Unlikely Ethiopian-American heroes – By Joe Rodriguez Mercury News

October 9th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

Two years ago, Joseph Zeleke rushed to a crowded hospital in Addis Ababa with a heavy heart, (more…)

Two years ago, Joseph Zeleke rushed to a crowded hospital in Addis Ababa with a heavy heart, and several tons of donated American medical equipment for Ethiopian clinics waiting on the docks.

“The shipment was ready and now it could fall apart,” the Ethiopian immigrant remembered last week. “But I had to get to the hospital for personal reasons.”

Yemegnushal Haile, a nurse who was going to receive the equipment from Zeleke, had just died in the hospital from injuries suffered in an auto accident. This couldn’t be happening, Zeleke thought, saddened by her death and worried that the equipment might never get to the clinic.

The death of his sister Zenbech from breast cancer and AIDS in 2000 at age 45 had shaken him terribly. He put off college to start World Family, a charity based in Milpitas that has delivered over $6 million in medical equipment to Ethiopia. A former importer in that desperately poor country, Zeleke knew he couldn’t let the latest shipment sit idly in storage waiting for thieves or corrupt officials.

As Zeleke gave his condolences to Haile’s husband, a chance meeting would solve the problem and much more. At Haile’s deathbed was her daughter, Emebet Billingham, a model and fashion designer from San Anselmo, an affluent Bay Area town. Before the accident, Billingham was helping her mother raise money in America for orphanages in Ethiopia.

After the funeral, Zeleke and Billingham rode together in a Toyota Landcruiser to the clinic where Billingham’s mother worked, the one set to receive those medical donations now on the dock.. The more they talked, the more they uncovered similarities. They were the same age, now 40. Each has two kids, the eldest born in the same month and year. Each was an immigrant, now driven by the loss of a loved one, to help Ethiopia.

“Call it a karmic meeting or whatever,” Billingham said at the warehouse in Milpitas. “I think it was our destiny for Joseph and I to meet and, at least for me, to carry on my mother’s work.”Slender and fit, Zeleke has sad eyes and brilliant, white teeth that somehow combine to power his quiet, articulate voice.With a high school education — most Ethiopians never make it that far — he was making a decent living as a fresh-fruit broker in Ethiopia, but he wanted more. He won a lottery visa in 1999 to study in the United States. A year later, his sister died.

“I had no idea she had AIDS or when or where she got it,” he said, speculating that she kept it a secret because it’s a taboo disease in Ethiopian culture. Haunted by her death, Zeleke took a long hard look at his homeland and didn’t like what he saw.

When the World Health Organization surveyed Ethiopia’s medical landscape two years ago, it found only 112 hospitals serving a population of 75 million. There were only 2.6 doctors for every 100,000 people. AIDS was rampant. The country didn’t have a single dental school. Poor Ethiopians were more likely to visit untrained folk healers or tooth-pullers than see the inside of a modern clinic.

But on the bright side, Ethiopia’s government was beginning to build new clinics and hospitals, but lacked the money to equip them adequately. Zeleke saw the opening.

He started World Family in 2003 to fill the new health facilities with hardware. One of the first supporters he met in Silicon Valley was Vanessa Cooper, a local housing advocate who also advises charities trying to help Africa.

“I get a lot of people who want to start non-profits but most of them never get off the ground,” said Cooper, who was born in Kenya. “Joseph is rare. He had this passion from his personal story about his sister … and he had a business model.”

From his experience as a fruit-broker, Zeleke learned how to get things passed customs, deal with Ethiopian bureaucrats and transport his goods from the docks to his customers. What he’s doing now is brokering between Silicon Valley hospitals that need to get rid of old equipment and Ethiopian clinics that need it. Those old medical machines, Cooper said, otherwise could end up in American landfills.

She said Zeleke’s pitch to American hospitals boils down to: “I’m going to save you the cost of unloading this equipment, but I’m going to make you feel good about it!”

Bellingham, meanwhile, was a teenager in the mid-1980s when she moved to the Bay Area with her father. A brain-drain from Ethiopia was in full swing. After studying at the Fashion Institute of Design, she became a model and designer, married and started a family. Occasionally, she’d help her dynamic mother carry out ambitious medical and social plans for rural Ethiopia.

However, after her mother’s death, Billingham gave up her career to join World Family.

She concentrated on the social side, first raising money for a community center for orphans, which is named after her mother. She has plans for building many more.

With Zeleke as CEO, Billingham as president and an office manager on board, World Family recently moved into its first office in a Milpitas shopping center. From there the team marshals a small army of volunteers, from Ethiopian-American teenagers to technicians who test the medical equipment at a second, bigger warehouse in Oakland.

In only five years, World Family has shipped dozens of containers stuffed with over $6 million in donated medical equipment, enough to equip two hospitals and several clinics. At one hospital, Zeleke said, a grateful woman who had just give birth in the facility named her new son, “Hospital.” Partnering with the American Dental Association, they equipped Ethiopia’s first two dental schools.

World Family has scored a few hefty contributions. The Clinton Foundation, as in Bill and Hillary, gave them $260,000 in cash. Stanford Medical Center and the Lucille Packard Childrens Hospital are their largest equipment donors. The warehouse space in Milpitas and Oakland is donated.

Even so, Zeleke said World Family needs to raise $26,000 each month to cover costs, mostly for shipping and salaries. He’s also looking for a medium size forklift. And that’s just for now. They want to equip 200 more clinics and raise money for more community centers and orphanages by 2010, only two years from now.
That’s when Zeleke wants to retire from charity and move on to something else, like a cozy job in high-tech. Billingham said she’ll probably stick around longer.”The problem is,” Billingham said, ”that the more successful you become the harder it is to leave. There is so much need.”In Ethiopia, that’s always a given.

For more information
Go to www.theworldfamily.org

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