Global citizenship of the “Weyaneiti Ferenji” Maria Strintzos
By Gebre-Haweria Berhane REST-PR
Tigrai Online, Mekelle, Tigri July 30, 2015
Born to her Greek origin couples in Melbourne, Australia in the year of 1960, Maria Strintzos has been serving the people of Tigrai for almost half of her life being with REST
Born to her Greek origin couples in Melbourne, Australia in the year of 1960, Maria Strintzos has been serving the people of Tigrai for almost half of her life being with REST. When she was 30s she gave not all her sense organs but also her personality to the poverty stricken people of Tigrai. With limitless personal commitment and determination for the past 24 years; she considered as hero of development agent in lifting up millions of Tigraians from their chronic poverty traps being with REST, the prominent NGO in our region. She still set up an office (at her private Australian home) to entirely carry out the works of REST. She always sermon foreigner philanthropists to contribute her best again for the people of Tigrai; to be sure, the people of her own.
Moreover, she has been helping some 50 orphans in Hawzien district. Inscribed permanent Tigraian flag in her right arm, Maria quoted “moving to REST/Tigrai was like a homecoming!” Her motto is often “Yef kireki Tigrai-I love Tigrai”. The Relief Society of Tigrai (REST) Public Relation department (PR) has been conducted an exclusive email interview with Maria Strentzos. Full interview with the “Weyanit Ferenji” is prepared here below.
REST- PR Where are you living now?
Maria: I live in Melbourne, Australia. I live with my son Haftu and my elderly father (82 years old) who I take care of.
REST-PR: When and how did you join the Tigrai/TPLF’s struggle?
Maria: My first connection and personal introduction to the TPLF occurred in 1991, soon after the fall of the Derg and the liberation of Tigrai. At that time I was working as the Horn of Africa Project Officer with Community Aid Abroad – the first international nongovernmental organization permitted by the TPLF to work in the liberated areas of Tigrai in 1983. Many Australians worked in the field and cross-border with the TPLF and REST from the early 1980s until the war ended in 1991. I, by contrast, came in to Tigrai via Addis Ababa and was fortunate that when I arrived in Mekelle for the very first time the TPLF was conducting a major post-war political reconstruction meeting. This meeting laid out in concrete terms the blueprint for Tigrai’s economic, political and social future. This was literally history unfolding as the victorious TPLF laid out ambitious and exciting plans to develop and rebuild Tigrai after so many years of war and marginalization. It was an exciting period full of hope, commitment, and a sense of accomplishment. At the same time, everyone recognised that the reconstruction and nation building process would be a long and arduous one. However, optimism was everywhere.
REST-PR: How many years did you serve in the liberation front?
Maria: Though I never served in the field proper during the armed struggles, my long service to with the people of Tigrai and the TPLF began in a post-war context in 1991. You could say I began to serve in the liberation front as it entered a dynamic phase of recovery, development and democratization in the context of peace and newfound freedom and liberation from the yoke of oppression. To date, I have been working with and for the people of Tigrai and the TPLF continuously for over 24 years. An enormous privilege for me that I do not take for granted.
REST-PR: What makes you interested to come and serve in Tigrai?
Maria: Though I came to Tigrai as a humanitarian and development worker, it’s true to say that I “politically engaged” with the TPLF from my initial contact with them. The TPLF worked with its people to achieve what we in the west in Australia were reading about in history books – true liberation of its people. The TPLF for me was a symbol of freedom from hunger, oppression and inequality. It was a powerful people’s movement for liberation from ignorance and servitude. I strongly subscribe to these values and ideology. That it was able to defeat one of the biggest armies in Africa is also testimony of its courage, endurance and commitment to its people, and of a better Tigrai and Ethiopia. Few can today live up to the sacrifices made by the TPLF to make Ethiopia a better place. But more than anything else, the TPLF embodied a political system that positioned the people – the hafash – as the priority, and at the core of both the region’s and their own development. Over the years the TPLF advanced a participatory and community based system of governance such as the Baito system, and development which is the basis of the incredible development dividends we see today. A solid base for development was forged starting in the very early 1980s, and REST is one of the proud products of the TPLF’s efforts to address the needs of its people first.
