Ethiopian expatriates mobilise to keep famine at bay

Ethiopia is heading towards the 'lean season' and Ethiopian expats are helping out where they can. (Barry Malone, Reuters)

Ethiopia is heading towards the 'lean season' and Ethiopian expats are helping out where they can. (Barry Malone, Reuters)

The place where you grew up has a way of staying with you for the rest of your life. Abebe Haregewoin knows that feeling.

He’s an oncologist in Silver Spring, a city in the state of Maryland in the United States. But he grew up in Ethiopia and lived in Addis 

Ababa when famine stalked the Horn of Africa nation in the 1970s and 1980s.

He’s thinking about that a lot right now as Ethiopia heads into the “lean season”.
Those are the months between planting and harvesting, when there’s little food around. 

This year, grain stocks will be more meagre than usual. In recent years the rains in the Horn of Africa haven’t followed their usual cycles. Crops have withered. Haregewoin says there’s already severe hunger and in the coming months it will be significantly worse. About 10-million Ethiopians don’t have enough food and four million children are at risk.

“But the world is now totally focused on Syria, and this is really not obvious to most people in the world,” he says, adding that the Ethiopian government and groups such as the World Food Programme are trying to spotlight the crisis.

Haregewoin knows from what he saw decades ago that hunger saps not just the body but also the spirit.

“There are people who are totally turned into monsters by starvation and hunger, stealing, fighting for food and sort of becoming extremely pathological people,” he says.

At the same time, he has witnessed how the famine has brought out the best in some Horn of Africa residents. “People share in Ethiopia; that’s our culture,” he says. “We eat together. Sharing is part of our make-up.”

Flash floods also hit many of the regions where hunger is most acute, making it difficult for trucks to reach those in need. The drought and the floods put Ethiopia on the precarious front lines of climate change.

“Climate change is not a myth; it’s a reality,” he says. “I have seen it in my own lifetime.”

With an even more severe hunger crisis in the offing, some Ethiopian expatriates have mobilised to seek donations to help those in need. Haregewoin set up a Go Fund Me page to support food aid. So did Ethiopian Abraham Debebe from Minneapolis. The two men found each other and joined ranks. It took them just a few weeks to raise more than $30 000.

But the need is great and, for Haregewoin, the possibility of another devastating famine is always foremost on his mind.

“I think about Ethiopia day and night,” he says. “I worry about Ethiopia, I am spiritually, mentally connected to Ethiopia.”

And that, he says, is the reality for so many Ethiopian expatriates, who feel especially far from their homeland in its moment of need. —

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