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They Look to Future : Ethiopians in L.A. Area Share Pain of Countrymen

Times Staff Writer

Since television images of starving Ethiopians first seared the world’s conscience last year, an outpouring of highly publicized relief efforts has been generated to combat the famine that claimed an estimated 1 million lives in 1984.

Less known, however, is the response of Ethiopians living outside their country.

“When the catastrophe started hitting us in our living rooms, each of us had a shared pain,” said Bogeletch Gebre, an Ethiopian woman living in Los Angeles. “It was not just a television story. These were our families, our relatives--this was our story.”

The $100,000 that Ethiopians in Los Angeles estimate they have raised for relief efforts since last October might appear minuscule contrasted with the tens of millions flowing from a compassionate American public cut to the quick by the tragedy’s dimensions.

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But that $100,000 takes on a new significance with the realization that much of it has come from students working as waiters and waitresses, busboys, parking lot attendants and taxi drivers--from a population (10,000) that includes many who find economic survival a tenuous daily proposition.

“People feel the plight of their compatriots outweighs their temporary money problems,” said Fassil Demissie, an Ethiopian who is studying for a Ph.D. in architecture and urban planning at UCLA. “They know they may not save all those people, but they may make a difference in saving a few lives.”

Ethiopians recognize that an undiminished flow of relief is critical just to hold the line in their homeland, but they are looking beyond immediate relief toward long-range development projects to break the country’s cycle of drought and famine.

Gebre worked in Ethiopia providing relief to famine victims 10 years ago. She said the country had not recovered from that famine when the current disaster hit. “Only this time,” she added, “instead of thousands of victims, the number has grown to millions.”

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Long-Range Development

The necessity for long-range development is recognized by people in her homeland, said Gebre, 31, who holds a master’s degree in public health and is on leave from a doctoral program in epidemiology at UCLA.

Gebre and Demissie began raising that question in Los Angeles and, as a result, organized Parents International Ethiopia, a group with plans to aid Ethiopian villages move toward self-reliance.

Their intent is to develop “low-tech” programs designed to improve the agricultural and manufacturing skills of people living in rural areas, and they have already made significant steps toward establishing a model center in Ethiopia that initially will focus on the needs of women and children.

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Demissie, 34, said officials of Ethiopia’s government expressed support for the project when he met with them two months ago in London, and offered to donate land, labor and building materials to construct the center.

A team from PIE, as Gebre and Demissie call their organization, will go to Ethiopia in the fall to work with government officials in determining a site for the center, which ultimately will house up to 500 children, Demissie said. He added that construction will begin next year.

An architectural firm has donated a design for the center, Demissie said, and physicians and engineers have offered to go to Ethiopia and work at the center for up to six months.

Diversified Assistance

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“Our focus now is on children, but in the future we want to diversify to provide assistance to farmers and peasants,” he said. “We will care for the children and provide supplemental educational and training programs. PIE, which will remain based in California, will subsidize the center, but we will gradually phase out our involvement as it generates income.”

Income, he said, eventually will come from such programs at the center as honey production, clothing and furniture making, handicrafts and agriculture.

“Students will learn agriculture by growing their own food, and any surplus can be sold to the surrounding community,” Demissie said. “A small dairy farm will provide milk and butter for the school and the surrounding area.”

Gebre and Demissie know that one center will not solve Ethiopia’s massive problems, but they are convinced that it will serve as a model for relief organizations, which, despite their best intentions, “are making some people dependent to a degree.”

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Operating from a tiny donated office at 2258 31st St. in Santa Monica, the organization has attracted an interracial board of directors that includes Los Angeles City Councilman Robert Farrell and Ed Asner, president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Long-Term Answer

Two other groups that up to now have concentrated on providing immediate relief also are beginning to focus their efforts on development. The Committee Against Famine in Ethiopia, 1250 S. La Cienega Blvd., was organized last fall to involve a broad cross section of local Ethiopians in raising funds for relief.

It has raised more than $50,000 from Ethiopians and Americans, part of which went to buy medicine and seed for farmers, said committee board member Abraham Kidane, chairman of the economics department at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

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“We also want to mobilize resources for long-term development, such as providing improved agricultural tools and teaching farmers more effective ways to store grain,” he said. “With the improvement of simple tools you can increase agricultural production tremendously in Ethiopia.”

A church-based group, the Ethiopian Relief Committee, is also looking beyond the $10,000 it contributed to the American Red Cross for relief. “Attacking the crisis only for now without a long-range project will not solve the problem,” said accountant Girma Bekele, the committee’s secretary. “We can’t just make people dependent on relief for the rest of their lives.”


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