REST-PR: How can you evaluate the struggle for liberation?
Maria: I believe I have answered your question in my previous response, but I would like to add the following. The struggle for liberation went on for 17 years and many lost their lives. You don’t sacrifice so much unless you are committed and have a strong vision of a better future. And you certainly don’t do it for the sake of power. The TPLF will go down in history as one of the few liberation movements in the world that has truly stayed true to its roots and beliefs – the betterment, freedom and equality for its people. During the liberation struggle the TPLF fought to correct the wrongs done to the Tigrai people and it fought for social change. Important laws were passed on equal land ownership between men and women, they changed the family law making it possible to retain property rights upon divorce, and the right to keep children; and important reforms were made in rising the age of marriage…the list goes on. It was as much a social and political revolution as it was a military struggle. The concepts of participatory development are another powerful TPLF legacy. Where in Ethiopia can you get buy-in for development like in Tigrai? Where can you see women as mechanics, electricians, farmers, judges, doctors, mothers and political representatives like in Tigrai? The TPLF genuinely cared for its people and gave its life for that honour. At the heart of the TPLF transformation agenda was literacy, education for all, development principles advocating for productivity and care of the environment – genuine pro-poor beliefs and policies. The poorest of the poor were well looked after as they are today. I know of REST staff who were raised by the TPLF; they were literally fed and educated by the TPLF in the field because their families were too poor to look after them. This is the true genesis of the safety net program in Ethiopia! But we should never forget that the hope came with the loss of thousands of lives… that is the ugly side of war no matter what your beliefs.
REST-PR: Do you think the struggle meets its ultimate goal?
Maria: In my assessment, in some ways the war years were easier. What do I mean by that? Under the years of civil war and famine, Tigrai suffered a huge loss of life, property and isolation. Miserable years full of devastation, unimaginable poverty and attempts by the enemy to wipe out the people of Tigrai (today they would call it genocide). But against all this, the people were united around common principles and a strong desire to defeat the triple enemy – the vicious Derg, poverty and oppression! That is why they were able to endure so much hardship…people united as one with the TPLF fighters in the struggle for collective freedom. After all, the fighters and the farmers were one and the same thing! As such, the TPLF achieved its goals and more. It achieved more than most oppressed nations, especially in Africa, could dream of. Did it liberate the people? Yes. Did it overcome a brutal oppressor? Yes. Did it nurture values of self-reliance, hope and an unflinching commitment to development? Yes. Did it create the solid base for democracy and participatory development to take root? Yes. But living and achieving in peacetime is in my opinion, even harder. After the war there were a lot of expectations and it wasn’t all about Tigrai. Nation building is a daunting task especially in a war ravaged and poor country like Ethiopia with no working culture of fee democracy. Overcoming years of feudalism would not come easily. The goals became larger in all spheres – from education, health, governance, economic prosperity, policy regimes…and the list goes on. Working within a national framework of such diverse interests was not, and is not an easy task. Fortunately, that same dogged conviction displayed during the armed struggle was used to develop Ethiopia on many fronts. The Tigrai and Ethiopia I know today is light years different from the region and nation I know today. The landscape is transforming, there are social services assisting the people, livelihoods are emerging beyond farming and people have a voice. In this respect, goals are being met. But there are many challenges. Is the people’s voice as strong as we would want it? Is the system of governance fair, equal and transparent for all? Is the development occurring at a rate that genuinely and sustainably will pull the country’s most vulnerable out of poverty? Is the TPLF as interconnected with the people as it used to be, and is it transforming as the context in the country changes and becomes more complex? What I believe with conviction though, is that the two Ds - development and democracy - are long term processes and take time, and there is definitely ample evidence that both aspirations are on track to be achieved in the years to come.
REST-PR: From your childhood what was/were your ambition to be?
