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Individuals of all economic strata are shedding their jobs, hometowns, and lifestyle to embrace a wider experience and a more meaningful existence.

Abezash Tameret

Abezash TameretAbezash Tameret left Ethiopia when she was a child and grew up in foster care in Atlanta, Georgia in the United States. At the age of 20 she returned to rediscover the land of her birth - an unfamiliar country that had played a key role in shaping her identity.

Upon her arrival in Ethiopia, she walked out of the airport terminal doors and immediately turned around and walked right back in.

Overwhelmed by the press of beggars, taxi drivers and bustling humanity outside she had arrived with about $40.00 in cash and a credit card in a country that even as late as 2003, had no ATM's. One week later, she was back at the airport trying, without success, to change her ticket and get an early flight back home to Atlanta, Georgia.

Even though completely frustrated, she gave her move another chance and remained in the country where she would find her birth family, learn Amharic and start a home for HIV-positive orphans.

Later on she founded Artists for Charity, a network of artists, volunteers and donors that support the home. After numerous additional trips, Tamerat, now 35, finally made the decision that more and more Ethiopian expats are making: She returned to Addis Ababa to stay for good.

An estimated 2 million Ethiopians live abroad, driven out by years of war, famine and economic hardships. A report by the Migration Policy Institute puts the number of first and second generation Ethiopian immigrants in the United States at about 250,000.

Abezash TameretNow many are bringing back money and skills acquired in the West to help transform a society still crippled by the legacy of the 17 year communist dictatorship that finally ended in 1991.

Over the past decade these Ethiopian expats have been courted by the Ethiopian government resulting in consistently high growth, welcoming foreign investment and pouring money into infrastructure.

This return home has not been easy for most. Those that have returned must confront not only a complex bureaucracy, but also encounter frequent suspicion from those who stayed and weathered the difficult years. But with persistence they have changed the face of Ethiopia’s cities — starting businesses, opening art galleries, cafes and salons, and founding hospitals.

"The things that are happening and moving through the city are initiatives of the diaspora's vision. They are trying to bring what they know here and pushing some standards," said Tamerat, citing customer service as an example.

"You would go to a restaurant years ago, and it was almost like you were going to get yelled at," she recalled.

The government has started to see overseas citizens as a potentially valueable resource, holding its first "diaspora day" a few years ago to showcase investment opportunities.

"We badly need their participation, their know-how, their skills and resources," said Tewelde Mulugeta, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, which handles diaspora affairs.

Abezash TameretMulugeta did not have figures for how many have come back or started businesses in recent years but said that in the past six months that 2,600 have returned, compared with only 600 in the same time period the year before.

In the past, Ethiopians were not known for emigrating. Those sent abroad for education in the 1960's mostly returned home. But that changed with the 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and the establishment of the Marxist Derg regime.

In the ensuing bloody purges, dubbed the "Red Terror", thousands of Ethiopians, especially intellectuals and businessmen, fled abroad.

Jorga Mesfin, a 38-year-old musician whose family fled when he was 14, eventually settled in Atlanta.

"During the Derg years, for a while, everyone who could get out - got out".

Doctors, lawyers and musicians left. The country's famed Ethio-jazz sound, born in the 1960's, disappeared only to be reborn n America among the diaspora community.

"For a while, even the [Ethiopian] pop hits were being exported from the U.S. into Ethiopia" said Mesfin - who moved back in 2007.

"Coming back here was like finding peace," said Mesfin, who with other diaspora musicians has revitalized the Addis Ababa music scene. "You feel like you are where you are supposed to be. The community appreciates you coming back" he said.

Abezash TameretDespite its recent strides, however, Ethiopia is still very much a developing country, with sporadic electricity, choking traffic, inadequate roads and a frustrating obstructive business climate.

Returnees struggle to adjust to daily life, many hindered by their poor Amharic. Some complain that local Ethiopians treat them like tourists, even charging them premium prices for services.

For every member of the diaspora who makes it back to Ethiopia, there are many who give up and leave again.

Ethiopia is built on a network of people. It's who you know, and that's who opens doors for you. Your platinum credit card is your name — something that as newcomers they do not have.

Many who have come back said it takes about two years for those who return to find their feet in a country that can appear familiar and alien at the same time.

Yet it is precisely this - the ability to straddle two worlds that makes them so potentially valuable to international investors eyeing Ethiopia's relatively untapped market of 94 million people.

