This article is from the June edition of the Woord en Daad magazine ‘Werelddelen’
In Ethiopia, young people and children are at high risk of becoming victims of human trafficking. In addition, many of them end up in modern slavery. Woord en Daad wants to reach the most vulnerable young people with her projects. What does this require in the Ethiopian context? Ephrem Shiferaw, senior programme advisor, talks about increased opportunities and new challenges in the East African country.
‘In the projects I work for, we mainly focus on young people and children,’ says Ephrem. ‘With Employable Youth Ethiopia (EYE), we help young people, aged 15 and over, to obtain a fair income. The Combating Modern Slavery project involves children aged 6 to 14 who are at risk of becoming enslaved. In Ethiopia’s Southern Corridor, young people are very vulnerable to exploitation.’
Why are they so vulnerable precisely in that region?
‘The Southern Corridor is the most densely populated region in the country. The more people live in an area, the higher the pressure on facilities. This drives people to (illegal) migration. Inland to the capital Addis Ababa, but also across borders to the Middle East, Europe and Southern Africa – mostly South Africa. Many positive stories are being about people who have migrated before. They seem to be living a good life elsewhere. It’s usually about people who are extremely poor. There are many people working in the dreadful business of illegal migration and human trafficking, promising the vulnerable people heaven on earth. The reality is usually very different from what these beautiful stories lead one to believe.’
How do you trace the most vulnerable families?
‘We work together with various partner organisations. Each of these partner organisations has unique and complementary knowledge for the programme. They have a strong network in the communities, with the local authorities, or are deeply entrenched in the religious structures. That helps to find and actually guide these vulnerable people. One of our partner organisations has shelters where young people who are victims of exploitation and abuse are taken care of until they can be reunited with their families. Another partner organisation specialises in contact with enforcement agencies such as the police. Modern slavery is a multidimensional problem. All aspects need to be tackled in order to break the chain of poverty.
Why is it so important to help these vulnerable groups?
‘As a Christian organisation, you give a voice to those who don’t obviously have one, you are a help for people who are marginalised and who suffer from exploitation. That’s the christian mandate. It is not without reason that Woord en Daad has made it a specific policy theme to involve the most vulnerable in its projects. I was born and raised in Ethiopia, so I know the challenges from within. That’s why I feel a strong motivation to help these young people and children. One day they will be the leaders of this country. Unemployment is a problem that is high on the national agenda. Ethiopia has a population of 110 million people, 71 percent of whom are under the age of 30. The development of young people is very important for the development of a country, they bring stability and they are the future.’
Is it true that many Ethiopian children from extremely poor families do not grow up in their own families?
‘Many families are indeed falling apart as a result of poverty. For example, parents do not have the material means to care for their children. Family members can both worsen the situation of children or form a safe haven for them. That’s why the projects also focus on awareness and prevention, so that people protect their own children as well as the children in their neighbourhood from exploitation.’
What does it do to you when you’re extremely poor?
‘If you’re poor, you won’t be paid any attention. You’re poor, you’re not contributing anything to this country. That has a big impact on your psyche. Many people who are poor do not have a positive self-image nor a good image of others, because they do not experience other people as supportive. Development cooperation aims to enable people to take care of themselves and to be free from exploitation. I sometimes say: you can be materially poor, but still mentally rich. We teach people that their strength is much greater than their weaknesses. On an individual level, but also in the communities. When you get opportunities, you’re able to make choices. And the ability to make your own choices is good for your self-confidence and development. When we offer opportunities to young people, they then offer opportunities to others in their neighbourhood. That’s why they’re such powerful projects.’
Do you think the new generation believes they have more opportunities than their parents had before them?
‘A lot has changed in 20 or 30 years, access to education has improved enormously in that time. When I was in college myself, 20 years ago, there were up to 15 universities in the country. Now there are at least 43. Young people have definitely been given more opportunities. But there are also new challenges. COVID-19, for example, and other diseases, political instability, polarization worldwide. Ethnic violence, such as the civil war in the Tigray region, is an acute problem. This political instability is having an effect on stability throughout the Horn of Africa. Inflation is also extremely high. Time has therefore brought new challenges, that also push many people back into poverty. But if you educate young people well, you will give them a basis to respond well to all those challenges.’
What do you think is needed to continue to reach vulnerable people?
‘It’s necessary to reduce the risks as much as possible. For this, cooperation with all responsible parties in the area, including (local) governments, is essential. Sometimes I can get the feeling that the work we’re doing is a drop in the ocean. That’s human, but it can be frustrating. With the EYE programme, we have helped 27,000 young people into work in a year. But every year, 2 to 3 million young people enter the labour market. It’s important to keep realizing that human life isn’t about statistics. Whether we make a difference in two lives or in a few hundred, it’s about doing it. So no matter how big or small, we contribute something. That’s a good thought. Often, development projects focus only on certain aspects of the larger problem. But only through an integrated approach you can really address the root causes of poverty. At Woord en Daad we call this ‘system change’. That broad approach makes me confident.’
What is your personal motivation to contribute to development cooperation?
‘My parents were uneducated but they were determined to send me and my siblings to school. I was trained as a sociologist, and studied in the Netherlands for three more years. This in turn gives an obligation to contribute to supporting others who need my skills and knowledge. Contributing to the lives of others is an assignment from Above. So it’s also the assignment for your and my daily life.’
What would you like to say to Christians in the Netherlands?
‘We’re in this world with a purpose. You can have a materially good life, but that only takes on meaning by sharing with others. A small contribution can make a huge difference in the lives of others. I am very grateful for the backing that the supporters of Woord en Daad give to our projects. The more support there is, the more lives can be changed. We can have so much positive influence.’
Determined to get up again
Life story Dereje
‘A few years ago I chose to leave Ethiopia illegally,’ says furniture maker Dereje. ‘I was hoping it would change my life. I already knew I had made the wrong decision when I arrived in Metema, on the border with Sudan. Still, my friends and I decided to push ahead.’
There were two trucks transporting them on this dangerous journey. Dereje was in the back of the second truck. He remembers the shock he felt when the first truck came under fire from militias. No one from the first truck survived. The driver of the second truck then left them in the middle of nowhere. Dereje witnessed ‘terrible incidents, which made me very sorry for my decision. People were killed and there was almost constant violence.’ Eventually Dereje returned to the Ethiopian border. Even then, he had to give the soldiers what was left of his money to re-enter Ethiopia. He was “destitute, broken in spirit and sad.”
In 2019, Dereje was given the opportunity to follow a training through the EYE project. That provided him with a fresh start. Dereje: ‘I learned a lot there! I wanted to change my life, but I still had to find the right path. I already had the skills, but I needed determination to get back up.’ Dereje adjusted his spending pattern as much as possible, allowing him to save a certain amount. ‘It was difficult at first because I needed a machine to make furniture. Then someone turned out to be kind enough to sell me an expensive machine for half the price. I call that machine my gift from God.”
Dereje still spends as little as possible, in order to be able to invest as much as possible in his company. This enabled him to rent a storage room and buy a car. He is also doing well on a personal level: Dereje is married and he has become a father. His story shows that life can always take a turn for the better, even after traumatic events.
More information about both projects can be found on our website: