By Mike Tenbusch | May 28, 2021

Just before the pandemic was declared last year in March, a team of students from University of Michigan’s campus chapter of International Samaritan served on our organization’s first service immersion trip to the garbage dump community of Kore in Ethiopia. Kore is where the trash of 7 million people living in the nation’s capital city is dumped every day.  Our team was blessed on the trip by the friendship of four recyclers, who walked with us through the outskirts of the dump. They told us stories about their work and showing us with pride the mounds of plastic they had collected and bundled to sell.

When one of the U of M students asked how safe it was for girls working in the dump, all four men abruptly stopped smiling.  It wasn’t safe at all, they said.  One told a story about how a gang leader had recently terrorized a group of women in the dump, making them all lie face-down on the ground while he jabbed a sharpened stick into their legs to make a point about something he cared about.  “It’s not safe here for women,” our guide concluded, as his friends looked down at the ground and shook their heads in agreement.

“Why didn’t those guys do something?” the students asked me on the van ride back to our home at the Jesuit residence in town.  I didn’t have a good answer.  I’ve confronted bullies a few times in my life, but I’ve been paralyzed by them at critical moments too—times I deeply regret to this day.  

Worldwide, girls and women are paying the price for leaders’ refusal to act.  Just this month, terrorists bombed a girls’ school in Afghanistan, killing 85, and the media’s attention span lasted one day.  Across the world, in just the last 50 years, more girls and women were killed because of their gender than all the men in all the wars of the last century.  In China alone, 39,000 baby girls die each year because they don’t receive the same medical care a son would receive, according to one study.   Doctors in both India and China are not allowed to reveal the gender of the child in the womb because of how many girls would be aborted as a result.  That’s to say nothing of the forced prostitution, sex-trafficking, and violent abuse suffered by millions of girls, particularly—but not exclusively–those in the dire poverty of developing nations.  (These statistics are from Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunities for Women Worldwide, a challenging and inspiring read.)

That is why my heart swelled with pride when I received an email recently from one of the U of M students on that trip who asked if she could work with our team in Ethiopia to research and implement ideas to make conditions safer for girls and women working in the dump.  She had just finished the hardest year of her life completing pre-med studies through the pandemic, and wanted to find a way to help.

After hearing about the idea, more than 40 girls in our scholarship program in Ethiopia came forward to help.  Their numbers are so strong because they are part of a Samaritan Girls Club, founded by one of our scholars last year, that meets every Wednesday to strengthen their bonds and collectively discuss the challenges they each face individually.  

The Samaritan Girls Club was inspired by the power of their mothers who came together to learn to read and write after their children first received scholarships from International Samaritan seven years ago.  Soon after that, their moms formed a co-op to raise 20 chickens and sell their eggs.  Since then, they have raised and sold hundreds of chickens, dozens of goats and sheep, and thousands of eggs.  They have built one community garden in the shadows of the dump and just began work on a second, producing fresh vegetables for their families in the midst of the pandemic.  

More importantly, the resilience of these mothers has produced daughters who are not just graduating and finding work, they are using their education and networks to change the world.  That gang leader and others like him better watch out.  May their reality be changed and justice reign quickly, I pray.

The Samaritan Girls Club in Ethiopia celebrating Christmas together.
Bottom Row (left to right): Yanchialem, Samrawit, Bizunesh, Bethlehem, Hana Mekonnen

Second row (left to right): Feven, Fikerte, Rediet, Kalkidan, Loza, Azeb
Third row (left to right): Hana Tadege
 and Tigist 

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