Abezash Tamerat is committed to improving the lives of HIV positive children in Ethiopia through the power of art. As the founder of Artists For Charity (AFC), a non-profit aimed at raising funds for humanitarian causes, Tamerat has developed projects centered around art that help provide better lives for children in Ethiopia. The Children's Home was the first project under AFC that aimed to provide a loving home for HIV positive orphans.

Abezash TameretAn artist by trade, Tamerat studied art at Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, Georgia. She saw the power of healing through her work and took her skills along with a community of artists and volunteers across the globe to use their skills to help HIV positive children in Ethiopia.

"After going to visit my home country of Ethiopia, I found a cousin with HIV living in terrible conditions. I looked for a place for him and could find no one to help. I also found more kids like him, who were HIV positive, orphaned, and turned away from every source of help because of their advanced disease, trauma, or disability.

So I decided to create a place for them myself.

"Ethiopia was different than I imagined it, but it still felt familiar. I had to relearn the language and the kids would tease me when I would say something wrong and correct my grammar.

Now, it feels like home to me as much as the US does. I have a lot of memories there and I like to show my kids the places I used to go and hear them singing the songs I used to sing or watch them play similar games. A lot of things like that don't seem to change."

"Starting the Children's Home was very exciting, but also very hard. There were days at the beginning when I didn't know how I would feed the children the next day.

The kids were very sick, and it was hard at that time to get them the medicine they needed. But they didn't give up - and a lot of people joined the effort to help.

It has grown so much now.

Abezash TameretAFC has four major projects. We still run the children's home, and are really happy it has been successful and all the children are doing so well.

For the ones that have started to grow up, we have a transition program that supports them as they move into independence.

We teach them life skills, check on them regularly, support them through college or university as well as the job seeking process until they are solidly on their own feet. Even then they come home for holidays and visits.

We also have the ArtHeals program, which was the idea of the AFC kids, in which we go into pediatric hospital areas and clean out the area and make it child-friendly through colorful mural art and play areas.

Funding is always our greatest challenge. We are a very small, grassroots organization, and we rely on personal donations to keep things going for the kids. The kids are the best part, they make it all worthwhile.

But there is always a wish to do more, and we have to do the best we can with the resources we are able to find.

The vast majority of our funding actually comes from one night a year, when we host a benefit art auction in Washington, DC.

We have art donated from all over the world, drinks, Ethiopian food and music, raffles, and a silent auction.

Abezash TameretAFC has accomplished a lot in raising our kids to be so healthy, successful, confident and compassionate, and in revitalizing these huge hospitals for so many thousands of children to benefit from.

But it is this creation of a global family network where the contributing artists, volunteers, donors, sponsors, and the kids are all woven together so tightly that makes AFC special.

"I now see a greater awareness about HIV and AIDS, at least in the city where we are based. There is still fear and stigma, but it isn't as deep as it used to be.

When we opened, the kids in the home were often cast out from their own families and communities because people were afraid to touch them or to be around them. There has been a shift in understanding now.

That is why we found that the new generation of HIV+ kids we are helping are in just as serious condition as the original kids we took into the home, but now we can help them in their own communities.

With our support, they can be raised by an aunt or grandparent or foster family. This is an option now, which I think is great progress, even if there is plenty of progress still to be made."

"As the kids in the home grow up, we are dedicated to being behind them all the way, and so we have a strong focus on supporting our kids to go to colleges and universities, and teaching them how to be responsible, independent adults."

"We will be opening a community center for the younger kids and families in our outreach program, a place for them to support each other, have a library and tutoring and other resources that can help them be as successful as the kids in the home have been."

"We are also focusing a lot on our hospital projects. This program, ArtHeals, has be a huge success and it's amazing to see how many lives can be uplifted with just a little paint."

www.artistsforcharity.org

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Artists For Charity

Artists For Charity was founded by Abezash Tameret. They are committed to improving the lives of HIV positive children in Ethiopia through the power of art. Artists For Charity is a non-profit whose focus is on raising funds for humanitarian causes. Abezash Tamerat has dedicated herself to developing projects centered around art that help provide better lives for children in Ethiopia.

AFC was created by artists, and continues to be supported through art. Each year, artists from all over the world donate their work for AFC's annual Art Auction Benefits. Proceeds from these auctions make up the majority of their program budget - they could not do what they do without their contributing artists and the supporters who give to them by bringing home beautiful artwork from their auction events.




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