Maria: I never had one dream or one ambition though I always like the idea of being a teacher or a sociologist or even a psychologist, a profession that would connect me to other people. Deep down I wanted to make a difference and change lives on a huge scale! I am very sensitive and compassionate by nature. I cry easily when I see someone in need or suffering. Injustice appals and angers me, but it also drives me to reverse its causes. I’m passionate and I’m very possessive – or so my boss Teklewoini and many comrades in the TPLF keep telling me! But it’s these qualities that push me to do my best and fight the long struggle for development, rights and equality. The TPLF has been an incredible teacher in helping me reach my life goals.
REST-PR: Did you match with your childhood ambition too?
Maria: So in many ways, while I’m surprised and amazed that I am working for Tigrai, doing what I do with REST in Tigrai is in many ways a natural fit for me. It seems it was my cherished destiny. I cannot describe the sense of privilege and pleasure I feel to be accepted and allowed to work alongside the TPLF and spirited people of Tigrai. To be on the side of the poor, revolutionaries and transformers is more than a professional and personal dream come true. And of course becoming part of REST to the extent that I feel totally Tigraian, is the fulfilment of an ambition that I never thought possible. I always says that working with REST is the pinnacle of my career and my education. Anything after that will be a total disappointment. I am very lucky, and very pleased about the way things turned out.
Questions Related to REST
REST-PR: When did you join REST?
Maria: It’s true to say that I’ve been with REST both officially and unofficially starting way back in 1991. For seven years from 1991 to 1998 I worked with REST as a partner and supporter. As the CAA officer in charge of projects in Ethiopia, I worked closely with REST on project development, technical assistance and of course funding. On various occasions too I helped REST out with the write-up of proposals, and other advocacy activities. I officially joined REST as a locally remunerated staff member in March 1999 (right in the middle of the Ethio-Eritrea war!).
REST-PR: What pushed you to join/work with REST?
Maria: REST is an organization like no other. Its dynamic history as the perceived “saviour” of the people of Tigrai; its deep connection to the people; it’s incredible will, vision and dedication to lifting the entire Tigrai region out of poverty; and its innovative food security activities are a major drawcard that few development workers like me, can ignore. REST is a pioneer in so many fields and it continues to innovate and catalyse change in ways never seen before. It has achieved so much in transforming Tigrai together with the people. Other organizations talk while REST genuinely works. The joke – no REST at REST – applies today as it did at the time of the famine. And the scale of REST’s operations is impressive. On any given day, REST directly touches the lives of more than 2 million people! Who wouldn’t want to work with an organization that prioritizes the people it serves, and champions their rights and needs? Being in REST I have been able to express and exercise my own values, beliefs and convictions about human development.
REST-PR: How many years did you work with REST/the people of Tigrai?
Maria: I began working with and for the people of Tigrai in 1991. That’s 24 plus years, and still counting. I officially began working at REST in March 1999. That means I’ve been a REST staff for over 16 years. The first 12 years I was based in Ethiopia, but for the past nearly 4 years, I have been based in Melbourne, Australia.
REST-PR: How did you get REST, while you were joining it?
Maria: You could say I joined REST at a turbulent time. Remembering that I knew REST well before going to work there, I moved into the organization rather smoothly at the height of the Ethio-Eritrea war in order to crank up its fundraising and public relations capacity, and in reaction to the negative and disappointing views of NGOs to the border conflict. In particular, my previous employer CAA was not happy that I was speaking out about the atrocities committed by the Eritrean regime. By comparison, REST embraced everything about me and I was able to work on issues and projects I hold dear to my heart. Moving to REST was like a homecoming!
REST-PR: What was your role at REST?
Maria: My title at REST was Fundraising and Public Relations Head. Some of my responsibilities were raising funds from various donors, developing project ideas, preparing complex proposals, writing reports, keeping track of our funding base, liaison with donors, government and other NGO actors, representing the organization at various levels, profiling and documenting REST’s work and advocacy on various issues. My work brief has always been varied, extensive, tough and very rewarding.
REST-PR: How did you feel working with REST?
