients, CD4 testing for 3,435 patients, provided 446 orphans with educational material for years 2004-07, tested 1,409 children for HIV – of which 22% were positive, and provided 4,775 patients with vitamins.
As with so many grass roots organizations, funding is one of the main obstacles preventing ASC from reaching more patients and setting up more clinics in the rural community. Some of ASC-Ethiopia’s generous supporters include: American Jewish World Service, HAT Foundation, Izumi Foundation, International Foundation, and New Field Foundation among others.
Disappointingly enough, ASC hasn’t received a penny from USAID, which claims to have ‘contributed more than $7 Billion to fight the [HIV/ AIDS] pandemic’ since 1986. Nor does ASC operate on a fraction of the budget of the Clinton Foundation – though not made public, it is reported the foundation raised over $124 million in 2007, which went to a complex gaggle of ‘Clinton Initiatives.’ To put things in perspective, the Clinton Foundation completed a $165 million presidential library in Little Rock in 2004; African Services Committee – Ethiopia’s headquarters is a small office at the top of a five story building, without an elevator.
Large, robust organizations, both public and private, have no doubt contributed greatly to the fight against HIV/AIDS – the Clinton Foundation claims 1.4 million people are ‘benefiting from medicines purchased under CHAI agreements,’ and USAID continues to support the fight against HIV/AIDS in over 120 countries. I wonder, however, if a great deal of that funding – rather than the comparatively small $200 million USAID set aside for faith-based and community organizations – would not be more effective in the hands of appropriately sized, grass roots organizations, operated by locals.
Effective grass roots organizations are not hard to find when you are on the ground – I’ve written about a few here on Lamp Post Reports – but one must be looking for them, as these organizations have no line item in their budgets for ‘advertising,’ ‘lobbyist,’ ‘investor relations/ communications,’ ‘brand development and awareness,’etc. People like Asfaha Hadera are giving back all over Ethiopia and beyond, and they deserve our attention, respect, and funding as they are frugal, effective stewards of the capital with which they have been entrusted.
As US citizens and tax payers, it is our moral obligation to request our tax dollars be channeled to effective organizations. As donors and philanthropist, we must shrewdly analyze the operations of the foundations we choose to support – if they are not effective stewards of the capital with which they have been entrusted, find an organization that is and redirect your donations. When refugees are dedicating their lives to serving fellow refugees and disadvantaged persons, the least the rest of us can do, as tax payers and donors, is to support their efforts as best we can.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia