Yihenew Demessie
MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Yihenew Demessie, a program manager for an MCC partner, shares how he began reaching out to those in need in Ethiopia.

I believe that we are children of God, and that means we are to share love with others. I was born in Debre Work, about 300 kilometres from Addis Ababa. It is one of the earliest sites of Christianity in Ethiopia.

I grew up in a good family, but my father died suddenly when I was about 24 years old, and this was very hard for me and my family. I am the oldest male and it was my responsibility to take care of my mother and brothers and sisters. One sister was older than me and one was about 16; my two brothers were about 12 and nine years old. There was no one else to pay for their expenses. 

I have a degree in science and I got a job teaching physics at a high school. I did this for a few years and I also worked in a factory for a while. But it wasn’t enough money to support my family. They were growing up and on their way to university, and they needed so many things.

When God creates you, he has a purpose. Your life may be over in a second and you have to ask yourself: What did I do with my life?"

So I went far away from home and started to work in the Gambella refugee camp because I could earn more money there. It’s in Ethiopia, on the border with South Sudan. This was before South Sudan became independent in 2011, and many people were coming to the camp because of the violence across the border.

This was a turning point in my life.

When I first arrived, I was afraid. The language was different and there were so many different cultures. Even the food was different. You are dealing with people who have been through a lot of trauma. Sometimes we had to sleep outside at the camp, and I was afraid because I thought people might come to kill us.

But after a while, I started to realize that I must do something to help these refugees. They are people without hope and they have gone through so much to get here. When they told me about having to eat leaves to survive, or that people died because they couldn’t get health care, I felt so bad.

You have to put yourself in people’s shoes and imagine what that would be like. I thought, “I have a job and I have a home back with my family. What do these people have?”

When God creates you, he has a purpose. Your life may be over in a second and you have to ask yourself: What did I do with my life? This is a very important question.
I started to like being in the camp. Most of the workers were from Ethiopia like me, but some were from Sudan and Uganda. We taught the refugees about HIV and AIDS, and I helped with physics and math in the school. We provided food and kept track of the number of refugees. We also worked on peace education because there was conflict between ethnic groups.

We did whatever we could to support the refugees and I was happy doing that. I made friends and now some of the refugees who have returned to South Sudan ask me to come to visit them there.

Yihenew Demessie walks by a water drainage canal built as part of an MCC-supported project.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

I worked in the camp for four years and sent money back to my family. By the time I left in 2007, I had supported my brothers and sisters for about seven years. My oldest sister is now married and has children. The other sister is a nurse working in a pharmaceutical factory. One brother is becoming a doctor and the other is a driver.

The year before I left the camp, I was home on a visit and helping a friend who had health issues. While visiting a medical office, I asked a woman who worked there if she wanted to go for a cup of tea, and that’s how our relationship started. Then I made up reasons to go to that office. Now we are married and have three children.

In 2008 I got a job as project coordinator with Migbare Senay Children and Family Support Organization (MSCFSO) here in Debre Markos. In Amharic, Migbare Senay means “good deed.” Now I am the program manager.

We work on rehabilitating land in watersheds and also providing basic water and sanitation facilities. I like doing this kind of work in the community because I see hope and good changes happening. I am very happy working alongside MCC, because it is a great partnership. If you want a community to lift itself out of poverty and hardship, this is the way to do it.

Yihenew Demessie (second right) stands in front of a check dam in the Dejel watershed. MCC partner, Migbare Senay Children and Family Support Organization (MSCFSO) worked with MCC on rehabilitating the Dejel watershed in Ethiopia. Read more about this work.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

The Gambella refugee camp is still open and now there are many people coming there again. I think of it often because I learned an important lesson there. I am an Orthodox Christian and like others I go to church and listen to religious leaders. I read the Bible. But I have learned that it’s not just about what you hear or read; it’s about what you do. As human beings, God expects us to share and to love. This is what I believe.

Yihenew Demessie is program manager for Migbare Senay Children and Family Support Organization (MSCFSO) in Ethiopia. MCC supports MSCFSO in watershed rehabilitation, conservation agriculture and water, sanitation and health projects. Read more about MCC's work to help families have enough to eat in Ethiopia.

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