By Erin Serpico
While many students retreated home or went away on vacation for winter break this year, 20 brave students flew to Ethiopia for 10 days to embark on an alternative break serving the needy and connecting with their faith.
Through Maryland Hillel and the Joint Distribution Committee, this alternative winter break trip allowed student volunteers to work on service projects in Ethiopia from Jan. 8-18.
On the trip, students learned about Ethiopia and the work JDC does for the country. According to the Maryland Hillel website, Ethiopia’s per capita income is among the lowest in the world, and more than one third of its residents live below the poverty line.
The students selected – some friends already and some strangers – flew into the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, and later flew for more than an hour to another city, Gondar, with the committee.
JDC is a Jewish organization that works with 70 countries to assist the impoverished and those in crisis. Through the projects and trips they host, they work to help the poor, connect with Jewish heritage and rescue those in danger of global emergencies. It has been working to provide medical services and care for those in need in Ethiopia since 1983.
Because many of the students involved didn’t know what to expect from traveling to this country, as many have not been to Africa before, much of the appearance and dynamic of the country itself stood out to them and came as a bit of a shock.
“It helped me realize the people who need our help,” said Lexie Kahn, a junior communications and supply chain management major.
This was Kahn’s third alternative break trip, and she was excited to be able to be a part of the experience. She said seeing poverty up close in person was incredible and that through talking with the locals, it was interesting to see how they live and how the group of students could come together to help them.
Senior sociology major Brina Furman was skeptical of flying into the country at first.
“My initial reaction was that I would cry every night,” Furman said, when thinking about the government establishment and state of the country. She said that as soon as she started interacting and communicating with locals, however, she became more aware yet more frustrated with the state of the country.
Among many of the trip’s observances and activities, both Furman and Kahn said they worked in a clinic, in a school and with clean water well projects.
Dr. Rick Hodes, the JDC medical director in Ethiopia for over two decades, performs a lot of technical and medical work, which the students observed. Running a health clinic himself, Hodes provides health services like medications, tests, hospitalization and pre- and post- care for mothers and babies in the country.
Furman emphasized that Hodes also treats kids for tuberculosis and spine damage, and sometimes sends his heart patients away for specialized care. Hodes has even adopted children, and he hosts his own Shabbat meals, an experience the visitors find hard to forget.
“It was a Shabbat experience I could never replicate and never seen before,” Furman said.
Among the experiences mentioned at the clinic, the students also taught children simple tasks like swallowing pills to make available medications easier to take, as many of the children and residents there are not used to that.
The entire experience made the students step back and realize how much of a difference they could make with just one simple move – like making portable water wells, something they took part in on the trip. To envision a country with no running water will make you feel guilty, Furman said, and building just one water well could make a huge difference.
After the trip, Furman even decided to raise money to start her own well for the country, in hopes it will make people healthier without diarrhea and dehydration.
The students on this trip agree that they would definitely try to go on another trip since this one was both eye-opening and inspirational.
Kahn said there were so many unbelievable moments that made the trip worthwhile, which helped her learn about another culture entirely and see things she had never seen before.
“I really want to understand people’s struggles,” Kahn said of her motivation to go on the trips.
Throughout the trip, there were also periods of reflection when the students congregated together and talked about the experiences they had together, making it more and more apparent that by attending these trips in groups of students, you can really change lives.
“It really made me think about me, as a person,” Furman said.