Tell us about Project Harar….
I founded Project Harar almost exactly ten years ago, after a chance encounter with Jemal, a street-child in Harar, eastern Ethiopia. Jemal developed chicken-pox at a young age, which really weakened his immune system. Without a local doctor and without antibiotics, Jemal developed noma – a horrific illness like gangrene that strikes the face.
Jemal who was 12 was among the lucky ones: only one in 10 survives. He did survive, but his family were unable to care for him and he went to live on the streets of Harar. And that was where I found him, begging on the road, ostracised by the other children that were living rough. I just knew I had to help; and I managed to find treatment for him and another, even younger boy Fhami who was only nine. He’d been wounded by a hyena and was in real pain. A hospital ship docked in Gambia agreed to take them and provide reconstructive surgery. You can see how it changed their looks here.
That was just the start. Project Harar has expanded and changed so much over the last ten years, but it still helps children in eastern Ethiopia reach treatment for facial disabilities – including noma, animal attacks, and cleft conditions. We have reached well over 1,600 people now. So far in 2011 we have seen 400 young patients, given them a check-up and referred them for further treatment if they need. It really fills me with pride to see how this organisation has grown and grown.
Tell us about the people you help…
The courage and bravery of the children we work with never ceases to amaze me. Maybe some of you have or know of children with clefts. It's hard enough living with this disfigurement in a wealthy country that enjoys the support of an excellent health system. But in Ethiopia, there's no easy access to treatment, life becomes extremely tough without social acceptance. Children have difficulty eating and speaking, and face terrible discrimination in their communities. Half of our cleft patients are denied the chance to go to school before surgery – happily, after treatment almost all do.
A couple of years ago when I was out in Ethiopia I met an amazing child called Zahir, who had fallen ill with noma at the age of just seven days. It's one of the most serious cases we've ever seen; half his face was completely gone. His father told us that, before treatment, people said he would be better off dead. But despite this, Zahir and his father were always smiling, always cheerful – a genuine inspiration. On my trip to the country this year, we met again and he had already undergone an initial round of treatment, the improvement to his looks was fantastic. We will offer him more surgery in future to give him a new nose.
What’s the best part about going over there and working with the children?
Seeing the transformation to childrens’ lives that surgery brings with my own eyes. Project Harar restores basic, invaluable, human functions – the chance to eat and speak with dignity, and smile again. There’s also the opportunity to meet the patients’ families which is great.
How can we help or get involved?
I'm pleased you asked! We really need to raise awareness of the people we reach, to make sure more people know about facial disabilities, and that the message gets out that help is available in Ethiopia. You can join our facebook page or our sign up to our newsletter through our website. The trustees of the charity will donate a pound for every person who signs up through this link – www.projectharar.org/page/newsletter so please sign up and invite all your friends.
It costs just £250 to help a child get the help they need, so even a small donation would make a big difference. Please consider donating online here. We're also looking for sponsored runners for the 10K in London in July – if you could run and help us raise these funds, or have another idea for a sponsored event, email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.