BORA, ETHIOPIA – They are two people raised on different continents; their lives worlds apart in nationality, culture and experience. They might have never met, except for one cause: Their desire to help the people who call this isolated mountain community home.
Amber Kaufman is a nurse practitioner. The American native from Chicago is dedicated to improving people’s lives and, hopefully their social condition, with medicine.
Israel Dejene is a humanitarian. The Ethiopian native from Bora is determined to bring health services to his home village in the southern part of the nation.
Their unified vision: Build a medical clinic at the top of the mountain in Bora.
Kaufman and Dejene met for the first time in 2009. The chance encounter should not have happened.
Kaufman was about to take a medical team to Uganda when the trip was cancelled because of in-country violence. With medical supplies and a team ready, she began looking for another place to go.
Dan Clark, the strategic director of the Ohio-based Health Gives Hope, had a friend in Ethiopia who knew Dejene and the needs in Bora. Kaufman and her team boarded a plane and went there.
It was just “one more trip” for Kaufman, and she anticipated it being her last. She had worked on many medical mission trips and never found the right place to serve. She was in Bora for one day, and it was different.
“I could see Israel’s passion, his commitment, and how our visions were aligning without even trying,” she said. “As soon as I was in Bora, I was in love with the people.”
“We had a fire on top of the mountain and we were singing,” she said. “It was an overwhelming reassurance that I wanted to do more here. I remember looking around and looking at the people. I knew without a doubt I wanted to come back here.”
That evening, Kaufman and Dejene stood on top of the mountain in this remote part of southern Ethiopia and talked about the idea of starting a medical clinic.
“We saw the need, and we needed to do it,” said Kaufman. “There was never a time or conversation when we thought we shouldn’t do it.”
“As soon as I met Amber, I thought ‘yes, let’s make it happen,’ and we started the process,” said Dejene.
With a combination of determination, grit and courage, Kaufman and Dejene transformed their vision into reality.
In 2011, Health Gives Hope began construction on a gray, rectangular-shaped building for the clinic. Kaufman is the organization’s medical coordinator; Dejene is the nonprofit’s country coordinator.
“When I stop and tell someone what we’re doing, their reaction makes me think, ‘Wow, we’re actually doing it,’” said Kaufman. “It blows me away of what we’ve done and how far we’ve come so quickly.
“And we’re just getting started.”
The clinic in Bora is part of the journey Kaufman, 32, has planned to take for years. As a college student, she took a medical mission trip to India, and the experience solidified her desire to work in international health care.
She became a nurse practitioner, after receiving her maser’s degree in nursing from the University of Massachusetts. She is studying for a second master’s degree in global health at the University of London.
Dejene, 30, who studied music at Addis Ababa University and who lives in the capital city of Ethiopia, remembers a childhood of poverty in his remote village of Bora.
“When I grew up, I had nothing,” he said, recalling a time when a man gave him money to get a ride home from school. “That moment was lifesaving. That 25 cents let me go back home; it felt like a million dollars.”
THE HIDOTA HEALTH CLINIC
With the support of Health Gives Hope, Kaufman and Dejene oversaw the construction of the Hidota Health Clinic, which served its first patients in the newly built clinic in November 2013. The clinic requires ongoing donation to maintain its mission.
“Some people feel that if they can’t donate $1,000, why donate $20?” said Kaufman. “Those donations – no matter how big or small – do make a difference and they impact people and change people’s lives. Every little piece matters.”
Recalling his childhood and the generosity of strangers, Dejene said what other people may deem as a donation too small to matter, might be significant for someone else.
“What we do right now might seem like something little, but can make a big difference in their lives,” he said.
Twice a year, Kaufman and Dejene take volunteer medical teams to Bora.
“The vision we have for teams (from the United States) is to bring education and to meet the needs that we see in the community,” said Kaufman.
The people’s needs include dental and eye care. Some patients complain of having had a toothache for years. Others say they cannot see at night.
LEAVE NO CULTURAL TRACE
Village leaders played an active role in bringing the clinic to Bora, which was part of Dejene and Kaufman’s vision. They are adamant that the cultural authenticity remains intact in Bora.
At the onset, they met with village elders to ask about the community’s greatest needs. Kaufman said the then-chief and Dejene’s uncle told them that “women and children are dying in childbirth,” which prompted the medical clinic’s focus on maternity and pediatric care.
“We all work together to make sure the culture stays as it is,” said Amber. “We want to help but leave them as they are.”
During a recent visit in Bora, village elders greeted Kaufman with warmth. The women held her at arm’s length, taking in the details of her face before pulling her into a hug. Laughter, smiles, touches and hugs: No translator was needed to convey the joy of the welcome.
“Amber’s done a wonderful job of being deliberate in her approach and building the right relationships in being accepted to the community,” said Jillian Phipps, a pediatric nurse practitioner from Florida. “It’s as if she’s a member of their family.”
Dejene and Kaufman educate visiting teams of volunteers about cultural customs and practices before they enter the village.
For example, volunteers are asked not to give money or gifts to individual people. Instead, the gifts they bring are stored in a room in the clinic and are dispersed by the village leaders after the team leaves the community.
“Culturally people are hospitable and kind and we want to maintain that by not instilling expectations. The ongoing generation is the one affected, and they start forgetting their authentic culture,” said Dejene. “We have this beautiful culture that has been here for centuries, and we want to preserve that.”
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Holly Wise, a journalist who specializes in humanitarian and social change coverage, is founder and executive director of VoiceBox Media, a Texas-based nonprofit news service.