Open Arms of Minnesota

Minnesotans Conduct Site Visit to Ethiopia

(Reprinted from Insight News, July 28-August 3, 2008)

Ato Shallo Dhaba, Director of the Regional Health Bureau of Oromiya, Ethiopia, visited the Twin Cities in January of 2008 on the invitation of the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD). MDH, with the support of NASTAD, formed a twinning relationship with the Oromiya Health Bureau in 2007. As a result of that partnership, Ato Shallo came to Minnesota to meet with community leaders and representatives of non-governmental organizations involved in addressing HIV/AIDS. One of the local organizations that Ato Shallo visited last winter was Open Arms of Minnesota.

Open Arms relies on volunteers to prepare and deliver nutritious meals to people living with HIV/AIDS, and other diseases, throughout the greater Twin Cities area. Ato Shallo, impressed by what he saw at Open Arms, invited Kevin Winge, executive director of Open Arms, and a small delegation of American nutrition and volunteer professionals, to visit Oromiya and assess whether similar programs could be developed in Ethiopia. Accompanying Mr. Winge was Mary Reed, Deputy Executive Director, Global Programs, for the Association of Nutrition Services Agencies (ANSA), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that provides services to non-profits concerned with food and nutrition for chronically ill people; and Jane Letourneau, a longtime volunteer with Open Arms’ domestic programs in Minnesota and international efforts in South Africa.

In July, NASTAD coordinated a series of meetings and site visits in Oromiya for the delegation to meet with government officials, representatives of international relief organizations, academicians, and iddirs – the community leaders who initially came together as a burial society, but now are involved in a much more integrated way throughout Ethiopian society. The delegation visited Addis Ababa, along with towns on the “high risk corridor” to Djibouti, including Adama and Debre Zeit.

In Debre Zeit, the American representatives, along with Ethiopian and American employees of NASTAD, spent half of a day with 14 iddirs from surrounding communities. The iddirs learned of the services that Open Arms provides in the Twin Cities, and shared their experiences and challenges with HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia.

Although many people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in Ethiopia have access to life-sustaining anti-retroviral treatment (ART), most lack the food and nutrition essential to get the optimal advantages of the medications. Ato Shallo stressed the potency of these drugs by saying, “If you take the ARTs without food, it’s like poison.” Every iddir in attendance at the meeting concurred that the lack of food is a debilitating factor in properly responding to the needs of PLWHAs in Ethiopia.

In a departing interview with Ato Shallo, the American delegation discussed possible opportunities to address the need for food and nutrition for people with HIV/AIDS. The group was impressed with an urban garden program in Adama that yields fresh vegetables for its 77 beneficiaries to both consume, and to sell as an income generating activity. The Dawn of Hope, a rehabilitation center for PLWHAs, supervised by Ato Mesfin Feyissa, could benefit from more comprehensive food and nutrition support. All agreed that iddirs could prove an effective framework for future endeavors. Any initiatives between these potential partners – the Oromiya Health Bureau, Minnesota Department of Health, NASTAD, ANSA, and Open Arms of Minnesota – could only strengthen the relationship between Minnesota and Ethiopia.

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