Reunifying Ethiopian HIV Orphans With Extended Family

Integrating orphans back into their own communities and cultures is a key aspect of the mission of Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO). WWO has worked diligently to complete psycho-social assessments on the 39 orphans with HIV/AIDS who reside in Des's Village, an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We learned a lot from the assessments about the past social history of these children and their families in far off towns and cities. For the past two years, WWO has assumed guardianship of these sweet and loving children who have suffered stigma and abandonment due to their HIV positive status. In that time period, visits were arranged with family members for some of the children. We have fostered these relationships and have seen the connection with family grow.

On July 16, eight children from Des's Village went to visit with family in various parts of Ethiopia. WWO worked with their families to arrange extended overnight visits.... a very tender and jubilant moment. Dr. Sophie Mengistu, WWO Ethiopia Country Director, was humble and yet very proud when we spoke by Skype that Saturday about the kids leaving for their family visits. Her hope is that some of them can eventually return to their families permanently and that WWO will continue to support their medical care, education and final independence. I cried and Dr. Sophie, in her usual way... laughed. Her sweet and joyful laughter of happiness has been in my head all day.

It was a magical moment. WWO is fulfilling the destiny of our work -- to really know the intimate details of the children we serve and to help them become independent individuals. We are also helping to break the cycle of extreme poverty and to invite these kids back into their communities. Our work dares to face and solve the complex social issues of different cultures and to go deep and find out about the tragedies that so commonly affect children in the developing world.

The other kids at Des's Village who have no apparent family at this time were sad, of course. So, Dr. Sophie took them to a local amusement park by bus. They looked beautiful and happy at the park and people asked who all the kids were and Sophie was very proud to say that they were her children. Yes, indeed they are in fact Dr. Sophie's kids.

The task of reuniting orphans living with HIV with their family was daunting from so many angles. These children were abandoned because of their HIV status and to have their families take them back into their hearts is a gargantuan achievement. Learning a new way of thinking is one of the hardest challenges for all human beings... and this step is breathtaking. Just go back to the 1980s and 90s in the U.S. when Ryan White, an American boy with HIV, wasn't allowed to go to school; when hospital staff donned spacesuits to serve meals to patients with HIV; and when people feared friends with HIV/AIDS. And finally all over the world, disclosure of HIV status takes years of hard work and rarely seems to occur.

More than this, however, is the potential of reunification of families. Our ultimate goal should be providing opportunities to bring orphans back to their families so they can grow and thrive in a family environment.