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Two US youths with HIV join the fight against AIDS in Ethiopia

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2006/Belachew
US youth activists Elias Perez and Kimberly Canady listen to teachers speak about caring for orphans and vulnerable children in Awassa, Ethiopia.

By Gerrit Beger

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, 30 November 2006 – Kimberly Canady, 19, and Elias Perez, 20, both from Brooklyn, look tired but have a sparkle in their eyes as they arrive in Ethiopia after the 16-hour flight donated by Ethiopian Airlines. It’s the first time either of them has travelled outside the United States.

Tired or not, there is no time to rest. Kimberly and Elias are youth activists on an important UNICEF mission to see firsthand what AIDS is doing to children and young people in a region that has been hard-hit by the disease.

The visit is part of the UNITE FOR CHILDREN  UNITE AGAINST AIDS campaign, a major drive by UNICEF and partners to put children and young people squarely on the global AIDS agenda. Kimberly and Elias are carrying audio equipment and recording a UNICEF Radio-Voices of Youth Digital Diary about their experiences.

The issue is extremely close to their hearts: Both youths have been struggling through their childhood and teenage years to come to terms with their HIV status. Both are orphans who contracted HIV from their late mothers.

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2006/Belachew
Ethiopian children who have been orphaned dance and play at the Yetesfa Raiy Development in Awassa.

AIDS impact on children

HIV-positive children orphaned by AIDS? Isn’t that an African story? Not necessarily. But although their story is similar to many others here in Ethiopia, the impact on their lives is worlds apart.

In Ethiopia, too many mothers are still passing the virus to their newborns, even though it could easily be prevented. Thousands of children wait for HIV treatment that is easily accessible in developed countries but a distant hope for most African children in need. Too many young people are infected because they don’t have the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe. And hundreds of thousands who have lost their parents to AIDS face hardships that challenge their potential to survive and thrive.

But there is also hope. Kimberly and Elias are impressed by the incredible commitment and determination of Ethiopians taking on the challenge to work towards an AIDS-free generation. The Brooklyn youths see half a dozen projects where children and young people affected by AIDS are being cared for, fed and educated.

‘How are they still alive?’

Visiting a project run by Abebech Gobena, often called the ‘Mother Teresa of Ethiopia’, they hold small abandoned children in their arms, telling them to keep going and be strong. The next day, at the Save Yourselves Girls Anti-AIDS Club in Awassa, a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony has been prepared to welcome Kimberly and Elias.

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2006/Belachew
Elias Perez (right) speaks with a teacher about HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care for young people in Ethiopia.

“Tell them we’re HIV-positive and tell them they can ask us questions,” Elias says to the translator. The young girls react with surprise, chattering amongst themselves. “How are they still alive?” one of them asks, a reference to the inaccessibility of paediatric treatment for most children living with HIV and AIDS in Ethiopia.

For these girls, the prospect of living prosperous and happy lives with HIV is as distant as Brooklyn.

Great Ethiopia Run

The journey by Kimberly and Elias culminates with their participation in the Great Ethiopia Run, an annual race that draws over 25,000 participants. The visitors lead the UNICEF Dream Team composed of 16 orphans and vulnerable children who live at the Artists for Charity home.

After the run, the children are thrilled with their medals and with Kimberly and Elias, who hug them and hold them with beaming smiles.

“I am living a good life and dream that we can make this possible for all of us,” says Elias. “We have a responsibility to make this happen and to unite for children.”

Elizabeth Losleben contributed to this story.




30 November 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Sabine Dolan reports on the visit to Ethiopia by two US youth activists living with HIV.
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30 November 2006:
UNICEF Voices of Youth Digital Diarists Elias Perez and Kimberly Canady report on their trip to Ethiopia to meet with other HIV-positive young people.
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