An Israeli project called ART-Joy-Love (AJL) is providing what it says is a “cocktail of happiness and love” to HIV/AIDS orphans in Africa. The project relies on a multidisciplinary team of volunteers from Israel, ranging from pediatric AIDS experts to medical clowns. Founded in 2005 by Professor Dan Engelhard, head of the Hadassah Medical Organization’s Pediatric AIDS Center in Jerusalem, the project currently operates in four orphanages in Ethiopia and one in Uganda.
Professor Engelhard says that AJL began when an Israeli medical student casually mentioned the Mother Teresa Orphanage to him. Located in Addis Abbaba, Ethopia, the orphanage houses approximately 450 children, most of who are infected with HIV.
In 2005 Engelhard and his team of volunteers, supplied with anti-retroviral treatment (ART) drugs through the Ethiopian Centers for Disease Controls & Prevention and the PEPFAR program (United States’ President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief), embarked on a mission to the orphanage, and already within the first year, mortality rates plunged from 25 percent to one percent. Fast forward to 2013 and AJL has expanded their anti-retroviral treatment to include an additional four orphanages, while maintaining their original mortality rate.
Alongside the immediate issue of providing HIV/AIDS orphans with anti-retroviral treatment, AJL is interested in their total wellbeing. The volunteer team consists of experts from varying fields. Since joining the project in 2007, Doctor Ravit Birenbaum, a pediatric dentist at Hadassah, has been to Ethiopa five times. She recalls the shock of disembarking from a short flight (4.5 hours) and entering a “totally different” world. Initially Birenbaum was overwhelmed by the “poverty in the streets” and the “many kids that have no family and are all HIV positive,” but after spending some time there she says that you get to know the kids.
“You see that they’re happy kids. They don’t live feeling that something is wrong with them,” she tells NoCamels. “In some way they are even more privileged than the kids living on the streets,” she explains, as they are provided with food, medical treatment, and education, commodities that are not available to everyone in Africa.
Over the years
The success of the anti-retroviral treatment and accompanying decrease in the mortality rate has introduced some new issues. Birenbaum acknowledges that whereas initially they were dealing with dying children, “now we have regular kids living with a chronic illness;” meaning teenagers in all their complexity.
In collaboration with the respective orphanages AJL must cope with the “between boys and girls stuff” and “prepare them for life outside – finding them a profession.” In response to these changes AJL has developed various psychosocial programs and educated the local staff in issues pertaining to adolescence.
Israeli – Ethiopian Collaboration
Since its inception AJL has aimed to power local staff and experts rather than creating an unviable dependence. According to the Hadassah Medical Center, approximately 60,000 Ethiopian children are infected with HIV every year. Moreover, Ethiopia is has the third largest rate of infection in the world, with an estimated 2.2 million people infected, 200,000 of which are children.
Such statistics provided the impetus for a training program, launched in 2004 in Hadassah’s Pediatric AIDS Centre, tailored to Ethiopian physicians and nurses. Graduates from the program also receive clinical mentorship from Hadassah physicians who travel to Ethiopia. It is within this context of Israeli-Ethiopian collaboration that AJL functions.
ART may stand for anti-retroviral therapy, but Birenbaum proudly noted that AJL has restored the original meaning of the word on the program. On February 3rd 2013, the School of Fine Arts at the Addis Ababa University hosted a unique art exhibition showcasing the talents of 15 HIV/AIDS teenage orphans.
Under the guidance of well-known Ethiopian artists from the Netsa Art Village in Addis Ababa, the teenagers spent their summer holiday creating art pieces for the exhibition. Under the auspices of the Embassy of Israel in Ethiopia, the exhibition was presented to all the children from two orphanages.
The exhibition also included a performance from the “Dream Doctors,” a group of Israeli and Ethiopian medical clowns. Israeli medical clowns are present on the majority of AJL’s visits to Ethiopia and are already recognized by the orphans. Their role is to run workshops and awaken a sense of joy within the orphans. They share their medical clowning expertise and collaborate with local Ethiopian clowns from the Fekat Circus.
Birenbaum explains to NoCamels that love is simply love: “Anyone can come and love the kids, and hug them and kiss them, and play with them… which is one of the most important things.” It is clear from the brimming smile Birenbaum wears when describing her favorite child, Behailu, that these are not mere words to her.
Birenbaum also told of the unfortunate event of breaking her legs during one of her trips to Ethiopia. She fondly recalls a young girl that acted as her protector in the hospital. The young child, who was hospitalized herself, would fetch Birenbaum’s shoes whenever she needed them and ensure that nobody came near Birenbaum’s damaged legs. It seems that love runs both ways.