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Q & A: Orphaned Melissa FAy Green


Q & A: Orphaned
By Melissa Fay Greene

In a dusty tin-walled compound on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a middle-class woman named Haregewoin Teferra suffered back-to-back losses: first her husband died of a heart attack; then her beloved 23-year-old daughter was consumed by an unnamed sickness. In grief, Haregewoin turned to the church and asked to be taken into seclusion.

Instead of allowing the bereft woman to leave the world, the church presented her with two teenage orphans and asked her to house them. Over the startled protests of her friends and family, Haregewoin said yes.

Once she opened her gate to the first two children, she never really managed to close it again. Her compound became known as a haven: here was a woman who did not run away from HIV-positive individuals and AIDS-orphaned children. From across the country, children were brought to Haregewoin on foot, by bus, or by donkey cart.

There are a million AIDS orphans in Ethiopia; Orphaned shares the remarkable stories of a few of them, through the eyes of an author whose own life was altered while researching Haregowin's story.

Read on for an interview with Melissa Fay Greene. Click here to buy the book.

Q: The newspaper stories about AIDS orphans are overwhelming. How do you rise above that and respond to this crisis?

 A:  The HIV/AIDS crisis is overwhelming. You can't rise above it; it’s vast and deep and terrible.  

It's beyond mastery even by the leaders of global health organizations, the presidents of nations, the richest philanthropists.
25 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. The price-tag to save them is in the billions. 

Will we do it?

As non-heads of governments or of multinational corporations, as non-billionaires, we might simply begin with the feeling, “This is my fight, too.”

As we were moved by images of Indonesian citizens whose villages and families were crushed by the tsunami, and by photos from New Orleans of Americans trapped on their roof-tops and drowned in the flood, so we are moved by the devastation wrought by HIV/AIDS, which looks something like the tsunami in slow motion.

And it turns out that we are not helpless.

We can GIVE, we can LOBBY, and we can ACT. 

We give through The Global Fund, or UNAIDS, or Doctors Without Borders, or the International Red Cross, or the Rotary Club, or World Wide Orphans, or the William J. Clinton Foundation, or the Bill Gates foundation, or through a religious organization fielding frontline workers.

We lobby our U.S. representatives and senators to FUND the Global Fund, to untie the shackles impeding the aid offered by President Bush's anti-AIDS program, PEPFAR (such as refusal to fund life-saving condoms.) We think we are big givers, we Americans, but, proportionately, our nation is at the very bottom, the very stingiest of the Western democracies sharing their wealth with Africa.

We can act in many ways.

We can visit Africa and see for ourselves the beauty and the devastation, the gracefulness of the citizens and the brutality of what experts call “absolute poverty,” the poverty of people subsisting on less than a dollar a day.

We can visit Africa online. There are hundreds of websites hosted by individual African orphanages and schools! 

We can write or email them and ask how to help.

I just bought 25 pounds of SHOES for an Ethiopian orphanage. I parked my grocery cart in the shoe-sale aisle of Target and began flinging shoes of every size and color through the air. I drove from Target to Fed-Ex and stuffed them into a carton, to mail to a friend who’d agreed to cram them into her duffle-bags for her flight to Addis Ababa (because it’s prohibitively expensive to ship directly to Ethiopia.) It was fun! Even the cashiers enjoyed piling up all the shoes, once they knew where they were going. I don’t know if my friend had so much fun dragging the shoes through the Seattle airport, but she’ll surely have fun distributing them.

Many trustworthy programs offer programs for sponsorship of individual children or young people. Find a small organization working in a single locale and make yourself known to the staff. And there are always opportunities to volunteer overseas; health professionals, teachers, and social workers are in desperately short supply.

Q:   This is also a very hopeful look at this difficult issue. What gives you hope in the midst of all this suffering?

A:  The resilience of the children.
It is well-established in the adoption world that a child who has known love, who has started life in a family, is eager to love again, to become part of a family again. The children who are fostered or adopted within Africa or to foreign countries are not at all crippled by the trauma they've survived; they’ve shown themselves to be joyful and loving. Of course they mourn, of course they treasure memories and relics of their late parents, but they attach and they thrive. My daughter Helen, who arrived in the U.S. at five-and-a-half, having lost her father to AIDS when she was two and her mother when she was five, is now ten.  Where do I begin?  She's a gifted student, athlete, and musician; she plays the flute and studies Hebrew and Spanish; she’s popular, ebullient, and graceful; she’s beautiful and she's a comedian.  When she ponders her career choices,
she's pulled between modeling and medicine, with time out to be a fashion designer, all of which will happen, naturally, after she competes in the Olympics (possibly distance running, but maybe gymnastics or swimming, she hasn't decided.)  Oh, and she wants to drive a yellow convertible but will always always always live either in our house or next-door. The African AIDS orphans are not a "lost generation."