Maria: Working at REST is special. It doesn’t feel like a normal job or a normal place of work. It’s more like being part of a people’s movement because REST is from the people for the people. REST stands by the side of the people in every sense of the word; from its genesis, REST has never let the people of Tigrai down. I feel fortunate to be part of this movement. I also feel a great sense of belongingness. Every day, along with my colleagues, we are immersed in issues and activities that are important and critical to human development, rendering us all important to the change process.
REST-PR: In your perspective, if possible include others, what are the special qualities of REST to work with? You came from the first world to serve the poor people living in marginalized region (politically, economically, social and others)?
Maria: The struggle and spirit of the people of Tigrai is my source of inspiration. Tigraian people are so resilient and hardworking but they have suffered for so many years from war, drought, famine and marginalization. I feel a great love and connectedness with Tigrai; the suffering and the hope touches me at a personal and professional level. Working at REST means being able to address the causes of poverty, or food insecurity and human suffering; more directly and more immediately. There is no middleman or doing development by remote-control from an office in Washington or even Addis Ababa. REST lives among the communities it serves and knows firsthand their challenges and their aspirations which is why the REST programs are relevant and have such successful outcomes. REST effectively invests the resources it receives to obtain results on a large-scale. As someone who has sacrificed my time with my own family, or making lots of money in Australia, witnessing how REST works and what it achieves in transforming people’s lives is the noblest of all rewards. Only by working with REST am I able to get close to the people of Tigrai. I often say that whenever I’m travelling in the field in the rural areas, all I have to say is that I’m a REST worker (seratenya Maret), and the door opens for me. We have freedom at REST to speak our mind and to voice the concerns of the people. We don’t get gagged like in other organizations. These are the areas of REST comparative advantage, and precisely what makes REST an attractive place to work.
REST-PR: REST does not have any government budget to perform programs/projects like:
a) Relief and Emergency works
b) Environmental Rehabilitation and Agricultural Development
c) Rural Water Supply Development
d) Irrigation Structure Development
e) Health Services and
f) Other Social protection activities, so that, what was your critical role in fundraising for the aforementioned programs/projects to be happen?
Maria: A common misconception is that REST receives bags full of money from the government or the TPLF? This is a total misnomer. On the contrary, REST has to fundraise and publicise its work on a local, national and international level in order to obtain the funds it needs to run the various programs needed by the Tigrai people. As a local NGO, this task is even harder because you don’t have the international influence and networks to draw in the funds. What REST does have is a powerful and real story about development and transformative change, and the results of its work speak for themselves. My role in all this has been multilayered: I believe I have worked hard to present REST’s large portfolio of achievements to a wide audience within and outside Ethiopia; and I have fought for the rights of REST and other local NGOs to have their fair share of resources so that they can address the real needs of their people. As such advocacy and constant lobbying has been a crucial component of my fundraising work. More technically, I work closely with REST colleagues to develop the “products” needed for fundraising. This ranges from doing community assessments, designing programs, writing proposals and reports, preparing concept papers to get dialogue happening within REST on various funding and policy issues, to running many in-house workshops on different donor funding guidelines and project preparation. Over the years I have been directly responsible for preparing emergency proposals in response to drought, market and conflict shocks (especially during the Ethio-Eritrea conflict); recovery or rehabilitation proposals aimed at rebuilding the productivity, livelihoods and safety of farmers after these shocks; numerous sector specific proposals on water harvesting and irrigation, natural resource management, market development and value chains, potable water, education, health and supporting orphans and vulnerable children; and I have been the team leader in developing our multilayered, integrated food security programs such as the Productive Safety Net Program which incorporates agriculture and livestock development, livelihoods, agro-enterprise development, natural resource management, water harvesting, irrigation, health and nutrition, education and capacity building for households, communities and government. I can confidently say, because of the strength and richness of REST’s experience working closely with the people of Tigrai, the majority of our proposals are successful in receiving funds, and the programs themselves are held up as models for others to replicate. I am extremely proud of this achievement. As a fundraiser, I have also been responsible for mapping out fundraising plans and tracking the funds that we receive, analysing the trends and ‘giving’ environment, and working out ways to maximise the resources REST receives, whether big or small. According to Teklewoini, nothing is too small for REST!
