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Volume 7, No. 1SPRING 2004

Building long-term benefits
from immediate needs

Bishop, adoptive son support IOCC's work in Ethiopia

A group of children gathers near an Orthodox monastery in Ethiopia, an African country where AIDS has left an estimated 1.2 million children as orphans. IOCC and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are collaborating on a newly-expanded AIDS prevention campaign and a project to care for adults and children affected by HIV/AIDS. Photo: Nicholas Chakos-IOCC

Baltimore (IOCC) — When David Mesfin ponders the great needs in Ethiopia, he’s glad that IOCC is seeking long-term solutions for his homeland.

“The help should be not only in terms of food but also in terms of education — teaching Ethiopians to be more self-sufficient,” he said. “Then they can pass that legacy on to the next generation.”

Mesfin remembers when he first came to America as a 13-year-old Ethiopian boy. It was 1988, and the Ethiopian famine of 1984-1985 was still fresh in people’s minds.

“People would come up to me and ask, ‘How come you don’t look as skinny as they do on TV?’” Mesfin recalled. “They thought all of Ethiopia was a drought nation.”

Fifteen years later, Mesfin, 29, of Long Beach, Calif., doesn’t worry about public perceptions of his native land anymore. He’s more concerned with helping Ethiopians. That’s why he supports the efforts of IOCC to prevent the recurrence of famine in Ethiopia through programs of agricultural and vocational training.

In the face of another food crisis in Ethiopia, IOCC is expanding its work with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and other partners. An IOCC project supported by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls for the development of small-scale farms in northern Ethiopia and the training of young people in vocational and agricultural skills. IOCC also is addressing the scourge of HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia with a three-year, $6 million project of prevention, education and hospice care for orphans.

Mesfin, a native of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, came to the United States after being adopted by His Grace Bishop Dimitrios (Couchell), ecumenical officer of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and a longtime supporter of IOCC.

Bishop Dimitrios, accompanied by the noted nutritionist Dr. George Christakis, traveled to Ethiopia in 1985 to deliver $160,000 in monetary assistance for the Orthodox Church’s famine relief efforts. While there, Bishop Dimitrios learned about Ethiopian children who were attending a Greek-run school in Addis Ababa.

“At that time, they asked me to please try to find some parents for these orphans, who were mostly of mixed background,” Bishop Dimitrios said. One of those children was Mesfin, whose maternal grandfather was Greek. “The bishop asked me if I was interested [in being adopted], and I said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ It was an opportunity for me to go to school and to turn around and help my community,” Mesfin said.

David Mesfin, a native of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with (from left) His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and His Grace Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos, who adopted Mesfin in 1985. Photo courtesy of David Mesfin

Bishop Dimitrios stayed in Ethiopia for 10 days, visiting refugee centers and orphanages. He laments the fact that IOCC did not exist in 1985, and he still feels a special connection with his adoptive son’s homeland today.

“It makes me follow events in Ethiopia more closely,” he said. “Often I talk with David about the situation, and whenever anything comes across my desk about Ethiopia, I send it to him.”

Mesfin remembers little about the 1984-1985 famine that took the lives of nearly 1 million Ethiopians. “I was pretty young. Where the famine took place was primarily in the north. It didn’t affect us as severely in the city,” he said. “It was only after coming to the United States that I found out the true scope of the famine.”

Dr. Christakis, a specialist in nutrition-related illnesses, said the beauty and fertility of Ethiopia belied the intense suffering he witnessed during the 1985 trip with Bishop Dimitrios.

“I came away with the conclusion that Ethiopia, with the right resources, could probably feed all of Africa,” he said. Mesfin spent his teen-age years with Bishop Dimitrios in St. Augustine, Fla. “We became like father and son.

We’re best friends now,” said Mesfin, who eventually moved to Southern California to study graphic design.

Today, he is president of Visualmorph, a graphic design firm in Torrance, Calif. His mother, brothers, uncles and cousins still live in Ethiopia, but his sister moved to the United States three years ago.

Mesfin is active with the Ethiopian community in Los Angeles, raising money for IOCC and other organizations with humanitarian programs in Ethiopia. “I think IOCC is doing the right thing in working with the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia,” he said. “You can be more effective, and you’ll have a lot more support, by working through the Church.”

IOCC recently joined seven other international relief agencies in a public call for long-term solutions to break the grip of poverty and recurring famine in Ethiopia.

His Grace Bishop Dimitrios meets with two British aid workers during a 1985 visit to Ethiopia. Today, Ethiopia is fighting famine and AIDS, two threats that IOCC is addressing in partnership with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Photo courtesy of Dr. George Christakis

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