Yirga Gebregziabher Assefa has been working in HIV/AIDS prevention and support in his home country of Ethiopia for more than 20 years. He has seen a lot of progress but now recognizes to get to a new plateau of success, he’ll need new strategies and knowledge. Enter the Coady International Institute and the diploma in development leadership.
“Now it’s not the same as 20 years ago … I feel I need a different framework and different tools of change,” Assefa, the branch manager in Tigray – a province in Ethiopia – for Organization for Social Service for AIDS (OSSA), said.
“I feel this is the right place to be and get this new perspective … to go back with and start in a new way. To enrich the community and go to a new way of thinking.”
Assefa became involved with OSSA in 1994 when, as he put it, “the HIV situation became a burning agenda.”
“I was invited to attend training on HIV counseling,” he said. “That five-day training inspired me to join the fighting against HIV … it was a hidden weapon,
“I realized that if I’m not working in this field, who will be? If I’m not working in my country, in my community, then who will it be? So I took the initiative.”
Assefa said by crossing religious lines and gaining government support, OSSA was able to unify people in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
So we picked that motto, ‘let’s fight AIDS together,’” he said.
“And we started recruiting young people to work with us to translate that motto into action … that’s why the Organization for Social Service for Aids came to be functional.
“When I started in the region I’m living, I was the only one as a staff for the organization but there were 100 volunteers from the community. Now we have 90 permanent staff for the organization with 347 volunteers from the community. We’re well organized and recognized by the government as a community-based organization.”
Assefa talked about 2,000 children being orphaned due to AIDS around the time he started and now, 32 of those individuals are attending university.
“You can measure our impact on their lives; supporting them since their childhood for the last 20 years,” he said.
“I’m happy we have enabled them to go to a formal school. Of course they may face different challenges – we may not replace their parents at all – but it’s a hope and a bridge for them to move forward to see a new world, through our support.”
He also talked about battling the stigma around the disease.
“When people are not engaged they see this disease is for a specific part of the community,” he said. “They were not in a position to believe, that problem is my problem … our movement creates that.
There was a stigma and discrimination but now things are OK. This achievement comes from a collective effort in country as partners and through a strong partnership with the world by getting support. OSSA has its own great contribution, facilitation and co-ordination with these activities.”
He talked in more detail about OSSA’s work.
“We work on voluntary counseling and testing, condom distribution, media communication and information, home-to-home education, peer education – particularly in-school and out-of-school with young people because they are the ones who are vulnerable. We mobilize the community to be volunteers and support people with HIV who face illness, sickness and economic problems.”
And now the new challenges.
“We’ve slowed down the prevalence, it’s obvious, but when you solve one problem another problem comes. It’s like the challenge of climbing a mountain; you reach the peak of the first mountain you see another mountain,” Assefa said.
“There are current problems that need different perspectives. Young people; they’re now exposed, because of globalization and so on, to different cultures, different languages and ways of communicating. This can expose them to different health problems, unwanted pregnancy can happen, gender based violence can happen … this will limit the community from development.
My organization understands this and we want to transform our organization from HIV/Aids prevention only to a larger scale – reproductive health, environment health issues.
“I chose the right time to join Coady to support my organization on this process.”
At the Coady
This is Assefa’s first time in Canada and, he’ll admit, he came with a few preconceived notions which have quickly been dismissed.
“I was in the U.S., in different African countries, in Asia. I came with a different perspective based on my experience in the U.S., I’m sorry to say that. But what I get is a different type of community. It didn’t take me so much time to socialize myself with the community, to feel at home, because the community was so active in welcoming us, supporting us.”
He talked about it being customary to greet people back in his home country. Something he is seeing again while at the Coady.
“In my country we have a tradition, if you don’t know someone, if you meet them in the morning, it’s ‘good morning, how do you do?’ Or wishing them to have a good day is a normal reaction,” he said.
“But I never see it again in other countries, especially developed countries, and I had that kind of sentiment when I came. But here people are easy, behaving the same as I behave in my country. Asking me about my health, wishing me a good day … it gives me a sense of being at home.”