REST-PR: What innovative endeavours of REST did you appreciate from among the numerous life changing works it performs (starting from humanitarian to development actions)?
Maria: Where does one begin? There are so many points of excellence and achievement to appreciate. From the very impressive cross-border operations which saw REST deliver food, health and agricultural tools to hundreds of thousands of people in order to keep them productive on their land; the mobilization of communities for the rehabilitation of the destroyed environment, the building of roads and water wells even as bombs fell out of the sky; to the establishment of the first microfinance institution in Ethiopia; and the design of an effective integrated watershed model that attempts to raise productivity, incomes, fight climate change, build local capacity and create access to education and health services all at the same time. REST’s integrated watershed activities are the most popular among farmers, as is water harvesting and irrigation. The demand is in fact so high that we can’t keep up. The way that REST took-up and implemented the productive safety net program in Tigrai is another area of excellence. Today, many noted best practices in safety nets emanate from REST’s program, which is also the largest NGO safety net program in the country. Another area that is close to my heart is drinking water supply. Dedicated Australians set up the Tigrai hand dug well project during the struggle in the early 1980s. After the war ended, I was part of the technical team that designed the REST water program, which I am very proud to say is one of the longest running development initiatives in Tigrai currently serving about 60% of the water needs of Tigrai. This is phenomenal. From only 25 wells a year, REST is now constructing about 1,000 wells a year. It is a success beyond belief.
REST-PR: What best practices/lessons did you learn particularly from REST and the people of Tigrai?
Maria: After nearly 25 years I can say I have learnt many lessons from the people of Tigrai and REST. First and foremost, I have learnt how to struggle and fight for what I believe it no matter what the consequences. Without that kind of resolve, it’s hard to achieve anything of substance. Collectively, they have also taught me about sacrifice, resilience and how to uphold an unwavering dedication to the pursuit of equality, freedom, development and most important of all – self reliance.The people’s constant hard-work in such a harsh environment as in Tigrai, and the way they have used their hands, hearts and sweat to build dams, roads, terraces, schools and so much more, is a constant source of inspiration for me. I just don’t know sometimes where they get their strength from. Their sense of sacrifice simply has no bounds!
REST-PR: How did you see the economic advance of the people of Tigrai from REST side?
Maria: Without a doubt, there have been monumental advancements in prosperity and wellbeing in Tigrai post-liberation. When you compare what Tigrai was like in 1991 and now, it’s like two different universes, however regardless of the progress, given the magnitude of the challenges, the changes REST has brought about are simply not enough. Tigrai in 1991 was devastated and lay in ruins. The region and the people paid a heavy price for liberation but they gained so much along the journey. Due to the collective will for development, poverty in Tigrai has fallen from over 70% of people living under the poverty line, to about 35%.That’s have of what it was. Before introducing many of REST’s interventions, farmers could only produce about 2 to 3 months of their annual food needs. Today we have reached 6 to 8 months on average. Thanks to technology innovations in irrigation, soil and water conservation, households are not only producing more but also a greater variety of high value crops like vegetables, fruit and spices. Access to microfinance has revolutionised the way farmers are growing their incomes and engaging in market-oriented agricultural enterprises. Farmers today are dreaming big and they know the best pathways out of food insecurity; a pathway that is less dependent on emergency relief and more reliant on technology, quality soils and inputs, roads and markets. Watching dead tracks of land come to life and make farmers resilient to climate shocks is truly a miracle that REST can be proud off. The opportunities and the foundations for development are just so much better now, and we have so many tools at our disposal such as the PSNP. Children have better opportunity to attend school even in remote villages due to non-formal education centres, while accessing a health service within a 2 hour walking distance has become a reality. Overall, Tigraians are more educated, have more skills and knowledge and their aspirations have grown. Proudly, REST has been one of the main drivers of this growth and development. I am not naïve, and I know there are challenges and constraints. The education system is not as responsive as it should be to Tigraian children; unemployment and underemployment among youth is a chronic problem; inequality and a high caseload of women headed households means different approaches and solutions are needed to combat poverty affecting this group; and there are still too many ultra-poor people who are not receiving the right amount and mix of support that they need. More positively however, the leadership and will to develop is evident across Tigrai.
