Mekdes Zelelew, a voice for the voiceless

Mekdes Zelelew, Founder and Executive Director of Integrated Family Services Organization (IFSO) was born and raised in a village called Beliho in Ambassel Woreda of South Wello Zone in Amhara Region. Mekdes was educated at the Wuchale Elementary and the renowned Woizero Siheen Secondary School in Dessie. She started her career as a Kindergarten teacher after graduating with a diploma in Kindergarten teaching from the Ethiopian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs KG Teachers’ Training Center in 1972.

She Worked as a kindergarten teacher at a model kindergarten found   in Debrezeit (Bishoftu) , which was  run by labor and  Social Affair office. Besides, on voluntary basis, she provided kindergarten education for 60 destitute children of poor families by mobilizing Air Force wives to pay for the children’s supplies. Mekdes got married in 1975 and moved to Harrar with her husband. During the Ethio-Somali War from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Mekdes worked in Harrar supporting children affected by war. During the Derg regime, Mekdes worked for the Ministry Labor and Social Affairs where she was seconded by UNICEF to train KG teachers and child minders, in order to allow mothers to work. She served in this capacity in the provinces of Gojjam, Harrar and Shoa. She further served for three years as a Coordinator of children program at Addis Ababa Administration, bureau of Labor and Social Affairs

Based on her experiences and passion, Mekdes founded Integrated Family Services Organization (IFSO) in January 1995 with a sponsorship for 13 children provided by a 30,000Birr grant from an Italian humanitarian organization called CIAI. She started the association at her home with borrowed furniture and a male volunteer who has helped for 12 years. The Vision of IFSO is to see a society where children are free from the effect of poverty in Ethiopia.

To date, the association has implemented 16 projects, which included among others the Rehabilitation and Prevention of Sexual Abuse, Child Sponsorship, Children living with HIVAIDS and Supporting Children on the Edge, some of which have since phased out. IFSO particularly supports boy victims of sexual violence; the foster home which is run by IFSO has 21 kids (boys and girls) waiting for their case to go to court. The organization works in ten sub-cities in Addis Ababa, Afar and Amhara (South Wello) regions.

In two decades of its operation, the numbers of donors have grown to more than ten, the annual budget of the organization has risen to over 12 million Birr and the number of beneficiaries has risen from 13 to 10,000 girls and boys, men and women. 

Mekdes is most proud of the reputation that IFSO has developed for seeing projects through; out of the 2250 children who have received monthly sponsorship support to attend school in Addis Ababa, 17% have completed their tertiary level education, some of them with BA degrees. Furthermore, one of the graduates of the IFSO Child Sponsorship programs is Yirgalem Hadush who was orphaned at the age of 11 and with the support of her siblings and IFSO went on to represent Ethiopia in the “Miss World” competition in London in 2014. A successful model, Yirgalem has publicly acknowledged the role of IFSO in her life and she has even organized an event for sponsored children project.

Mekdes also said that she is gratified to see survivors of sexual abuse supported by IFSO to overcome their scarred life and further their education all the way to university. Mekdes has been leading IFSO for the past 22 years.

Mekdes raised five children of her own (alone after her husband died in 2002)–children who have become great resource to IFSO: They contribute ideas, energy and resources to the project, even in bringing their personal employees to help with projects and conducting IFSO work at their homes, where there is no electricity at the office, for example.  Many of her relatives at abroad also sponsor children from the project.

Mekdes says that her dream is for Ethiopians to be self-sufficient. She believes that her organization acts as a vehicle for that cause as it helps families remain together. Through its long term commitment to provide education for underprivileged children, many have become gainfully employed and lead independent lives.

To the question of how she supports other women, Mekdes thinks that she has been effective in inspiring women in the communities she has worked in, for example, while working in Gojjam, she convinced the women of the community she was serving to stop shaving their heads as per the customs of the community, a practice she found demeaning to women. Mekdes doesn’t have a specific strategy to empower women, but her organization prioritizes women and girls to join the project both as beneficiaries (of the sponsorship program, for example) and as employees.  IFSO projects have a gender and/or women-focused commitment and take the form of women’s empowerment, girls’ education and Men as Partners (MaP).

Mekdes is said to work very well with external partners; her ability to work well with people has resulted in a good relationship with the local governments in project areas. The office also has a good relationship with long-standing donors, one of which has funded IFSO since its inception. 

Mekdes gives the projects under IFSO space and freedom. She thinks through all projects and actions and makes balanced decisions. She is also committed to working along plans, and her focus is always on the end-goal. She also said that she will not bite off more than she can chew and that she has given back funds on projects that wouldn’t be successful.

Mekdes’ working style is one highly driven by her passion to help those less fortunate members of society. Mekdes knows many people whom she is able to bring together to support children. She uses her large network effectively to accomplish her vision of children growing up in a society without fear of violence and deprivation of any kind. Mekdes also has a ‘go-getter’ attitude towards projects and funds rather than a growth plan. 

In terms of community level engagements other than her own organization, Mekdes says that she serves monasteries in poor areas and often acts as a mediator in conflicts in her community.

Mekdes appreciates the recognition of her hard work by entities such as AWiB and gets encouraged by it. She also stated that this recognition encourages and inspires other women to work harder in their respective fields.

AWiB thanks this courageous woman and wishes for her dream to come true.

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