Thirsting for Hope: An Ethiopian Mom
Finds a Refuge From Prejudice

Story and photos by Donna Atola, Kenya Field Communications Specialist, and Bonnie Wellensiek, Child Champion, U.S.A.

An impoverished Ethiopian mother struggled to feed her children because of prejudice against her rare condition. At a moment of despair, an encounter with a Child Champion brought her to a place of refuge.

The cabbages were gone. A herd of wandering cows had eaten them all.

The cabbages that Birtukan had traveled so far to buy from a farmer and carry back to her neighborhood.

The cabbages she’d carefully set out by the roadside to sell.

Now Birtukan had no way to get money for her children. Nothing to do but weep.

As she stood by the busy road in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, she was all but invisible to passersby. More than cabbages or money, what Birtukan needed most was simply to be seen.

Shunned for Her Albinism

But for Birtukan, a hardworking mom, being noticed was usually a source of trouble.

Birtukan was born with albinism, a condition where the body produces little or no melanin, leaving her with white skin and hair, and pale blue eyes. Lack of melanin also causes eye damage, and so Birtukan struggles with vision problems that doctors haven’t been able to treat.

Birtukan and her eight siblings were born in a town in central Ethiopia about 60 miles from the capital city of Addis Ababa.

Albinism is rare in her village. She says people in her community didn’t know about the condition and spread myths about it. People treated it as a curse and often discriminated against Birtukan.

As a child, Birtukan had dreams of getting an education, and since education is free in Ethiopia, she was able to attend school. But her dreams were cut short because of the animosity she faced.

It all started with kids in school not wanting to play with her. Then it quickly escalated to kids throwing stones at her.

Because of the physical harm she faced, Birtukan dropped out of school in seventh grade.

Chernet, a OneChild Program Facilitator, brought Birtukan to a Hope Center after he found her in a moment of dispair.

New Home, Old Problems

Birtukan fled her village for the city of Addis Ababa. She hoped to achieve her dream of getting an education and a job and forging a better life. She also hoped to help her family in the village.

But her hopes quickly faded as Birtukan experienced rejection in the city, too.

Birtukan with her daughter, Beti, and son Yhonnes. Her children don’t have the rare albinism trait that she has.

“I had to get a job because the hope of continuing with my education had dwindled along the way,” Birtukan recalls. “I was left with no choice but to find a source of income.”

At 16 years old, Birtukan took a job as a housemaid to earn enough to survive.

Despite the discrimination she experienced, Birtukan eventually married and had two children, neither of whom shared her medical condition.

But it wasn’t a happy home.

Birtukan’s husband drank too much alcohol and didn’t provide for the family. When her first child was born, Birtukan didn’t have the support she needed to care for her and even considered giving the baby up for adoption.

“I found it hard to care for my child because I had no income,” says Birtukan, remembering that heart-wrenching time. “I felt as though my child was suffering because I could not afford proper meals for her, and the basic needs were hard to come by.”

Birtukan and her husband later had a son before the marriage ended in divorce and she was left alone with her two children.

Seen, at Long Last

Birtukan returned to housekeeping jobs but earned less than $10 a month, not even half of what she needed for basic necessities and school supplies for her children. To make ends meet, she quit her housekeeping job and set up a small vegetable stand. Buying fresh vegetables from farmers to resell in her community was hard work, and it was still never enough.

So, the day she lost her whole stock of cabbages to marauding cows was more than Birtukan could bear. It seemed like she was completely alone.

Birtukan didn’t realize that God saw and was about to send help.

That morning, Chernet, a OneChild Program Facilitator, was on his way to the Akaki Hope Center where he also serves as a pastor. Like the other busy people on the street, he might have passed by the weeping mother and scraps of ruined cabbage without noticing her.

But Chernet saw her. And he stopped.

“Why are you crying?” he asked.

Birtukan told him what had happened, and without hesitating, Chernet took her hand and guided her to the Hope Center. Birtukan was so shocked to be noticed — and treated kindly — that she wasn’t sure what to think.

When they arrived at the Hope Center, Chernet gave her a bag of wheat flour so she could feed her children.

That day was a turning point for Birtukan.

A Place of Hope

Birtukan lived just a short walk from the Hope Center, and Child Champions offered to enroll Birtukan’s 6-year-old son, Yohanes in OneChild’s sponsorship program so a sponsor could support him. Her teenaged daughter, Beti, was past the enrollment age, but she still benefits from tutoring classes at the center.

Yohanes, who dreams of becoming a pilot, likes to play with other kids at the Hope Center where the Child Champions let the kids soar on the swings and enjoy the playground whenever they come.

Child Champions from the Hope Center helped Birtukan start a new business. They also provide school supplies for the children and give the family monthly food baskets.

