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In her bedroom, she has converted one of the corners into a small shrine sectioned off with a flowered curtain. And there, every morning, she prays.

“To thank God every morning,” says the pretty 17-year-old, who keeps her black hair in a neat bun, “to be optimistic, to give thanks for one more day alive, to be happy, to work hard.”

“People don’t especially take us as a Catholic [institution], but as a school — as an institution that offers a good education,” says Abba Tesfaye Petros, 39, the administrator of Debre Selam Mariam Catholic School.

He adds that he appreciates all the encouragement he receives from the parents. Even last year, when a protest movement shook Ethiopia, they told him they felt their children were safe in school.

The priest works to provide support to the children with the greatest needs, although it can be challenging to reach them. In Gondar and its outskirts, he has often visited homes to offer assistance to students and families. Currently, he arranges for help for some 200 students unable to pay their school fees.

Although the school can sidestep certain financial constraints, space constraints prove less tractable.

“If you accept all the people who want to come, you will more than double the number of students,” he explains. “Some classrooms are already packed.”

Other Catholic schools likewise struggle with their limits. In Dubbo, for instance, Our Lady’s Catholic School is currently in a scramble to acquire enough money to pay all its teachers’ salaries this summer.

And yet, if they had more funds, Abba Abraham says, they could do more outreach to those who drop out and flee to the city. Such young pupils, he says, end up “cleaning shoes, working as day laborers and sometimes becoming street children.”

In Soddo, Abba Berhanu struggles with the question of whether to raise tuition to make ends meet, recognizing that this could place more strain on parents.

Although he faces an unpleasant dilemma, he remains optimistic.

“Despite all the difficulties,” he says, “we have a strong hope that we can reach out to all the brothers and sisters in need, and offer them the chance to go to school and explore their potential.”

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Emeline Wuilbercq is a French journalist based in Addis Ababa. There, she serves as a correspondent for the African edition of Le Monde. Her work has appeared in Jeune Afrique and The Guardian, among other places.



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