REST-PR: What did you feel now, seeing REST as the centre of excellence for many governmental and nongovernmental organizations?
Maria: From the outset I have known and clearly understood that REST is unique, an innovator, and a leader. From its genesis to today, REST has maintained a singular focus on developing the people of Tigrai, so it is only natural that the flow-on effects are excellence in development programming. Underlying this excellence are a clear vision, well thought out integrated and collaborative approaches, belief in and implementation of people centred participatory approaches, and an incomparable work ethos. Today, REST is not only an asset for Tigrai; it is an asset for the country and a role model that pushes the boundaries of development practice. I am so proud and humbled that REST has served, and continues to serve its people so well by creating centres of excellence in water supply, productive safety nets, environmental conservation, livelihoods and integrated watershed development.
REST-PR: What challenges had you faced while serving the people of Tigrai for long period of time?
Maria: No experience is ever perfect. While I feel “tigrawit”, it can at times feel lonely and isolating as a ferenji woman operating in a very male dominated environment. You always have to tread carefully and avoid treading on local toes, though that can be difficult when you are a headstrong person like me! Fortunately, most of my colleagues are respectful and very appreciative of my contribution to REST and Tigrai, so that compensates for any misunderstandings. Nevertheless, it can get difficult when you are not well understood, or your opinion not adequately heard. Sometimes too I feel that I always have to prove myself and my commitment, and that the standards and level of effort expected of me are higher than those expected of local staff. My life has been all about work 24/7 but this is not always the case across the organization. This aspect of work always upsets me, even though it’s an unrealistic expectation. I also don’t like being taken advantage of whether it’s by the TPLF or REST.
REST-PR: What do you recommend to us (REST) in keeping the strengths we already have and others to seeking for as model one?
Maria: As time passes and society changes, so does the culture of REST. It is no longer an organization of fighters prepared to sacrifice their lives for the liberation of Tigrai and its people, but an organization of civilians who have had more access to formal education, aspire to good jobs and sufficient income for a prosperous life. Today, REST staffs acquire their commitment to the people through lived experiences of their own family life which is less harsh, and through a paper qualification. Not through the barrel of a gun. That’s what development is all about and that’s what the TPLF fought for. There are however both merits and demerits in the circumstances that have evolved over the past 40 years. REST is undeniably a school of development. It has come up with extraordinary ways of tackling poverty in the region and it has created an institution that puts the Tigrai first, before self-interest. REST lives to serve the people of Tigrai and it provides numerous chances for staff to acquire the skills needed to do the best job possible. REST is the envy of many NGOs inside and outside of Tigrai. There are simply many strengths to applaud. But on the downside, life is getting in the way of doing the best job possible. Right now, there is too much focus on the individual and not on the collective or public good. Many are concerned more about salaries, travel, study and other benefits rather than fulfilling the mission and objectives of REST. A balance needs to be negotiated between the two in order to continue performing at the level of excellence we have come to expect of REST. So, to present day REST staff I say: remember your history, pay homage to the sacrifices made, celebrate your achievements and aspire even higher so that Tigrai will be free of poverty once and for all.
REST-PR: “The future is bright with REST”: do you agree with this statement? If yes would you please say something?
Maria: Regardless of the ups and downs I highlight in my response above, I firmly believe that Tigrai and REST are together on a dynamic trajectory towards sustained development. The main recipe for success has not changed – only some of the ingredients. Today REST has more resources to bring about transformative changes than it has ever had, it employs many qualified, experienced and motivated staff, has a presence in most woredas of the region, is designing and implementing food security programs that are advanced, innovative, contextually relevant and exerting maximum impact. The demand for REST interventions is at an all-time high both from communities and government. Donors are supportive and they know well how REST adds value to the investments that they make in development in Ethiopia. REST can, and will, rise even higher if we all work as one and our hearts, values and principles are positioned in the right place.
