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The Good Samaritan of Harar, Ethiopia
28 May 2010 Author: Tiberah Tsehai TsehaiNY.com - Click Here to Read
 
BUFORD MAN GIVES HOPE WITH HOSPITAL TO HELP HIS HOME

By STEVE VISSER

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/13/06

Sebri Omer isn't a big man today, at least in size. He was even smaller when as a teenager three decades ago he walked away from the city of Harar and his family into the Ethiopian countryside. The trip, by foot, to the East African country of Djibouti led eventually to Philadelphia, then to Georgia, to Buckhead and finally to Buford where his four children attend school. A man of entrepreneurial spirit, who finished high school at age 22 in Philadelphia, he and his wife, Ashut, have owned convenience stores and a carwash in Gwinnett and Jackson counties. He also is the chief executive officer of a small hospital that is an ocean and a continent away. Three years ago, he opened the Yemage Medical Center in Harar, a city of 172,000 people and one of the greatest places in the world. "I do think I owed something to my country and I wanted to do something for the city where I was born and raised," said Omer, 45, who owns a Shell store in Jefferson. "I just wanted to do something ... invest in my homeland."
Sincerity in action

Today, the hospital is still a small operation, growing from 25 beds in 2003 to 53 beds. Services advertised on its Web site (www.yemagemedcenter.org) range from HIV treatment to dental services to surgery. The goal is to provide decent medical care in an area where the life expectancy is about 50 and government hospitals have few resources. But it is an ongoing struggle. Omer, who has lived in Gwinnett for five years, is a successful middle-class American, not a Bill Gates who can create a powerhouse foundation. Omer has no medical background, but he got the inspiration to build the hospital when he returned to Harar in 1997 with the idea of buying a hotel. Instead, he found one of his relatives hospitalized in a room that resembled a youth hostel dormitory. "It was terrible - 20 to 25 people in a single room - it was not acceptable at all," said Omer, who had become accustomed to medical care in the United States. "At that point, doing the hotel was out of the question." So far, Omer and his staff at the hospital say the care has been provided through a leveraging of financing, seed money from Omer and payments from patients.

Omer said he got the first financing by selling a convenience store in Sugar Hill in 1999 to pay for medical supplies and salaries. He went to the local Ministry of Health, which he persuaded to pay for the land. The property helped secure a $300,000 construction loan from a bank where the officials, he believes, banked as much on his sincerity.

If so, he proved them right a few years ago, when he sold his carwash on Buford Highway to provide a new infusion of money to the hospital. "The hospital in Ethiopia wasn't making any money," he said this week while working the counter at his Shell station off I-85 in Jefferson, his sole remaining store. "The choice was to have one store here and sell the others to help the hospital."

So far, he said, he has contributed about $40,000 to the medical center, which demonstrates how far a dollar can go in a country where the United Nations reports that 44 percent of the people live on $2 a day. Omer said he pays a doctor about $560 a month. But he said he would not have been able to outfit the hospital if it hadn't been for Medshare International, a DeKalb County-based organization that collects used or surplus medical supplies - such as the 45 beds - and donates them to needy places around the globe.

"Sebri is an unusual individual who has taken mainly his own resources to create something for needy people," said Nell Diallo, managing director of Medshare. "When he found out about us, he realized what he was able to do."

Omer said inpatient charges - about $7 a day for those who can afford it - usually cover the overhead, the mortgage and the cost of the salaries for the handful of doctors, nurses and pharmacists that make up the staff. But the hospital is still short of equipment. It doesn't even have the cash for an ambulance. And Omer wants to expand its service so more people, many chronically ill, will get the better care.

"We are using outdated X-ray machines," Dr. Fitih Getachew, the 27-year-old assistant medical director of the Yemage Medical Center, said by telephone last week. "There is a CT [CAT scan] machine in Addis Ababa [that nation's capital] but most of the patients can't afford to go to Addis."

While patients pay more at Yemage than at the government hospitals in Harar, Getachew said the center still provided more free care than paid care.Yemage means hope

On Thursday, Yemage had 35 beds full and had treated about 20 other patients, many of whom suffer from HIV-related diseases, malaria and tuberculosis, Getachew said. The walk-in number can sometimes reach dozens a day.

Omer said he is establishing a foundation to raise money to expand the hospital's ability to provide care. He hopes to recruit volunteer doctors and nurses in the United States to assist and mentor his medical staff. Another goal is to establish a hospice. "The AIDS situation is pretty strong in Ethiopia and those people need a place where they can stay in their final moments," Omer said. "Health care in Ethiopia is not civilized like it is here in the United States."

Harar, a city of both Muslims and Christians, has had a long history in a country that predates the Old Testament. The city attracts tourists who come to see its many mosques and ancient sites and also to see its hyena men - daredevils or animal behaviorist experts - who feed wild hyenas by hand and mouth-to-mouth each evening.

Omer had left the city under the fear of death as a 17-year-old high school student in 1977. Ethiopia had been a caldron of official oppression and separatist movements for years. Untold thousands of mostly young people were killed, jailed and tortured in 1977 and 1978, according to information provided by the Library of Congress.

He said he wasn't political and didn't belong to any organization warring with the government. He was from the Harari tribe, which put its name on a separatist movement.
It would be 20 years before he returned home again.

"It was extremely hard for my parents to send me, but they did not want me to get killed so they helped me get out of there," he said. "The trip was dangerous. You could be attacked by animals or troublemakers on the road."

He spent a couple of years in Djibouti and then immigrated to the United States as a refugee. He graduated from West Philadelphia High School and went to a junior college. He ended up in Buckhead working for upscale hotels, where he heard patrons talk about owning their own businesses.

In 1996, he got a Small Business Administration loan to buy the Shell station in Jefferson.
His success here gave him reason to believe he could succeed in Harar. His decision to name the hospital the Yemage Medical Center after his 7-year-old son, Yemage, wasn't simply one of parental love or vanity.
Yemage, in his Harari tongue, means hope.

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Yemage Medical Center General Hospital, Harar, Ethiopia
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