By Oromsis Adula
Saint Paul, MN – On Saturday December 3rd, 2010, the Saint Paul based Oromo Community Center hosted various HIV/ADIS service groups and African agencies that cater to immigrants of African descent in commemoration of the World AIDS Day.
The event was organized by a committee made up of various organizations that serve African immigrants/refugees; HIV/AIDS service organizations, academic institutions, and state government agencies. Realizing the need to reach-out to African immigrants and commemorate the World AIDS day in unison, the aforementioned groups came together and formed a coalition in 2004. The coalition’s main task was to organize an event around World AIDS Day. Dubbed the “African World AIDS Day (AWAD)”, now in its 7th year, the event seeks to debunk the stigma about HIV, provide prevention education, onsite confidential HIV testing, and increase awareness about the devastating impact of the HIV/AIDS on Africans worldwide.
Dr. Monica Yugu, African Community Educator and a Case Manager at Allina Health Services, explains difference the event has already made on African immigrants psyche as follows;
It used to be the case that when people think of HIV/AIDS they think of death. But the event focuses on the positives – the fact that there is life after HIV diagnosis…it is possible to have a family, live happily and have hope. As a result of cultural and religious influences, it was largely a taboo to talk of sex/condom. Now that is shifting. The event has already impacted how people look at HIV…after seven years of organizing this event; people are beginning to open up.
The event features African dances and food. By giving a cultural dimension to the event, the organizers seek to create connections with the community. At first, “Africans did not come to the mainstream World AIDS Day events…we wanted to give people more reasons to come, i.e. food, dance and to hear community leaders speak”, Dr Yugu said.
Africa represents a mere 10 percent of world’s population. Yet, according to UNAIDS 2007 report, “more than half of the HIV infections worldwide” are in Africa where the disease claims 4,100 lives daily with 5,200 infections every day. More than 22 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa alone – world’s most HIV infected region, live with HIV/AIDS. Children in Sub-Saharan Africa “account for more than 85 % of all children under the age of 15 living with the disease[i].” Africans in Minnesota constitute less than 1% of the state’s total population. But according to the Minnesota Department of Health, African born persons “made up 11 percent of new HIV diagnoses during 2008[ii].”
Clearly HIV/AIDS is not a problem that the immigrants left behind in Africa as is often thought of. The following table paints a gloomy picture of the prevalence of HIV /AIDS among African-born Minnesotans (2003-2009).
New HIV infections Y2Y
Total in 2009
Total African Born
The event consisted of exhibitions, a key note address by Joy Mbajah from National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, panel discussion, music, food, HIV Testing, and a presentation from two HIV carriers from Ethiopia.
Alivine Siaka, member of the AWAD 2010 steering committee and the person in charge of this year’s testing told me,
I was surprised by the number of people who signed up to Get Tested. Over the last few years, we did not have enough people who were interested in getting tested. But this year, we had to turn people away because there were not enough testing supplies. Even a 13 year came to get tested.
Mesfin Fayisa Robi, a former veteran of Ethiopian army, shared a heart-wrenching story of his experience living with HIV/AIDS. A former POW in Eritrea, Mesfin was among those who were swapped through a deal brokered by the Red Cross following the bloody Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998-2000. Upon return to Ethiopia, he learned about his medical status – HIV positive. His attempt to flee the country to avoid shame, stigma and discrimination led to discovery of organizations that work with HIV carriers in Ethiopia – the Dawn of Hope.
Ultimately, Mesfin went on to form the organizations Adama branch and has since been upfront to raise awareness about HIV prevention and create opportunities for those who have contracted the disease. Mesfin has won awards for his work as a community educator including being named the 2009 the U.S President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief Hero – an honor given to him by “United State Embassy in Ethiopia for his contributions to the advancement” of the project. Mesfin is also part of the twin partnership between Minnesota Department of Health and Oromia Regional Health Bureau. The partnership was born out of a meeting between the two departments in January 2008 and a subsequent request by Oromian bureau for technical assistance.
Launched in February 2010, the Adama Community ART Adherence and Nutritional Support Project aim to address local problems using local resources. It primarily works on “promoting productivity, urban gardening, dairy farming, nutritional support, mobilization of Iddir leaders.” Already, many individuals living with HIV/AIDS have received training through the project and were discharged fully able to support themselves financially.
Zenebech Tirore Leta’s story was equally tear-jerking. Zenebech who spoke through an Amharic interpreter hails from the Kambata Region in Southern Ethiopia. A successful local business owner, she lost her husband and father of her three children to suicide ten years ago. “My life took a radically new course when I learned about a suicide note from my husband” she recalled. Devastated by the loss of her husband and having to live with the stigma of HIV/AIDS, she repeatedly attempted to poison herself or intentionally tried to get hit by a car. Then her youngest son died of HIV related illness.
Unable to care for her two children, who are luckily not HIV positive, she gave them up for adoption to relatives. Much like Mesfin, she stumbled upon the Dawn of Hope Awasa branch – an organization that provides resources and psychological support for people living with HIV/AIDS. Immediately after starting the Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART), the HIV antivirus, “I saw my deteriorating health significantly improve”, she said.
Leta now works with local NGOs and government agencies to implement HIV/AIDS prevention and control activities. She also leads “Missale”, a non-profit association of HIV positive government employees in areas of capacity building, care, support, networking and evaluation. The two spoke of their experience living with HIV in Ethiopia – the stigma, the discrimination, lack of access to antivirus and the uneven education thereof. They stressed, prevention is better than suffering with a disease that has no cure. “Once positive, you will remain so, but do not put yourself in circumstances that would lead to contracting HIV and expect God to bail you out”, warned Zenebech. She mused, “HIV doesn’t touch you unless you touch it. So the human race, stay away from HIV/AIDS.”
In closing, elders prayed of a world free of HIV/AIDS. An estimated 200 people attended this year’s African World AIDS day event. Mubarek Lolo, Employment Counselor/Health Advocate at the Oromo Community of Minnesota, said he was impressed by the turnout given the weather. He added, “…the event was a huge success. The two speakers from Ethiopia were good – both their message and actually seeing someone living with the virus is like a living proof that HIV is real.” According to him, the event was one more way to get the community to talk openly about HIV/AIDS, bring to light the state of Africa’s deadly scourge and educate the community about prevention and its treatment.
Community Health Resources:
- Oromo Community of Minnesota (contact: Mubarek Lolo email@example.com or (651) 757-3040).
- African Health Action Corporation (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- African Network Development (email@example.com)
- Community University Health Care Center (612-638-0700)
- HCMC Positive Care Center (612-873-2700)
- Minnesota AIDS Project (612–341–2060)
- Minnesota Department of Health (651-201-5414)
- Sub-Saharan African Youth and Family Services in MN (651-644-3983)
- Wellshare International (612-871-3759)
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