REST-PR: The actual status quo of REST quoted as “many partners wanted to work with REST due to its program/project sensitiveness. As one of the staffs of REST what could be your expertise justification for this statement?
Maria: REST gets results of lasting impact. Invest $1 in Tigrai and you get $10 back. That is the development reality in Tigrai. Every donor wants to see their donation well spent on meaningful activities and projects that contribute to poverty reduction. They also want to support projects and approaches that are demand driven and will be sustained by the communities themselves. Again, this is the status quo in Tigrai. REST also has a large and impressive implementation capacity across many sectors, coupled with its extensive presence in the field means projects are implemented on time, with quality and with the participation of the people. The collaboration and robust relationship REST enjoys with government is also a plus because it puts REST in a good position to influence, dialogue and shape policy, strategy and project directions; and enables REST to advocate and voice the concerns of the people when critical issues arise. REST earned this unique position after many years of struggle, and now it is paying off!
REST-PR: I know that you are still helping REST, what is the position you have working so far with REST? (A kind of job description)
Maria: For the past three and a half years I have been stationed in Melbourne, Australia where I am employed as the REST Fundraising and Humanitarian Coordinator – Australia. In fact I have set up an office (in my home) to exclusively undertake the REST work. I have several key responsibilities. First, I provide online technical to REST. This involves assisting in the formulation of project proposals, report writing, and strategy development. I also assist in the preparation and publication of REST Annual Reports, and I have led midterm reviews and evaluations of REST’s programs such as the PSNP. Underlying these activities is a capacity building component. That is, I try to impart skills to the colleagues I work with and have set up templates and systems for them to use, making the work easier. Another important aspect of my work in Australia is fundraising by speaking to potential donors, making presentations to different groups, and networking, commentating in the media, and promoting REST’s best practices and successful work on food security. The public education program I run in schools is particularly interesting because it teaches young students about issues affecting the developing work, and creates a bond between communities and children on two different parts of the globe. These presentations have also led to a lot of fundraising for education in Tigrai, which is very gratifying. To complement these efforts, I also organise events to raise funds for my many orphan children in Hawzien. I like to consider myself the Voice of REST and Tigrai in Australia!
REST-PR: I [we] would be very happy if you can say/call any Tigrigna word for the newspaper/online media audiences (to put it as it is).
Maria: One of the first phrases I ever learnt is: “Yef kereki Tigrai” = I love Tigrai. I really love the way that sounds, and I mean it from the bottom of my heart.
The second set of Tigrinya words that I love are “tegadalit” and “ferenji woyene”. From very early days I was called by these names, and I have to say, these were, and still are, my most proud moments.
REST-PR: Any message you want to say/send for the people of Tigrai?
Maria: The Tigrai people are like no other. They are my source of inspiration and the reason I continue to work for the region and for REST. Though they have suffered so much, their spirit is unbreakable. Just as they have struggled for so many years, they must remain resolute and united in their struggle for development, food security and justness. There is still a long road to travel to overcome the poverty that has suffocated the region for so long, but together, and with REST and the government by their side, Tigrai will soon transform forever, and flourish.
REST-PR: If you can say something about Haftu and the process you did to take him.
Maria: In 2005, I started the Hawzien Community Orphan Project using funds donated to me by family and friends in Australia. I chose Hawzien because of its historical significance and I chose to personally support orphans and vulnerable children because they were receiving scant assistance, and it was a major hidden social crisis that needed to come out. Starting with ten double parent orphans I now have over 50 children that I support all-year round to go to school, buy food and clothes, and seek out medical help when it is needed. Haftu – my adopted son – was in that project from 2007. When I turned 50 years of age, I made a huge decision that ultimately would change my life forever! I decided I wanted to be a mother and that one of my orphan children in Hawzien would become my child. For reasons only a mother knows, I was really drawn to Haftu. I simply fell in love with him! He was an extremely quiet, shy and timid ten year old boy from a faraway village in the mountains, and he had lost both his parents when he was only 5 years old. But he stood out because of his intelligence and excellent school results, and for the attention and respect he showed his aging grandmother Shifta. Although in her 80s, Shifta took responsibility for Haftu after his parents died. In return, Haftu tried to help her and they would walk for hours together from the village to come collect his annual allowances from me. While my other orphan children would play together when they gathered in Hawzien town to meet me, Haftu would stay by his grandmother’s side, holding her hand and making sure she had something to drink and eat after the long journey. This behavior, and his resolute discipline left an indelible impression on my mind, and it touched my heart. Such love between grandson and grandmother in my mind meant I would also have a son that would love and respect me. Sadly Shifta died in late 2011 after Haftu moved to Australia with me. He cried for days over the loss and the realization that he would never see her again.
