Before launching the nonprofit organization Tesfa Ethiopia, Maheder Yohannes planned a trip to Addis Ababa, an Ethiopian city of around 2.7 million people, in 2017. It would be her first return to her home country since she immigrated to the United States at 10 years old, and she didn’t want to return empty handed.
Yohannes started a small fundraiser to provide books and uniforms for students in her hometown. The response from her community both in the U.S. and her hometown overwhelmed her. It was in that moment that the seed for Tesfa Ethiopia was planted.
While she and her friend Meki Shewangizaw began running fundraising projects under the Tesfa Ethiopia banner that year, they became a certified nonprofit organization in 2019. Their goal is to empower students in Ethiopia by providing them with school supplies, basic necessities and more.
The organization also conducts outreach work for the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities, particularly young people, here in Charlotte. This Saturday, Oct. 16, Tesfa Ethiopia will host its annual Fall Fest at ourBRIDGE for KIDS in east Charlotte to raise funds for a new library and a new scholarship program for primary-school students in Ethiopia.
As part of the festivities, Tesfa plans to host the largest Ethiopian coffee ceremony ever held in Charlotte.
Building blocks and connections
Saturday’s Fall Fest will go toward two current Tesfa Ethiopia projects that will make real change in two Ethiopian communities.
The first, Tesfa’s Kids, is a scholarship program for primary school students. Launched earlier this year, Tesla’s Kids pays the annual expenses associated with attending primary school in Addis Ababa. While the ages of the students vary, Tesfa and its partnering organization, an Addis Ababa church called Kidus Estifanos, pay the students’ school expenses and other miscellaneous expenses every school year until completion of their public school education in 12th grade.
Seven beneficiaries were selected for the first cohort of Tesfa’s Kids in the spring, while the second cohort will launch in March 2022. At Saturday’s festival, Tesfa Ethiopia hopes to garner interest in sponsorship – the annual cost to sponsor one student is approximately $250 – so as to help more students with the second cohort.
The second project involves building a library for students at Lenchicho Primary and Secondary school, located in the small town of Lenchico, about 140 miles south of Addis Ababa.
As poverty levels tend to be higher in rural areas of Ethiopia, many teachers, students and staff are consistently low on learning materials and space. Tesfa Ethiopia hopes to change that by helping build a library that houses hundreds of books, learning materials and a common space for students to study.
The nonprofit’s impact doesn’t stop with students. Instead of contracting out American builders or volunteers for the project, Tesfa insists on paying Ethiopian workers and shops for their labor.
In 2019, after raising enough money for 400 students at Ye Kelem Amba Primary School to get school uniforms, Tesfa asked a local tailor to sew the uniforms. The money raised amounted to six months worth of salary for that tailor.
For the community, by the community
“The funny thing is we didn’t expect it to get this big,” says Shewangizaw, who was 22 years old when she helped Yohannes co-found the organization. “We just planned for it to be me and [Maheder] … I think that’s what’s been the great thing about Tesfa, is that it’s just brought people who we have not expected to just give us their time, their resources and their mentorship for free.”
Most Tesfa members are unpaid volunteers, but collective support is the nature of the organization. All decisions are made democratically; every member can bring a project idea to the table, and every member has a vote.
Equality in Tesfa is incredibly important to Shewangizaw.
“Like, yes, it’s me and Maheder that do it, but our members have equal say in everything we do,” she explains. “We always say that Tesfa is just as much theirs as it is ours.”
That sense of collaboration also comes from shared roots. Every member has direct ties to Ethiopia, whether through family, birthplace or other means. Their work is not just abstract do-gooderism; it ensures the survival, safety and growth of their friends and families.
“If I’m improving education in Ethiopia, then I’m improving the lives of my cousins and nieces and nephews,” Shewangizaw says. “And a lot of our members are directly from Ethiopia and grew up in the school system. Now, they give back through Tesfa.”
A bridge to home
Tesfa also maintains a close relationship with the Ethiopian and Eritrean community here in Charlotte. Part of that includes working with Charlotte’s Ethiopian Youth Group, which unites Ethiopian young people through service and community. It was through that club that Tesfa connected with ourBRIDGE for KIDS, a refugee and immigrant children’s organization.
Tesfa has also carried out projects here in Charlotte. In 2020, it collected over 200 clothing items in a coat drive for Charlotte’s unhoused population. And when pandemic home learning began to wear down parents, Tesfa began holding daily homework help sessions for Ethiopian and Eritrean kids.
When asked about goals for the future, Shewangizaw mentions she wants to hold more festivals, but also provides a metaphor showing her desire to create more impact.
Meeting small, short-term fundraising goals in Ethiopia is good, she clarifies, but systemic change is what’s really needed.
“If you saw a dead fish in a lake, you’d think something was wrong with the fish. If you saw half of the fish in the lake were dead, you’d think something was wrong with the lake,” Shewangizaw says. “If you saw half of the fish in all the lakes were dead, you’d start testing the groundwater.”
The work can be overwhelming, especially when considering that Ethiopia has been embroiled in a deadly civil war for a year now. Shewangizaw stresses that Tesfa does not hold all the answers, but tries to help in any way it can.
“I think it’s very paternalistic to have this approach where you’re like, ‘I’m gonna fix everything!’ So our main goal is to say, ‘What can we do for the big picture?'”