At least not yet.

We must not lose hope for them.

Q:  This has become a family affair, with one of your sons working in an orphanage and your other children joining you on your trips to Ethiopia. How can we raise our children to be aware of this issue and how they can help?

A:  Our children’s generation is growing up on a smaller earth than we did. They attend school amidst the most diverse population of children in America's history.  They breeze, on the internet, through the portals of foreign countries; when researching Peru or Equatorial Guinea, they do not withdraw dusty tomes from the library's reference collection; with three clicks of a computer mouse, they gaze instead at photos broadcast from that nation's tourism bureau or they gather information first-hand from a classmate or soccer coach. I'm not sure Africa feels as far away to our children as it did to most of us in childhood.

When my daughter Lily was president of her elementary school in 5th grade, she launched a school supply drive for children in an Ethiopian orphanage and truckloads of supplies poured in, accompanied by drawings and letters.

My son Lee, 18, spent this past spring volunteering in four Ethiopian orphanages, two for HIV-positive children, two for HIV-negative children.  He founded an orphanage soccer league, to the extraordinary joy of the kids.

My 18-year-old niece, Annie Greene of Dayton, Ohio, started a letter-writing campaign in her high school on behalf of the victims of the genocide in Darfur.  650 letters went from middle- and high-school students to Ohio’s two U.S. senators, demanding action and accountability.

Children and teenagers are eager to make contact. We have but to make contact ourselves and lead the way. The message we relay is one our children probably feel instinctively already: that the African children are children just like themselves.

Q: There were no anti-AIDS drugs for children in Africa until last year. What kind of an impact has this made in keeping children alive?

A:  The most shocking places I've seen in my life are the African orphanages for HIV-positive children.

They are "orphanages" in the sense that orphans live there; but, in truth, they are hospices. There is nothing the most loving caregivers on the continent can do for the HIV-infected children in their care except make the children’s deaths as gentle as possible.

This is not true here.
In America, babies and children don’t die of AIDS.
Their mothers don’t infect them because the mothers themselves get treatment.
This is the single most crucial issue.

Only one in five -- maybe -- of African AIDS-sufferers have access to life-saving treatment.

Only one in ten -- at best -- of African HIV-positive children have access to treatment.

At the vast majority of little hole-in-the-wall orphanages and big nicely-landscaped orphanages across Africa, all the HIV-positive children will die.

Most will die before age two.

A few hardy fighters will make it to eight or eleven, and then die.

I was lucky to be part of the decision by one small foundation -- World Wide Orphans, of New York City -- to go into Addis Ababa and set up a free pediatric AIDS clinic. I’m on the board of WWO. Last September we started 50 orphans on life-saving treatment. By the end of 2006, we will have 200 children receiving treatment.

How do they feel?

There is a soccer team of HIV-positive girls who are, as of this date, undefeated! 

There is a boy named Surafel, who, a year ago, refused to get up and go to school because he knew he was going to die? “WHAT,” he asked, “is the POINT?” Within weeks of being started on the anti-retroviral medications by WWO’s clinic, he was up and running.  “I’m going to be in the top of my class,” he told me.  “I’m about 20th now, but I’m going to be number one.”

Q:   The book is a very nuanced and real account of a hero journey (Haregewoin's) and doesn't take the usual shortcut of making a hero either a martyr or a villain. How did you deal with the allegations she faced and her arrest?

A:  The completed manuscript was due at the end of December 2005.
On December 15, Haregewoin phoned me from prison. I then phoned the editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury.

“How are things going!” she enthused.

“Well, the book’s going nicely,” I said, “but things have just gotten a litle weird in Ethiopia.”

The first step was to make sure Haregewoin’s children were being cared for in her absence. World Wide Orphans’ pediatric AIDS clinic staff stepped in and re-supplied the houses with childcare, food, and medicine.

The next step was to despair:  “Who is she?” I lamented about Haregewoin. “I’ve nearly finished a book about her and I don’t even know who she is!” And I had to complain: “But I wrote this book already!” because in my first book, Praying for Sheetrock, the hero winds up in jail.

She got out of jail.

I tried to calm down.

I flew to Addis to see her and she told me the whole story.

I had to forgive her for being human, for making mistakes, and I had to acknowledge that I had kind of thought I was writing about a saint.

I needed an emergency extension from the publisher, and got it. I began the book anew. Pretty early on in the book now, I make the observation that my hero is no saint. I mention it as if, of course, I knew it all along. I didn’t. I had to learn it. It was a lesson worth knowing: you don’t have to be a saint to rescue other people from suffering and death. You can just be an everyday decent-enough sort of regular person, nothing extraordinary, and yet turn lives around.

Click here to buy Orphaned.