CRS Commemorates World AIDS Day in Africa

CRS Ethiopia holds a vigil with its staff for World AIDS Day. Photo by CRS staff

CRS Ethiopia holds a vigil with its staff for World AIDS Day. Photo by CRS staff

CRS offices around the world work on HIV projects daily, but employees often don’t have time to stop and reflect together on the impact of the disease on their own lives. Several CRS programs observed World AIDS Day with in-house events that allowed that time for reflection. Following are two entries about those events.

The first entry was sent in by Aynalem Demeke, a deputy administration manager with CRS Ethiopia who also serves as a point person for the HIV in the Workplace program.

CRS Ethiopia held a candlelight vigil to mark World AIDS Day and invited Berhane Kelkay, a woman living with HIV who works to educate other Ethiopians about the virus and lessen the stigma surrounding it. Berhane is a founder and the executive director of the Association of Women Living with HIV, a group known as “Tilla,” which means “umbrella” or “shelter.” The organization works to increase awareness and change attitudes about HIV through education, advocacy and promoting positive living. The association, which has more than 100 members, primarily focuses on women, who are often more vulnerable to the pandemic.

Berhane Kelkay arrives for the World AIDS Day ceremony at CRS Ethiopia. Photo by CRS staff

Berhane Kelkay arrives for the World AIDS Day ceremony at CRS Ethiopia. Photo by CRS staff

Berhane is a widow who quietly started serving people affected by the pandemic in her community, and grew to become a national figure on HIV issues. Speaking publicly at international symposiums and workshops, she challenges Ethiopians and those outside her country to confront the stigma often associated with HIV and understand the need to care for those affected.

A mother and a counselor to vulnerable youth, Berhane urged CRS to remember that problems children face today will continue into the next generation. She asked the audience to pledge to take an active role in awareness campaigns, echoing this year’s theme for World AIDS Day — leadership.

“Leadership starts at home, in the family,” she told the CRS employees in Addis Ababa.

Members of the staff said they were touched by Berhane’s presentation.

“She is one of the few HIV-positive women determined to expose her [story] to the public,” one person wrote in comments after the event. “I really acknowledge her effort and the great work she is doing.”

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The second entry was sent in by Debbie DeVoe, Catholic Relief Services’ regional information officer for East Africa, after participating in an HIV in the Workplace event at CRS Kenya in honor of World AIDS Day.

Talking about HIV and AIDS isn’t always easy. There’s often a fear in the back of your mind that someone might think your question is stupid, especially since you’re supposed to be completely informed working for an international aid agency. And there’s the concern of offending someone in the room with the words you choose to use. And then let’s face it: HIV discussions touch on, yes, sex — a topic many don’t want to talk about to anyone but their best friends. And now they’re being asked to discuss it with 40 of their closest colleagues.

CRS Kenya HIV in the Workplace Officer Pauline Kibe makes it easy for staff to discuss HIV issues by keeping everyone laughing. Photo by Debbie DeVoe/CRS

CRS Kenya HIV in the Workplace Officer Pauline Kibe makes it easy for staff to discuss HIV issues by keeping everyone laughing. Photo by Debbie DeVoe/CRS

CRS Kenya invited all staff to come together in honor of World AIDS Day. Amazingly, the event facilitator Pauline Kibe, CRS Kenya’s HIV in the Workplace officer, put everyone at ease and led employees to have a frank discussion about the issues they face in Kenya and the support CRS can offer.

CRS Kenya has strict guidelines to protect employee confidentiality — an employee who breaches confidentiality to reveal another employee’s HIV status risks penalties that include possible termination. CRS Kenya will also revise work expectations for an employee if failing health prevents him or her from taking on certain aspects of their job. And, like other CRS programs, CRS Kenya taps one staff member to be available to answer questions about HIV and provide support or counseling.

This event also highlighted the staff’s generosity. Over the course of a week, employees donated enough toys, clothes, food staples and shoes to fill nine boxes. These were distributed to three agencies: a privately funded program that CRS Kenya runs to help children orphaned by AIDS, a group that provides assistance in Nairobi’s slums, and an agency that rescues abandoned infants, cares for young girls and provides HIV services.

I’ve only been working in Kenya for seven months now, but I already feel like I’m part of a supportive family — and even better, one that laughs more than cries.

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