Thursday, February 16, 2012

Project Orotta: A conversation with the organizers

Recently, Project Orotta had three different events in three different cities in the United States. I asked the organizers of Project Orotta to talk about the objective of the organization and their successful fundraising. Here are the excerpts:

Issayas: Could you briefly describe about yourself?

Beri Gebrehiwot

Beri Gebrehiwot: I was born in Khartoum, Sudan and immigrated to the U.S. with my family at the age of 7. I currently live in Seattle, Washington. I am a Registered Nurse (RN), currently working in the health care IT field where I train and support nurses and physicians in implementing new health care systems. I love what I do because of the flexibility and the ability to travel and meet new people! I have a heart and passion for helping people and I want to dedicate my life to serving those who live in areas where medical attention is scarce or inaccessible. It is my ultimate dream to start a non-profit in Eritrea that supports their health care system by providing resources such as equipment and manpower in their schools, hospitals, etc.

Hellen Fissihaie

Hellen Fissihaie: I currently live in Dallas, Texas. I am the Program Director of the New Immigrant Women's Empowerment Initiative at DFW International Community Alliance. I have my Masters in International Political Science and hope to do my Ph.D in African Development. Now that's the education and career side of myself. The other side is filled with hope and optimism for women's development universally and growth for Eritrea and Eritreans internationally. An avid traveler who finds comfort and excitement in capoeria while finding my own growth in the company of random strangers and places.

 Rahel Solomon

Rahel Solomon Afeworki: I was born in Eritrea on June 20 1981. My parents migrated to the United States in 1991 and I am the oldest of 6 kids. I am currently living in Seattle Washington and work for the Space Needle Corporation. who I am is defined by my history, my bloodline and my country. I am a daughter of Eritrea , I am bright, confident, honest, loving, smart, witty, hardworking and at times arrogant but knowing who I am and where I come from is the most important thing to me. I am blessed and lucky to have the beautiful family that I have.

Abadit Eyasu

Abadit Eyasu: I am currently a graduate student at the University of Washington. I immigrated to the U.S. in 1992 with my family of seven. I am very interested in service-focused work, and working with people experiencing crisis. Being involved with Project Orotta is one of the best decisions I have made. The idea of getting the community involved both locally and nationally to empower medical and dental students in Eritrea keeps me motivated.

Yehdego Beyene

Yehdego Beyene: I was born in Asmara, Eritrea but have lived in Dallas for 26 years. I’m a Contact Center Engineer.

Azieb Okbamicael

Azieb Okbamicael: I am nursing student pursing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). I currently work as a nurse with special needs children. As a nursing student I am very excited about what the Orotta Medical and Dental School means for our nation. I believe that these students are some of the brightest minds and by helping provide them with the proper equipment they will be able to further advance the medical practice of our nation.

Selamawit Bariamichael

Selamawit Bariamichael: I am originally from Washington State and graduated in 2011 from Seattle Pacific University as a pre-medical student receiving degrees in Molecular Biology, Chemistry and French. I currently live in Washington D.C. working for the Teach for America Organization (TFA). Joining the Project Orotta team has been an extremely exciting endeavor. As we commit as an Eritrean community to further the education of our brilliant medical and dental students, we are ultimately helping to develop our nations promising healthcare infrastructure.

Issayas: Have you been to Eritrea?

Beri: Yes, I was in Eritrea with my entire family in 2003! It was during that trip, actually, that I decided to become a nurse and to one day come back and serve in Eritrea. Even then, I would dream about building small clinics in the those who are unable to travel into
the city access to health care closer to home, especially during emergencies.

Hellen: Yes, I was there in 2005 and plan on returning this year. Excited to see the new development of Eritrea and definitely see my family.

Rahel: I have never been back to Eritrea but making plans for the summer.

Abadit: After a long 20 years departing from Eritrea. I finally went back six months ago. One day, I decided to purchase my ticket because putting it off for so many years just wasn’t an option anymore. The six weeks I spent in Eritrea wasn’t enough but I had a chance to close and open new chapters of my life. The plan is to go back this summer, God willing.

Yehidgo: Have not been back to Eritrea since 1996, but looking forward to going back in May of 2012 to document the success of this project!

Azieb: I grew up in Asmara for the majority of my life and came to the United State in 2002. I am hoping to go back and visit this coming summer.

