Devoted Chesterfield volunteer tells of struggles facing Ethiopia’s homeless children as Covid-19 spreads and war rages
Every year in Ethiopia hundreds of children are abandoned or orphaned - and when this happens their prospects are bleak.
Alone, vulnerable, and with no support from the state, they live on the streets and often rely on begging just to survive.
In 2015, Chesterfield teacher Kevin Morley and his wife Genet set up the Saltergate Children’s Home (SCH) in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa – determined to break this cycle for as many children as possible.
It all began with one desperate phone call from a doctor, informing the couple of a baby boy who had been abandoned outside a hospital at just a few days old, and asking for their help.
Today, SCH cares for 64 children and the boy, who they called Amanuel, is thriving and has access to education to set him on the right path for the future.
Kevin, from Grassmoor, says his association with East Africa predates this however and goes back to 2005 when he first travelled to the region to work as a maths teacher.
He then became a teacher trainer and worked across 19 schools throughout Eritrea – a country in the South of Africa close to Ethiopia – where he met Ethiopian-born Genet who was stuck on the wrong side of the border.
With help of the Red Cross, Genet was able to return to Ethiopia and the pair later married and had a daughter before making the difficult decision to move back to the UK.
Kevin, 64, said: "It’s that situation where you're torn because you can’t just walk away from that sort of work.
"On the other hand, you want the best for your daughter and the education system – basically she would not have had a relaxed or productive upbringing in that country so that was the decision to come back to the UK.
"That’s where the idea originally came from for the children’s home. You can’t walk away from it and we’ve still got a lot of family over there, we visited every year before the pandemic.
"I still wanted to work there even though I wasn’t physically there so said ‘let’s see if we can look after a lot of the children we see on the streets in Addis Ababa’, there’s 100,000 children who are sleeping on the streets there tonight. It’s very much in your face all the time.”
Although currently unable to visit Ethiopia, Kevin says Genet’s family still reside in the country and are able to watch over the children’s home and continue its work with help of volunteers.
He added: “With war raging, crop failure and Covid-19 spreading Ethiopia has more challenges than usual at this time. Despite this – or perhaps because of this - Saltergate Children’s Home has grown both in terms of the number of children we care for and the support we receive from kind and loyal donors.
"And not only children but now young adults who we have supported through secondary school and are now at university or in employment. Ethiopia is on the UK’s red list due to Covid-19, unreliable data regarding its reach, and the lack of vaccines and medical facilities to treat the disease.
"As such our regular visits have been curtailed and the last time we were in Addis Ababa was April 2019. However, we have daily contact by telephone and email with our volunteers and the children’s guardians – sometimes four or five times a day - and can confirm that the children are all healthy, happy and in safe hands.”
According to statistics, there have been just over 250,000 cases of Covid-19 and 4,000 deaths in Ethiopia – however Kevin believes the figures could be much higher due to the lack of healthcare outside the capital where little data has been collected.
“The phrase ‘everyone on the street is coughing’ has been used many times over the past year when we have called Tsege, Mahraig and Dibabe who oversee the operation when we are in the UK,” he said.
“In terms of protection, SCH is fortunate in that we have already provided sewing machines to Fasica and Feven, two of our young widowed Mums, and they have turned their hand to making masks.
"We have also ensured that all our volunteers and families have sanitizer as clean water is not readily available.”
But it is not just Covid-19 that those living in Ethiopia are currently dealing with, as Kevin mentioned, with the country’s Tigray region locked in a war that has been raging since November 2020.
This, Kevin says, was sparked following years of disagreement between the leaders of the Tigray region (TPLF) and the federal government.
“The Ethiopian government has imposed a blackout on communications to/from the conflict zone and as such the impact of the fighting has not been widely publicised around the world,” he explained.
“The United Nations, Oxfam and Save the Children have struggled to get into the conflict zone – we have family there and the news from them is dire with many accounts of atrocities including rape, starvation and countless children being orphaned.
"As a charity operating in Ethiopia we cannot ignore this and are working with a number of agencies to help children who are suffering through no fault of their own.
"Since we were founded, we have provided food, clothing, accommodation, healthcare and access to education for a growing number of children. Further, we have supported children’s guardians – usually widowed mothers – to self-sufficiency.
"We are now seeking to extend our remit and focus on a critical consideration that needs to be addressed before any of these steps to independence can take place – that of a child’s safety, in particular in a war-zone."
For more information on Saltergate Children’s Home, whose running costs are all met by its trustees, visit www.saltergatechildrenshome.org.
To sponsor Jo Heath, who is running the London Marathon 2021 in aid of the charity, click here.