No Place Like Home

How a Catholic center helps young Ethiopians lay down roots

text by Emeline Wuilbercq with photographs by Petterik Wiggers

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Serkalem Keder, an aspiring pastry chef, loves to bake cakes. Wearing a smile and a hairnet, the slender 22-year-old gushes about her dream job, which she hopes to land with skills learned at the Kidist Mariam Center.

For the last seven months, Ms. Keder has been taking cooking classes at this facility operated by the Community of St. Paul in the Ethiopian town of Meki, about 80 miles south of the capital Addis Ababa.

Before she enrolled at the center, Ms. Keder had few hopes for a bright future. Defying her parents’ wishes, she had left home to work in Saudi Arabia. “My family is poor,” she says. “That was the only option to change our life.”

But life there was not what she expected.

“I never rested for two years,” she says. “You feel like you’re a thing and not a human being; you’re a slave.” She says she was constantly afraid of beatings, sexual harassment and other forms of exploitation or mistreatment.

Finally, she begged her employers until they agreed to let her take a holiday in Ethiopia. Once she returned to her home soil, she never looked back.

Now, she spends her days studying diligently at Kidist Mariam (“Holy Mary” in Amharic).

Since February 2016, this center has offered professional training courses to young women — and a few men — in Meki. Some 120 students currently study cooking, sewing and hairdressing. Most of them dropped out of school at an early age, as they could not afford to finish their studies — either for a lack of resources or because the girls had to take on domestic duties. Without professional skills, however, they were unable to find a decent job.

Serkalem Keder’s story is not uncommon among young people in Meki. In this bustling town of about 40,000 inhabitants, the dream lies beyond the border. Despite remarkable economic growth within the last few years — which saw Ethiopia top the list of the world’s fastest growing economies in 2017 — Ethiopia is still plagued by poverty. A third of its population lives below the poverty line. Many Ethiopians contend the country’s economic growth and success have not reached all segments of society, setting off protests in which some have ended in violence and death. And so for many Ethiopians, emigration appears the only way to a better life.

But here, at a center named for the Mother of God, they are finding possibility and hope — and seeing a future full of promise.

Today, Ms. Keder and her classmates flit about the kitchen, working on a meal to impress the neighbors who have come to the center for lunch.

Guests include many local workers, including those from the pediatric clinic and Meki Catholic School. Each day, they enjoy a good meal under a tent surrounded by flowers.

Shambel Zeleke, the teacher, supervises the routine. Mr. Zeleke has been teaching at the center since it began its cooking program. Under his guidance, the students have learned to prepare from scratch dishes such as lasagna, gnocchi, Spanish omelettes and pizza. His recipes often draw on the nationality of the volunteers who come to the center. “The students understand quickly,” he says.

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