Ethiopian humanitarian Haregewoin Teferra dies

Elias Kifle | March 18th, 2009

It is reported that Haregewoin Teferra has died yesterday of natural causes at her home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The following story about Haregewoin is taken from Mellisa Fay Greene’s book, “There is No Me Without You.”

Haregewoin Teferra was happily married to Worku Kebede, a biology teacher and high school principal. She worked in the accounting office of Addis Ababa University and of Burroughs Computer Corporation. The middle-class couple lived in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and doted upon their daughters, Atetegeb, born in 1967, and Suzie, born in 1969. Then a pair of tragedies altered Haregewoin’s life. In 1990, at the age of 54, Worku collapsed and died from a heart attack. Bereft, Haregewoin raised her daughters alone. Atetegeb married, had a baby boy, then fell ill. Her sickness seemed untreatable. Haregewoin spent eight months at her daughter’s side, seeking every cure, consulting every clinic and physician, until, at the age of 24, Atetegeb died.

Haregewoin’s life ended. She spent all day every day draped in black, seated beside her daughter’s grave. A year passed in this way. She felt unable to return to work, unable to accept visits from her friends. “But my daughter,” she protested when they sought her out. “I liked her very much.”

She typed out a line from a song she remembered – “There is no me without you” – and placed it over an old photograph of teenage Atetegeb and Suzie laughing together. After 18 months of profound mourning, Haregewoin asked the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to take her into seclusion. She would leave the world, she would inhabit a hut in the cemetery near her daughter’s grave.

Instead, a Catholic organization approached Waizero [Mrs.] Haregewoin and asked her to shelter a homeless teenage girl. “My life is over,” she replied. “It doesn’t matter what I do. If you think God wants me to take her, then I will take her.” Two weeks later, the Catholic group phoned again to ask if she could shelter a homeless 17-year-old boy. Again she replied, “My life is over,” and she took the boy. Two weeks later, the agency phoned again, this time with two orphaned little girls. They’d lost their parents to AIDS; no one, in that moment of the dawning pandemic, wanted to risk contacting the disease by sheltering the children. But Haregewoin, who felt her life had ended anyway, accepted them into her compound, into her heart.

All that occurred roughly 400 children ago. Today Mrs. Haregewoin provides two houses to about 40 orphaned children, half of them HIV positive.

She has named her two compounds after her late beloved daughter, Atetegeb Worku. Thus: Atetegeb Worku Metasebiya Woleji Alba Hitsanet Merja Mahiber AWMWAHM (Atetegeb Worku Memorial Orphans Support Association) Mrs. Haregewoin gets no government help to care for these children; she relies on the generosity of friends, neighbors, and outsiders.