Selamawit: My most recent trip back to Eritrea was in 2006 during the Eritrean Youth Tour and the 2006 Eritrean Youth Conference.

Orotta School of Medicine and Dentistry. Asmara,Eritrea.

Issayas: Orotta Hospital, Orotta Medical and Dental School and now Project Orotta are named after Orotta, a historically significant area. Could you tell us about it?

Beri: The Orotta Hospital, as well as the Medical and Dental school adopted its name from a battlefield hospital during Eritrea's 30-year war for independence. This hospital, once known as the world’s longest underground hospital, stretching about 5 miles, was located in the northern mountainous region of Sahel. These hills became a safe haven for the families of soldiers, orphans and the disabled. According to the 1987 publication of the British Medical Journal, the underground facility consisted of many units that were all carefully hidden from air attack. Surprisingly these units, the neurosurgery, cardiovascular and orthopedic units, to name a few, were set up following western standards. This hospital had up to 1200 beds including a recovery unit. Aside from the hospital there were schools, orphanages, a newspaper printing press, a medical library and a pharmaceutical factory where anti-malarial pills, antibiotics and hundreds of bags of saline were produced every night.

The Orota Referral Hospital, an up-to-date facility with 200 beds, was built in 2003. It is currently the largest hospital in Eritrea with a variety of specialty services. In response to the shortage of medical professionals in Eritrea, the Orotta Medical School and Dental School was birthed in 2004. Both of these institutions were called Orotta in remembrance of what took place beneath the Sahel mountain; to honor those who lost their lives in the struggle, and also to commemorate and remember the countless physicians, surgeons, nurses and other personnel who worked tirelessly to make sure the wounded veterans, as well as civilians affected by the war, had adequate medical attention. Hence the model for the Orotta medical and dental school is community based, with a strong emphasis on public health and public health research. The ultimate vision is to provide the country of Eritrea with outstanding providers and clinicians. Prior to the establishment of the school, the physician index was 5 per 100,000 people and the approximate number of physicians in specialized fields totaled 4 obstetricians, 5 pediatricians and 7 surgeons. As you can imagine, this is far too low for a country with a population of 5 million people.

 Orotta School of Medicine and Dentistry 2010 graduates.
Asmara, Eritrea

Issayas: How did the project started and how did you get involved?

Beri: I knew I wanted to somehow get involved the moment I met the dean in New York. I was thrilled about the mission and goals of the Orotta Medical and Dental School and knew that it was something I wanted to be a part of, even from a distance. Shortly after meeting the dean, I emailed him with a proposal to help provide some equipment for the school and instead he referred me to Yehdego Beyene, telling me that he too was on a mission to help the students at Orotta. I contacted Yehdego immediately, and the rest is history! This is a very important project because Eritrea's physician index is extremely low, with only 5 physicians for every 400,000 people, ranking amongst the lowest in the world. I believe that the idea of increasing manpower from within the country, developing and cultivating its own medical and dental professionals, is the best way to go. When you increase the number of health care providers, not only do you increase accessibility to the people, but you also have the ability to increase the quality of health care received.


Issayas: What is Project Orotta and how did it start?

Hellen: Project Orotta is a global project geared at generating the income needed in order to purchase much needed laptops, printers, projectors, and converters for the medical and dental students as well as staff at Orotta Medical and Dental Schools in Eritrea. It is the mission of this project to provide the students and staff at Orotta with the most up to date and efficient technology in order to continue to progress and succeed as the country's first and prominent medical school. Yehdego met Dr. Andemariam Gebremichael (the Dean of Orotta Dental and Medical School) in DC while he was touring and promoting the school. During that time, they discussed possible means of helping the school. Months later, after receiving a letter of assistance from the Dean, Yehdego reached out to me in order to create a project that was both realistic while still serving the needs of the school. Thus, Project Orotta was born. I've worked with non profits and saw the schools needs as one that was easily attainable and was in unison with the idea of this project as a global diaspora project. Within weeks Beri, Abadit, and Rahel joined the
movement as the Seattle Team. Beri had also met Dr. Andemariam while he was touring and thought that joining Project Orotta was the best method in contributing to the needs of the school. Abadit, too had heard about the project and was excited to join the team and make a difference. Within months a solid DC team, consisting of Selam and Azieb, was organized. Together, this group co-exists in order to reach the final goal of Project Orotta and IS committed TO providing the medical school with what was promised to them by Project Orotta and its many supporters. This project is not about the 7 individuals working on it but about the future doctors and dentists committed to providing a healthy Eritrea.

