Gospel refuge for Ethiopia’s hidden children
By Tim Allan | Ethiopia in East Africa
The house looks like many others in the Ethiopian lakeside resort of Bahir Dar – discreet, behind large metal gates and hidden from prying eyes.
You enter through a door in the gate and come into the small, shaded front garden. A brick built two-storey house, with shaded verandahs, sits behind. After the dusty streets outside, it is a welcome haven amid the hustle and bustle of the town.
But this is no ordinary house; no, this is a house with a purpose; a house where children are offered hope, encouragement and, perhaps most important of all, love.
What unites these children is that they are all disabled. All have physical disabilities and some have cognitive disabilities too. These are the children who are served by SIM’s long-standing ministry, Hidden Abilities.
Started by SIM workers John and Phyllis Coleman seven years ago, Hidden Abilities provides physiotherapy and occupational therapy to children who would otherwise have no help. The Colemans had a disabled daughter and, in trying to help her, they saw the desperate need for such a centre in Bahir Dar.
In the honour-shame culture of northern Ethiopia, having a disabled child is seen as a mark of disfavour with God. The children are often shut away behind closed doors, sometimes even chained. The Colemans knew God thought differently about those children and so Hidden Abilities was born.
The centre is now being run by American Jake Wilson and his Ethiopian wife, Asse. The couple, who met in Ethiopia and have two young children, used to work at a youth centre in Mekelle but had to move to Bahir Dar because of the conflict in northern Ethiopia.
Their heart is to share the gospel through their work, making the most of every opportunity to explain why they are doing what they do. The town they work in has a complicated faith make-up, with Orthodox Christians making up the vast majority, a growing Muslim population and a very small number of Protestant Christians.
While they cannot always be as explicit about their faith as they would like, they do take every opportunity to pray with and for the families they serve.
Jake said: “We hadn’t planned to work in a centre like this but God opened the door for us to come and use our gifts here.
“We don’t have physio training but we have both done a lot of sports ministry. Asse has a background in social work and we both worked with the parents of disabled children in Mekelle, so we understand the hurt. We’ve also done trauma healing training and that all helps when we connect with the families who come here.
“We don’t do any of the hands-on work, but we are helping run the administrative side of the centre and encouraging the staff.”
There are very few physios in Ethiopia, so the centre relies on expatriate mission workers to lead the treatments and train local workers.
When I visited, the lead physiotherapist was 30-year-old German Melanie Krieger, who was working with her 24-year-old cousin, Sarah, an occupational therapist. Together, they were treating many of the children, but also supervising the work of the six local staff, many of whom have worked at the centre for several years and have been given basic training by expatriate volunteers.
The centre treats children of all ages, from birth up to the age of 18. No two children are the same, so the treatments have to be tailor-made.
Besides a shortage of trained staff, the centre also struggles to find the kind of equipment which would be regarded as standard in wealthier parts of the world. They have been blessed by expatriate handymen, who have made some pieces and helped local craftsmen do the same.
The centre does not charge any of the families who come and often help with transport costs. They also help the poorest families with food, medical and education expenses, sometimes paying school fees or buying uniforms and books.
Jake, who also teaches deaf children at a nearby school, said: “We operate very much on a shoe-string and we pay our staff a very modest wage.
“Our biggest need is for people – we’d love to find local physios but we also need expatriate physios, occupational therapists, teachers and carpenters! We’re happy to take people short-term or long-term so if you would like to help change children’s lives here in Bahir Dar, please get in touch!”
•For the children who come to Hidden Abilities – that they would understand how much God loves them.
•For the staff, that they would learn well and stay motivated as they help the children develop.
•For God to raise up more workers for ministry to disabled children in Ethiopia.
If you would like more information about Hidden Abilities, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.