As Published on nbcnews.com
$500. It was a small donation that has saved scores of starving women and children, and another chapter in my unexpected story: a family determined to do good in a troubled world, and an imam willing to open his heart.
My dad had been a missionary and engineer with the Presbyterian Church in an Ethiopian village so remote, it was not on Google maps until two years ago. My strongest memory is from third grade when a woman arrived at the rural health clinic where he volunteered. She’d been in labor for 4-5 days and her baby was dead. My father got her through the emergency and saved her life. I remember afterwards, the two of them calmly drinking tea together. Then she died.
I left Ethiopia in 1973 and did not return again until 2008.
When I finally went back, it was with my now elderly father, a newly minted medical degree, and no intention of being a doctor in a place where I couldn’t effectively do my job. When I asked a medical provider what happened when mothers encountered trouble in childbirth, he turned away and simply stated, “They die.” One in ten women were dying in childbirth and 30-40% suffered severe gynecological problems afterwards. I felt like things had gone backwards.
It’s then that I started Village Health Partnership (VHP) to create sustainable healthcare systems in Ethiopia’s remotest communities. I’ve returned every year since and one of those return trips included a Ramadan gift of $500. Seeme Hasan, of the Hasan Family Foundation, gave me that $500, a brief letter of introduction with a photo of herself (to show she was Muslim), and a clear directive: Find a local imam, give him the money, and ask him to use it to help feed his people.
Her gift weighed heavily on my mind. I worried about how I could fulfill the family’s wishes. Was I to just walk into a Muslim community as an outsider and say, ‘Hi, where’s the imam?’”
Eastern Ethiopia was suffering another deadly drought. I was heading to Western Ethiopia where people were taking refuge. As I entered the pediatric ward of a regional hospital, I was greeted by an unexpected, eerie silence because the children here were starving. One 6-year-old girl weighed 15 pounds. I learned they had come from a nearby Muslim refugee resettlement camp that housed thousands of people who had fled Eastern Ethiopia. But they didn’t trust outsiders so they only came to the hospital when they were literally starving to death.
When I met Zeritu Yimar, who’d come from this Muslim refugee resettlement camp, she was in labor but her pelvis was so small from chronic starvation that she could never have delivered her baby. When doctors performed an emergency C-section, they found she was carrying twins. Neither survived.
Now I knew where the Ramadan gift must go.