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What if it were possible for Ethiopia's poorest children, to get the education they deserve?

Eden and her son Eyouses, in front of their home.

By SALLIANNE DECKERT

Eden and her son Eyouses burst into laughter as they work through the alphabet chart stuck to the wall.  They have a loving, easy bond and brilliant smiles that light up the room and for a moment I forget we’re standing in their one-room mud shack in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

Five year old Eyouses was given a small blackboard to help his learning. Having run out of chalk, the blackboard now covers a large hole in the wall, but it’s still bitterly cold inside.  Their furnishings are a shared mattress on the floor, a cupboard and a photo of Eyouses’ father.  Shot dead at the border of Sudan before his son was born, Mikias’ image now looks down from its place of honour as his little family go about their day.

Despite their desperate circumstances, today this is a place of joy and we are sharing in a traditional coffee ceremony to celebrate. Eyouses has just become the newest student to be accepted into The School of St Yared and that news changes everything.

Six months ago we sold everything from our unit on the Arafura Sea in Arnhem Land Australia and, lugging 4 suitcases, an aid package and 8 pieces of hand luggage (9 if you count our three year old) boarded a plane to be a part of this amazing school.
Volunteering for two years in a developing country is a long way from my former career in television, but sitting here accepting a small cup of coffee from Eden I can easily say this is the most satisfying work I’ve ever done.

Eden and her son Eyouses, laughing.

The School of St Yared changes lives.  It’s as simple as that.

In 2008, Yared Wolde led a small group of kindergarten students into the first class at The School of St Yared.  Six years later, the school roll includes 189 names -all these children are severely impoverished but bright, resilient, passionate about learning and one day contributing to their country as doctors, engineers and scientists. Education rebuilds the self-esteem that poverty undermines, and these children, once tiny and timid are now bristling with confidence and large dreams.

For his part, Yared knows what it’s like to be poor.  His father was drafted in the war with Eritrea and killed. The rest of his family died of tuberculosis soon after, forcing him to the streets for three years. In their brief time together, his mother instilled in him the value of education, and with that conviction behind him, Yared worked odd jobs to put himself through school, eventually landing in a series of orphanages. It was here, aged nine, that he met Jacqui Gilmour – a Perth woman determined to do something for the children of Ethiopia.

Years later, they established The School of St Yared – an experiment based on the question: “What might be possible for Ethiopia’s poorest children given a learning environment that supports the realisation of their true value and potential?”  And so the school provides three meals a day, two uniforms and a quality education in a safe environment.  The recent addition of a health officer is another way a way of responding to the needs around health, HIV, hygiene and sanitation of the students and their community.  And its all thanks to the generous sponsorship and donations of predominantly Australian families.

Yared Wolde: co-founder of The School of St Yared and some of the St Yared students.

The school has an excellent reputation in the region it serves and I recently had the heart wrenching experience of watching desperate parents pleading to have their child accepted for the start of the new year (in Ethiopia the new Year is September). We had to limit applications to 500 and then through a rigorous process, identify those most in need, finally selecting children to fill the 33 places available.

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One of those new students, five year old Kalabe Muna stood out from the crowd of youngsters lining up with their families and guardians for assessment.  He quietly held Yared’s hand as we heard his story.  A week earlier he had walked with his mother Hirut (who was ill with TB or HIV) to the school to put his application in.  On the way, Hirut collapsed and died.  Knowing her wishes for her youngest son, neighbours brought him to the testing day to relate his story.  Kalabe continues to live with his ten year old brother in their home.  Neighbours have agreed to bring food and check on the boys until the end of mourning time, after that there are no guarantees.

Ethiopia is a tough place especially for children.  The brothers’ situation has been registered at the local Woreda but there is no formal Government organisation that will intervene, they are just expected to survive.

I think of Kalabe and his older brother often, especially when it’s cold and raining or when I’m kissing my daughters goodnight.

One thing is certain; Kalabe has a place in our kindergarten class when school starts again in September.  We’ll provide his education, give him clothing, food and a place to build his confidence and understand he has a voice.  He’ll be surrounded by teachers who’ll encourage and classmates, many of whom will understand first hand some of what he is experiencing.

A photo of Kalabe Muna, when his neighbours brought him to the day of testing and told his story.

Yared is preparing to fly to Australia this month. He’s leaving his young family and beloved students to speak on behalf of the children and their families at The School of St Yared. He hopes to raise the profile of the school, find new sponsors for students like Eyouses and Kalabe and groups or organisations that will support the work he and his staff are doing.

As Eden pours a second cup of coffee and Eyouses talks about what it will be like to play with other children when he starts school in September, I think about how my own family has changed in the six months we’ve been living in Ethiopia. We’ve learned so much, but the most important lessons have been taught by the children at The School of St Yared. That learning is a privilege, education can change lives and loving family and friends are everything.

Sallianne Deckert’s working background is television. Most recently presenting and producing at the Nine Network’s Postcards and Talk to the Animals. She’s also an adoptive mum and an Ambassador for Adoption Awareness Australia. She and her husband Steve Venour and their Ethiopian born daughters Kuleni and Tsegamareyam are calling Addis Ababa home for the next two years as they volunteer at The School of St Yared.

Yared Wolde, (Founder of The School of St Yared) will be visiting Australia in August/September to raise funds and the profile of this amazing school and the students who are indeed fighting poverty with education.  He will be traveling to Perth, Melbourne and Sydney and available for media interviews and speaking engagements.

To learn more, visit The School of St Yared Facebook page.

If you would like to sponsor a student or donate to the school contact [email protected]

Thank you so much for your support.

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