Founder and Director of NIA Foundation
Zemi Yenus was born and raised in Addis Ababa. She left Ethiopia during the Red Terror, a time of violent political unrest in the late 1970s and went to Italy at age 17. At age 19, she started working for a Refugee Service Agency called UCEI that worked alongside with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. As part of her work, she was in charge of migrant’s entry to the U.S.A.
Returning briefly to Ethiopia in 1981, she was accused by the Military Government of assisting wanted criminals to escape through her work with the Refugee Services Agency in Rome, which put her in their black list. Avoiding the upcoming threat, she immigrated to the United States, where she resided for fourteen years.
After completing a course in Cosmetology, she worked in several places in California, including in Hollywood and Beverly Hills and established her own beauty salon in Los Angeles.
In 1992, soon after the Military Regime changed, when Zemi returned to Ethiopia for a vacation, she was dismayed to see many young girls to have been forced to turn to sex work to support themselves and their families. As most of the issue related to poverty and engagement in risky sexual and addiction behaviors are desperation, hopelessness, and lack of guidance, Zemi said, “It is now our duty to make it up for our country by doing everything possible to change the situation and guide many to better alternatives”.
She decided to move back permanently so that she could contribute to her beloved country’s development, with a special concern for young girls. On her return to Ethiopia, she opened ‘Niana School of Beauty and Modeling’, the first licensed professional beauty and modeling school in the country. She has trained more than six thousand young women and men in the profession, most of whom are working and many of whom opened their own businesses. Finding that there were many young women who wanted to work in the beauty field but could not afford the fees, she began to give scholarships and worked with non-governmental organizations. She worked on developing their hidden talents and trained most of her students in life skills and Reproductive Health to help them change their whole approach to their lives.
Meanwhile, at home, she was facing enormous challenges because her son was continuously expelled from schools because of his autism. He was viewed as spoiled and undisciplined. She tried several schools for her son, hoping to find one that could meet his needs. Finding no schools equipped to deal with children in the Autism Spectrum Disorder in Ethiopia, she had to decide whether to go back to the United States, where such schools existed, or stay in Ethiopia. While exploring her options, she learned about other parents’ challenges in raising their children with autism. Particularly she found out that mothers were blamed for their children’s’ autism and single handedly were crying in the dark. She witnessed that many children with Autism were considered cursed and possessed and, as a result, they were chained and locked away in dark rooms, to the point that some were not even considered as part of their families. Determinedto end the stigma, exclusion and physical confinement that afflicted autistic youngsters, Zemi decided to stay in Ethiopia and made her life’s purpose to aware the public about autism and to change the lives of parents and children with Autism and other Intellectual disorders.
She began autism awareness creation program by including the issue in the modern and traditional beauty services and products exhibitions she organized. It was a good opportunity for her since governmental and non-governmental officials, celebrities, students, professionals from different disciplines, and media people, along with the public, were invited. In her beauty-related interviews with the media, she talked about autism for the first time in Ethiopia. Soon, the issue became the talk of the town.
When it became clear that creating awareness was not enough by itself, in May 2002 she opened the first autism center, using funds from her Niana School of Beauty and Modeling.
Passion in Life
“Ethiopia is my passion. I want to contribute to make a better Ethiopia”.
Achievements Zemi is proud of
Zemi says “She believes that she has a long way to go but seeing the success of youth especially women how they have changed for the better is a very happy feeling. She is proud of her students who excelled and now are even growing stronger in terms of developing professionally and financially. She says her graduates who established their business and who open doors for others deserve a great recognition as well.
She says that one of her best achievement is also the personal and organizational advocacy efforts she exerted that resulted in better inclusion of ‘Autism’ in the Government Policies, Plans and guidelines. She is also happy about the tool ‘ABUGIDA PHONETICS’ she produced to help children with autism develop their speeches and to see children speak for the first time and express their needs. Instead of being ashamed of; seeing mothers smiling and celebrating their children as a result of her effort is a big achievement!
Zemi’s Foundation has recently received land from the city government to construct a world class autism center of excellence for the purpose of conducting operational researches, providing holistic therapies and specialized education for children autism and related disorders.
Zemi believes that we all are capable of reaching our goals if we could get the right opportunity and support from one another. At some point in our lives, everyone needs some sort of assistance to be able to succeed, while it should also be remembered that the support circle shall continue unbroken. She prefers leading by example. She first ensures that her team members know what is expected of them individually and then, what they must contribute as a team. She strongly believes that people who didn’t attain higher level of education could still be able to learn from doing and that they only need the opportunity to unleash their potential; as she sees every step as a learning opportunity. She says effort, commitment and mutual support are the keys to success. She is also willing and determined to share her experience. She appreciates respect among colleagues and there is no ‘this is not my job’ syndrome in her team. Her employees are empowered and are involved in every process of making important decisions and undertaking operations.
In addition to her foundation, Zemi is one of the Board of Directors for ‘National Red Cross Society of Ethiopia’ and a member of ‘Rotary Club of Addis Ababa West’, a founder and member of ‘Women for Life’ that is a volunteer group of concerned women to support mother and child care. Her organization has also worked with Addis Ababa Education Bureau to mainstream students who are in the autism spectrum disorder. She is now helping victims of human trafficking to integrate them back into society with a two pronged approach; rehabilitating the migrants and victims of trafficking and raising awareness of the community for all rounded response.
Her current contribution to social issues through her Radio Talk Show that she hosts; called ‘Yagebangal’ (It concerns me) is admirable. Zemi says “By catalyzing ‘Yagebangal movement’ I want to contribute to creating a society that cares and says all social issues are common concern.
Helping other women
Most of Zemi’s beauty and modeling school graduates are women. She helped change previously sex workers livelihood with the motto ‘instead sell your talents!’. She also wipes the tears of mothers of children with autism and related disorders; both through her personal and organizational efforts. In the support group program she created, mothers share experiences, laugh, cry, and celebrate their children’s being. They are not alone any more. Mothers are working and are able of continuing their daily life while their children go to school like their other peers. They are supported psychologically and economically. Her ‘Senk Bet’ shelter for trafficked young women is also another organizational contribution of her. Her Radio talk show, ‘Yagebangal’ on F.M. 98.1, is also one of her platforms that she uses to promote the wellbeing of women.