Issayas: I heard of your successful fundraising in Seattle. How were you able to do it?

Abadit: When the group first decided to have a fundraiser dinner we all decided to have the event the same weekend. DC hosted the dinner on January 27 and Seattle and Dallas on January 28. Although, we were all in different parts of the country we worked together and collaborated our ideas. We made a list of people we knew and made sure they heard about the project. Included everyone: old neighbors, former teachers, restaurateurs, professionals, parent’s friends, and religious affiliations you name it they were invited. We wanted this dinner to be a night for the Eritrean Diaspora to come together and support Project Orotta. The dinner did just that, it appeared all attendees were enjoying themselves as well as making connection with the aspect of the mission. Which was beautiful. We couldn’t have been so successful without the support of the Seattle community, family and friends. We were all overwhelmed by the compassion and generosity of the community members when they heard about the project and the fundraiser. I remember the night of our fundraiser Beri, Rahel and I were having a brief
discussion upstairs around 7:00 p.m. and not many have arrived, 15 minutes later the room was filled. We were floored when we saw more people coming in. I t’s great to see all the work that they team has put in come together so successfully.

Issayas: Was the Seattle fundraising your first?

Abadit:Many of us have worked with nonprofits putting together events to raise funds in one shape or form. This project was great because we had an opportunity use each of our unique talents. This particular fundraiser dinner was special and close to our hearts because we wanted to empower the medical and dental students in Eritrea. This being our first Eritrean fundraiser, we went over details over and over to make sure the night would be perfect. The fundraiser in all three states gave us an extraordinary feeling and we appreciate the energy, excitement and willingness of the community leaders through this process.

Issayas: Seven of you are in different parts of the country (Seattle, WA., Dallas, TX; and Washington, D.C.) How do you manage to coordinate , mangage time,be active and determined?

Hellen: Thank god for facebook, email, and the cell phone. These are our three forms of communication. We mainly communicate via phone or email. Like everyone else, we all have careers and many of us are in school so communication is constant, whether it is texting, emailing, facebooking, or phone. Each individual has a primary role, whether it is taking care of paypal, facebook, twitter, or the bank account. We all share full visibility and access to what the other person is doing but we have divided roles so that one person has a specific job and is not burdened by too many duties. As a whole, each group is responsible for fundraising and advertising in their respective cities. Decisions are made by majority rule via calls or emails. Yedhego focuses on the facilitation of the project and in spreading the word to everyone as well as specific markets of the community. Hellen focuses on the logistics of the project, primarily setting up non profit, getting all legal and financial documents, and researching avenues to fulfill the end goal. Abadit, Beri, and Rahel are focused on social media, advertising, marketing, and fundraising. Selam and Azieb focus on utilizing the DC market and meeting prominent members of the diaspora to help fulfill the end goal. But, Everyone works to fundraise and to continue to spread the word about Project Orotta. We all share our opinions and help each other in whatever item needs to be taken care of. We are a solid group who share the same desire to help Eritrea have a long and sustainable health care system lead by Orotta Medical and Dental School.

Above picture : DC fundraising event


Seattle Eritrean Dance Group performing
The group consists of middle and high school students

Seattle, WA. Orotta Project Fundraising Event.

Issayas: What is the plan for the future?

Yehdego: To start a movement that will galvanize the Eritrean Diaspora to get more involved in the development of Eritrea, including focusing in the area of knowledge transfer. It's important we reach out to Eritrean professionals to discuss ways of lending our skills to our people back home who are eager to learn and use what they've learned to develop the country.

Issayas: On your website it states that you want to raise 40 laptops, 15 projectors and 60 converters. With your recent successful fundraising, how far are you from achieving the above mentioned goals? Once you achieve them what is the next plan?

Yehdego: As of now, we have collected funds to cover the cost of 20 laptops, 10 Overhead LCD Projectors, 1 all-in-one copier/printer and 60 power converters. Once all the necessary funds have been collected, we will proceed with purchasing the equipment from Dubai. Our desire is for all of Project Orotta members to travel to Eritrea and document the equipment transfer to the dean of the Orotta School of Medicine and Dental Medicine, Dr. Andemariam Gebremichael.

To check out their website and donate, please visit:

Thank you all for your time and dedication.