Staying to serve youth
By Kerry Allan | Ethiopia in East Africa
While the coronavirus crisis forced many mission workers to return to their home countries, Sarah Dorman, decided to stay in Ethiopia, the country she loves.
Sarah’s first trip to Ethiopia was as a teenager, when she joined a SIM UK short-term summer team. She then did a summer placement; a gap-year-programme and an Immerse internship.
Now a fully-fledged member of SIM UK, sent by St Andrew’s Church, Oxford, she moved to Mekelle – one of the country’s regional capitals and largest cities – in October 2019.
“Moving to Ethiopia has definitely been one of the best decisions in life that I’ve ever made,” says Sarah, 26, who spends most of her time at the Mekelle Youth Centre (MYC), where each day, hundreds of youngsters attend English and computer classes, Bible club programmes, play sport and hang out in their spare time.
A few months before Mekelle declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19, Sarah launched a new initiative aimed at ‘street boys’, who have come to the city from across the region with several coming from as far as Eritrea.
“The boys, aged 10-18, come and play football, then we meet, have an English class and afterwards share tea, bananas and bread,” she explains. “The boys started to trust us and come to the youth centre after hearing how we’d helped a street boy who had suffered a serious burn injury. The programme soon expanded to include shoe-shine boys and boys doing day labour work.
“In English classes, we started by going through the alphabet and learning different greetings and numbers. In just a couple of months, we met around 70 different children, four of them girls, and around 18 turning up each time.
“We were getting to know them and they were slowly starting to share more about their lives with us, but then the centre had to close because of the virus.”
The pandemic also meant the usual MYC summer programme was cancelled, which is the centre’s busiest time of the year, when it’s not unusual for up to 1,000 youngsters to come by each day.
“The youth centre has now been shut for nearly three months and it’s still hard to walk in and not see hundreds of children running around hanging out and playing sport. We see a number of them when walking around Mekelle and we’re regularly approached with hope and the question ‘when will MYC open?’” says Sarah.
In the meantime, staff have been doing various jobs around the youth centre and recently had the opportunity to start working with a school in the city, which is currently hosting a large number of street children and vulnerable people in their classrooms.
“We are able to do programmes there as it is private property as opposed to a public facility (which MYC is). After being approached by the headmaster, our staff have begun some sports and health education programmes with the children there several times a week.”
And despite the disruption, Sarah remains positive and is taking the opportunity of lockdown to spend more time learning Tigrinya – Ethiopia’s most widely spoken language.
“Learning the language is really hard work,” she admits. “Although I can understand a lot of conversations, I struggle with contributing, so, I’ve been focusing on learning how to put sentences together and use different tenses.
“I’ve been taking Bible stories and translating them into Tigrinya and also using children’s story books in Tigrinya to practise reading, speaking and translating. My teacher Gerray is great and feel like I’m making progress.”
Sarah hopes that when the youth centre reopens, her progress in Tigrinya means she’ll be able to communicate even better with the children and young people. And thanks to new technology, Sarah never feels far away from her friends and family back in the UK.
“One of things I do to stay in touch is send birthday cards,” she says. “It’s a helpful way of thanking people for their support and those with children love it, it’s always fun getting post from Ethiopia, even if it doesn’t always arrive on time!”
• For God to give Sarah continued perseverance and patience as she learns Tigrinya.
• For Ethiopia as it deals with the coronavirus outbreak and that the measures in place help to reduce the number of cases.
• For the street and shoe-shine boys to return to the programme when it restarts.