When almost no one dares to talk about the issue, there was only one woman who dared to talk of it publicly, strived to curtail the outdated stereotype attached to the limitation through undertaking various activities whatever she could to change the life of her son and thousands of other Ethiopian children.
Zemi yenus is the Founder and Director of Nia Foundation. She was born and raised in Addis Ababa. However, due to the political unrest that occurred in the late 1970s, she was forced to flee to Italy at her 17s. While studying Italian and taking a hotel management course there, at age of 19, she was able to join UCHI- a refugee service agency that works with United Nations High Commission for Refugees. At the time, she was serving migrants entering to USA.
But, her job had put her in difficult situation and she was accused by the then military government of assisting wanted criminals to escape through her work with the refugee service in Rome. Accordingly, she left for the United States, where she resided for fourteen years until 1996.
After completing a course in Cosmetology, she worked in several places, including in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, California, and established her own beauty salon in Los Angeles. She enjoyed her profession, especially because it gave her the chance to meet people from different backgrounds, races and social classes, as it allowed her to learn more about life.
Right after the military regime who enlisted her in blacklist changed; Zemi returned to Ethiopia for a vacation, nonetheless, she was saddened to see so many unemployed young people who seemed to have lost hope and so many young girls on the street working as commercial sex workers. With a deep concern for the youths as well as dedication to contribute her share for the development of her country, she decided to move back permanently. Upon her return to Ethiopia, she opened ‘Niana School of Beauty’, the first licensed beauty school in the country.
She has trained more than six thousand young women in the profession, of which most of them are opening their own businesses and the rest have enabled to be in a job. When she learned that there were many young women who aspires to work in the cosmetology field but could not afford the fees, she began to give scholarships and worked with non-governmental organizations to help commercial sex workers change their profession.
She not only provided scholarship for those who were short-handed to cover the school expenses but she was also supporting high school students who fail to score the set passing requirements to join university that lost hope to even enter a profession that could support them. She worked on developing their hidden talents and trained most of her students in life skills to help them change their whole approach to their lives.
While she was doing these, she was facing enormous challenges because her son (an autistic) was continuously expelled from schools in which the schools frequently accused of him for being spoiled and undisciplined. All she could understand at the time was that he was different from other kids of his age; but had no any idea about his problem.
On a fortunate incident, her husband was able to watch a television program in the United States where they were living at the time. It suddenly came clear that perhaps her son, Jojo, was autistic – certainly the symptoms described all seemed to point to this.
Up on her return to Ethiopia, she began researching and consulting psychologists, doctors and other professionals but failed to find any answers. Her biggest concern, like parents with autistic children was how she was going to communicate with him. But many doctors had reassured her that boys are often “late talkers” and assuaged her fears. But the more she found out independently, the more she recognized that her son’s delayed speech, as well as his repetitive actions and his behavioral difficulties, were clearly autistic.
Throughout her search of better options, she came to understand about other parents’ challenges in raising their children with autism. Particularly she found out that mothers were blamed for their autistic children and were crying in the dark single handedly.
It was unfortunate when she witnessed that many autistic children were considered cursed and possessed and, as a result, they were chained and left to live in dark rooms. Even some were not considered as part of their families. Determined to end the stigma, exclusion and physical confinement that afflicted autistic youngsters, Zemi decided to stay in Ethiopia and made her life’s purpose to aware the public about autism and to change the lives of parents and autistic children and other intellectual disorders.
Then, she began providing awareness creation programs about autism through inviting various people, including stakeholders, professionals, government officials and media personnel. It was a good opportunity to talk of the case. Even in media she was invited for interview, she talked about autism boldly. Soon, the issue became the talk of the town.
When it became clear that creating awareness was not enough by itself, she opened an autism center and a school for autistic children in May 2002, using funds gained from the Niana School of Beauty. To educate herself about the issue, she began to read, and attended numerous trainings and courses about autism. Parents, who can afford to do so, contribute to the center according to their income, while those who cannot afford receive free services. Concurrently, for those who are pro poor, the foundation provides financial support for food, house, rent, and transportation.
She does not end there, aiming to communicate with her own son thereby assist those autistic children connect with their families, she started researching the medical condition and developed a teaching method known as ‘Abugida Phonetics’, which is based on the Ethiopian alphabet and sound.
Similar to Amharic, the method combines sounds and visualization to help a child learn to read, write and speak. As a result, she was enabled, to witness substantial improvements in her son within 12 months.
Zemi dedicated her life in changing the lives of many women who were sex workers with the motto ‘Instead, sell your talents!’ There is no doubt that she had wiped the tears of several mothers, children with autism and related disorders; both through her personal and organizational efforts.
In the support group program she had created, mothers share experiences, laugh, cry, and celebrate their children’s being, realizing as they are not alone any more.
Mothers are also supported psychologically and economically. Her ‘Senk Bet’ shelter established for trafficked young women is another organizational contribution of her. Her Radio talk show, ‘Yagebangal’ on F.M. 98.1, was the other platform that she used to promote the wellbeing of women.
Zemi was a hard worker who aspires to make her foundation a center of excellence offering therapies, trainings, research and other services. She was working to assure that social services like education and health care are available for these vulnerable group and they are included in all aspects of the community’s work.
In addition to her foundation, Zemi was one of the Board Directors for National Red Cross Society of Ethiopia and member of Rotary Club of Addis Ababa west, a founder and member of Women for Life that is a volunteers group of concerned women to support mother and child care.
Her organization has also worked with Addis Ababa Education Bureau to mainstream students who are in the autism spectrum disorder. She is now helping victims of human trafficking to integrate them back in to society with a two pronged approach, rehabilitating the migrants and victims’ of trafficking and raising awareness of the community for all rounded response.