So in February 2010, I started proceedings to adopt Haftu. First, I had to ask him if he wanted to be my son, and then I had to work with the Tigrai authorities to make the process legal. Luckily for me Haftu agreed immediately. In fact, when he heard the news of my wanting to adopt him, he went running around the village screaming “I’m going with Maria, I’m going with Maria!” He was over the moon with joy as was I! Next came the legal proceedings…a long learning process. Because of the unique circumstances, I had to get approval from Haftu’s extended family first, then the Simret Tabia and Hawzien social courts, the Hawzien Woreda court, the Tigrai bureau of social affairs, and finally the federal court and women’s affairs in Addis Ababa. But it didn’t end there. After all this process, I also had to get acceptance and a visa from the Australian Embassy based in Kenya.
During this period I had many highs and lows, emotionally. I never took it for granted that Haftu would become my son, and I knew the courts were doing their job to protect all children going through an adoption process. However, the uncertainty was at times frustration. But in the end I got my reward – a beautiful, healthy and loving son from Hawzien. Indeed, I feel that Haftu is my reward for all the years I have worked for the people of Tigrai.
Since adopting him, Haftu has made me proud every day. He is living testimony of the greatness and strength of Tigrai. He has emerged as a top student, winning a scholarship to attend one of the best and most expensive secondary schools in Australia – Haileybury College. And he is excelling academically. Last year in Grade 9, he won an academic award, a drama and art prize, and a social justice trophy - competing against many other boys born and raised in Australia. I was bursting with pride, especially given that he has only been in Australia for a little over three years. He currently speaks and is learning five languages: English, Japanese, Greek, Tigrinya and Amharic. Haftu is also a champion runner. He is a natural. Over the past three years he has won many medals and championships at State and even Australia National levels. He runs like Haile Gebreselassie, who Haftu had the pleasure of meeting and discussing with earlier this year. Haftu is a classic Ethiopian middle and long distance runner. The longer the distance the better he performs. Just last month he came second in the under-17 State cross country championships and as a result he will compete in the Australian Youth Cross Country Championships in August 2015. He also competes for his school where he is currently trained by an Australian Olympian, Craig Mottram (Craig is also a friend of Haile’s). Under Craig’s coaching, Haftu has reached new heights beating students from many elite schools who are many years older than him. He has received so many trophies and prizes from the school too, that we have run out of room at our home.
In Haftu, I have a son that is a champion in so many ways. I cannot believe how lucky I am to have him. He has changed my life in the best way possible, and I love being a mother to him. And, he reminds me of Tigrai every day. THANK YOU TIGRAI FOR THIS GREATEST AWARD OF ALL – MY SON HAFTU!
REST-PR: How many days can take your flight to arrive in Tigrai [Makelle]?
Maria: I have to admit that the one thing I hate the most is the long travel distance from Melbourne to Tigrai. We are literally on the other side of the world. While things have improved now as compared to the nearly 30 hours of air travel on three different aeroplanes it used to take to get to Addis Ababa, it now takes 24 hours on only two planes transiting through Dubai. Then there is the 1 hour something flight to Makelle….all in all, it can take over 30 hours of continuous flying and stops (I did this when I came to the TPLF 40th Anniversary). As I get older it’s getting harder and I can feel the ache of every bone in my body…but when I know I’m coming to Tigrai the pain just evaporates!
Without hope you have nothing but hollow words
REST-PR: Thank you so much.