By Seleshi Tessema
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia
Nebyu Sele Enat and his friend Halwet Sele Enat are barely one-and-a-half-years-old, bright-eyed smiling kids competing for the warmth of their caregiver, Meraf Eyasu.
Eyasu, 29, has nurtured many children under the roofs of Sele Enat, a walled old building filled with stories both disheartening and encouraging. It is located in the southern part of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
A year or so ago, when light appeared over the skies of the capital, Nebyu and Halwet woke up crying to their fates near a church and a garbage site, on different days. They were taken to nearby police stations by early morning churchgoers and people on their daily routines.
The duty officers who registered the abandoned kids named them Nebyu and Halwet.
Their second name, Sele Enat, is not the name of a biological father. It is a name given to an institution, an orphanage, which has been taking care of children who have lost one or both of their biological parents to AIDS or other diseases, or been abandoned by their parents due to various reasons.
Eyasu is one of the nurses at Sele Enat, an indigenous orphanage which currently hosts some 70 orphans. Some of them are healthy, others are HIV positive, and few of them are disabled.
According to UNICEF, Ethiopia, the second-most populous nation in Africa with about 102 million people, has one of the largest orphan populations in the world. Nearly 13 percent of the children live without one or both parents.
“There are an estimated 4.5 million orphans … of which approximately 800,000 have lost their parents to AIDS,’’ according to UNICEF, estimating that the number of AIDS orphans is some 2.5 million.
Official figures put the number of HIV-positive children under age 15 to be some 160,000.
Achamyelehe Alebachew, a senior expert with Ethiopia’s Federal HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Office (FHAPCO), told Anadolu Agency that Ethiopia is one the nations hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which has wiped out families and forced communities to devote most of their productive time to taking care of patients and orphaned children.
“Over the past two decades or so, we have built freely accessible HIV/AIDS treatment centers in all hospitals and clinics throughout the country,” he said.
“The centers provide voluntary counseling and testing, anti-retroviral drugs, and the prevention of mother-to-child transmission service.”
Some 718,000 people in Ethiopia live with HIV/AIDS, and every year some 20,000 people die of AIDS, leaving an estimated 100,000 children orphaned, he said.
“We need to increase the current 60 percent coverage of the prevention of mother-to-child transmission. We’re also working on ways to increase the number of children taking antiretroviral drugs,’’ he explained.
Alebachew said that children orphaned by AIDS had been assisted primarily by families, NGOs, and religious institutions.
“However, the demand exceeds the available resource,’’ he said, adding that recently employees of different government agencies had begun helping the orphans by contributing from their monthly salaries.
“This is a good experience, and we’re planning to make it a national mode of support.’’
‘Disheartening and encouraging’
On a sunny morning, Sele Enat was filled by the smiles and voices of children playing on the grounds and rooms of the orphanage. In one of the rooms were prospective adoptive couples from Europe and North America. They were acquainting themselves with Nebyu and others by carrying them and playing with them.
But two children were getting no attention from the prospective foreign adopters. Both were bed-ridden and disabled.
“These two kids have been with us for some two years,’’ said Zelalem Eteffa, acting manager of the orphanage. “Their biological parents had refused them or were unable to raise them, and they left them here. We are providing all the necessary care.’’
According to Etefa, Sele Enat was established a decade ago by a philanthropic woman who realized the problems of children orphaned by AIDS.
“Ever since then, we’ve been taking care of children abandoned, or orphaned by AIDS and other diseases,’’ he said, adding that they work to find local or foreign adoptive families for the children.
It is here that the hand of destiny may be felt.
“We have to make sure that kids are free of HIV, and when some of them were found to be HIV positive, we are deeply saddened,’’ Eyasu said, in a subdued tone.
She continued: “When physicians instruct us to put them on an antiretroviral regime, the kids ask why all kids don’t have to take the drugs. There are no easy answers, and we shed warm tears.’’
Professional counsellors will tell the kids the reasons why they have to take the drug throughout their lives.
“Some will be shattered to pieces, others will take it as their fate. But as they grow up, all proved to be normal and many managed to become good college students.
“This is one of the encouraging stories of the kids,’’ she added.
Etefa said that AIDS orphans often suffer from discrimination and stigma. “Those who find it unbearable abandon their communities and end up on the streets, and could become child domestic worker or child prostitutes,” he related.
“There is another disheartening fate of AIDS orphans,” he said. “No one is interested in adopting them.’’
On Jan. 10, a piece of unexpected news shattered the dreams of the likes of Nebyou and Hewlet and three European couples working to adopt kids from Sele Enat.
The news said that the Ethiopian Parliament had adjourned after passing a measure to ban all international adoptions. The decision states that “orphans and vulnerable children will be cared for by local adopters and traditional mechanisms.”
For the last two decades, Ethiopia has been one of the main sources of international adoption for European and American families, including film stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who adopted their daughter, Zahara, here.
But rights groups and the Ethiopian government had decried the adoption process as a deeply flawed lucrative “baby-buying business” which could end in child trafficking and abuse.
“The decision effectively quashed the hopes of the likes of Nebyu and many prospective foreign adopters who were a click away from legally taking some of our kids,’’ Etfa said.
According to him, the ban could shut the door on abuses associated with some aspects of international adoption, but there is long way to go before persuading and motivating local adopters to fill the gap created by the ban.
Ayalew and Hawlet, whose HIV status is not yet known, are not aware of the ban and will continue to play and grow into an unknown future.