Best of all, Birtukan has experienced the love of Jesus in action at the Hope Center.

Birtukan with her son, Yhonnes, who is registered at the Hope Center.

Lack of Water Puts the Family at Risk

But despite that relief, Birtukan still faced a major challenge at home. She lacked access to water.

For Birtukan, the lack of water not only put her family at risk, but also exposed her to ridicule and insults.

Birtukan and her neighbors do not have indoor plumbing and get water from community taps near their homes. But because they were prejudiced toward her, Birtukan’s neighbors would not allow her to touch the community tap, chased her away and even threatened her in ways that made her fear for her life.

Birtukan never had the chance to finish school, but her daughter Beti is getting ready to start high school next year. Beti is brimming with creativity and enjoys drawing, drama, and singing. Listen to this beautiful Amharic love song she sang for us when we met her at the Hope Center.


With barely enough to feed and clothe her children, she was forced to buy water. She had to limit the amount of water they used at home because of the cost.

Birtukan and her children needed about 10 gallons of water daily for bathing, cooking, washing clothes and drinking, which cost 80 cents per day. On days when she lacked the money to buy this precious commodity, Birtukan would knock on the doors of neighbors who had tap water and ask for a bucket of water. However, her neighbors insulted her anytime she borrowed water.

“I had to stand the insults just to get water,” Birtukan recalls. “But at times they would insult me and still not share their water with me.”

It wasn’t only Birtukan who felt the blow of the insults. Her children suffered too. Although they don’t have albinism like Birtukan, her two children didn’t interact much with others in their neighborhood for fear of ridicule about their mother.

A Cup of Water in the Name of Jesus

Birtukan is thrilled to be able to get clean water from a tap that Child Champions helped her install.

When Chernet and others at the Hope Center heard what Birtukan and her family were going through, they invited her to get water from the Hope Center.

“We suggested that she get water from the center,” says Chernet. “We allowed her to be doing her laundry and dishes at the center, then carry water to drink and cook as she heads back home, which was easier for her.

“She and her kids would also take showers in the bathrooms at the Hope Center because it was easier than carrying water to take a bath at home.”

For more than a year, Birtukan got water from the Hope Center until Child Champions provided a permanent solution to her problem.

Chernet and other Child Champions arranged to have tap water installed outside Birtukan’s door.

The Hope Center funded the installation and connection of the tap, and now she has water at her doorstep.

“I am so happy because I now live in peace,” says Birtukan.

“My children and I no longer take insults because of asking for water. Today my children can drink clean water from their home, and they take baths freely.

“This tap has restored my dignity, and I no longer fear for my life, unlike before when I lived in fear because of the threats and insults I faced. I am free, thanks to the water.”

Finding a Family

Birtukan’s life is still full of challenges. She gets up early to make breakfast for her children then spends 10 hours most days trying to sell vegetables and other goods. Customers often don’t want to buy from her because of her skin color. This makes it hard to provide all she would like for her children.

“My children ask for expensive things like meat and milk,” says Birtukan. “Milk and meat are very expensive here, and I can’t afford those things. But at least once a month I try to give a glass of milk to both of my children.”

But Birtukan finds hope and joy in knowing she no longer faces these challenges alone.

Besides the relief that came with the installation of the tap water, Birtukan says she now has a family that cares for her.

“I initially lived in isolation, I felt rejected by most people around me,” she says. “But after my son got registered in the program, the Child Champions embraced me. I feel loved and cared for, I no longer feel alone in the world. I found a family at the Hope Center.”

Chernet says Child Champions at the Hope Center regularly reach out to Birtukan to check up on her and also invite her to the center to have conversations.

Birtukan participates in weekly traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremonies, where moms discuss what’s going on in their lives, and no one is judged.

Getenesh, a Child Champion at Akaki Hope Center, makes a special effort to reach out to moms like Birtukan in the community.

Each week she holds a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony for women in the neighborhood.

“We listen to each other without prejudice and take that chance to advise and encourage each other,” says Getenesh.

“At the end of the ceremony, I also share with them about God’s love and grace. This has helped most of the moms find peace and love and also spread hope to their families and their neighbors.”

Getenesh arranges for moms to meet and chat at weekly traditional coffee ceremonies.

Chernet says, “I love to see people in hard places hopeful for the future. This is why I closely embraced Birtukan’s family when I realized she had lost hope in life.

“My hope is that she can thrive in life so that the same energy is transferred to her kids.”

Birtukan says, “I thank God because of these people like Chernet and Nati [another Child Champion]. No one understood me before. No one wanted to talk to me. No one gave me a place. But they talk to me. They understand me, and they try to help. I thank God for that.”

Birtukan is hopeful that her children will finish school, excel in life, and have a better future.

And she adds, “I hope that my kids can be kind and loving just like the Child Champions.”

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