Graced with Second Chances

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Betty and Teddy (on the left) are the leaders of our partner ACT Ethiopia. Nadia (on the right) is my Nairobi-based colleague. 

My short trip to Addis Ababa was powerful in so many ways. It was my first time to back to visit a Blood:Water partner since I was pregnant with Jude in 2013. It was also my first visit to Ethiopia - and to see the work of our HIV support to our partner, ACT Ethiopia. I had the gift of walking through Suki, being welcomed into the homes of new friends and hearing their brave and remarkable stories. I have so many to share, but here are a few remarkable people you should know.

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Suki is an informal settlement on the southwestern edge of Addis - where most residents of the capital city have never heard of - it's a dwelling by default, because there is nowhere else in the city to stay. The families here are dramatically overlooked, and those who are HIV positive have endured traumatic experiences of loss, abuse and isolation.

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Meeting Ehetenesh nearly broke me.  She is an HIV positive single mother of two small children. One night, a man came into her home with the intent to sexually abuse her 3-year-old daughter, and Ehetenesh offered herself as a substitute for her daughter. She became pregnant with twins, and endured a bought of tuberculosis during the pregnancy, which caused her to lose one of the babies. The surviving twin, Yonathan, is now 10-months-old and still HIV-free.

Ehetenesh acknowledged that cannot speak regularly of these past experiences because she does not want to hate her baby. I couldn't blame her.

"I am a free woman," she said surprising me with her resilience, "both physically and spiritually." Ehetenesh is an active member of the ACT program and receiving HIV treatment. "The support group really cares for one another. They cared for me when I was sick. They packed lunches for my children and took them to school. I thought the community would stigmatize me, but they have been helpful and kind."

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The next day, we met Alem, a 45-year-old widow with a 9-year-old boy Tigstu (means His Patience) and a 4-year-old girl Banchamlak (means By Your God). Both children are negative. They live on a mountain community next to Suki, called Fana. Alem has received care through ACT over the last two years. Her CD4 was 140 and it's now up to 360.

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"I used to be beggar. I couldn't help my neighbors or be a part of the community. But now I am well, I am weaving baskets and baking injera to sell in the area. I can now be a part of the community, I can attend funerals, I can help the sick." Alem's faith in Jesus is her rock, giving her the confidence that she can face anything. She has become an ambassador in her neighborhood, visiting others and encouraging them to get tested for HIV.

Alem's hope for her future is that her children continue with an education and that they thrive. Alem has requested that the blood:water community remember her and her children in their prayers.

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While ACT's primary beneficiary is the HIV-infected and affected family in Suki, they are also focused on the well-being of vulnerable non-HIV families, especially in the areas of malnutrition and mental illness. Dejene & Asalefech are not HIV positive, but their two week old twin boys (Isaac & Nathaniel) were only 1kg each. They were severely malnourished and they searched for help for two weeks, eventually learning about ACT.

The ACT team has been providing formula, water purification packets and other basic resources that the family has been needing. Four months later, the twins are healthy, vibrant and full of life. "We were so worried about our babies," the father said. "Thank you for what you have done, and thanks to God that we can praise Him as our children are getting better."

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This photo captured their reaction when we asked them to smile for the camera and think about the moment they first met. It's possible that Nadia and I both cried.

When Fantaye's first husband died, she feared that it might be HIV. Eight years ago, at the age of 52, she met and fell in love with 60-year-old Kombi-Ketere. She attended a health and water treatment education outreach hosted by ACT and she learned about ACT and their testing services. When she tested positive, she told Kombi (who was negative), and contrary to most spousal reactions of rejection and abandonment, Kombi held her. He feared that if people found out Fantaye was positive, that people would try to separate them.

He suggested they leave Suki and hide away in his family's village so they do not lose each other. This demonstration of love is like nothing anyone has seen before. When the ACT nurse Hiwot began working with them, she assured them that they didn't have to disclose any information to the community and they could stay together. They continue to monitor Fantayes's health and provide support to ensure that it is not transfered to Kombi-Ketere.

Fantaye feels significantly better since starting ART and ACT gave her a watch to help alarm her when it's time for her to take her medication. "Because of God and ACT, we are well. Our medical and food expenses are covered. When we are facing challenges, they are praying for us. We are living full of joy, love and comfort. This organization has helped us so much. May The Lord bless you for all of your efforts."

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I have taken in a lot this week: the horrific combination of HIV/AIDS and abject poverty; the social isolation of stigma and fear; the overwhelming stories that tempt one to question the goodness of God; the transformative power of social workers and nurses who walk with those who feel as though they have no one to go to; the Lazarus effect of bodies and souls that rise with access to medication, nutrition, education, acceptance and community; and the lasting belief that everyone - no matter your story - should be graced with second chances. I am so proud of Blood:Water's choice to champion a partner and a community that go - and stay - in the hard places.