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By Mike Toth

Ethiopia is identified world wide as a symbol of poverty, of lawlessness, and corruption. While it was once rivalled only by Haiti in terms of reputation, Ethiopia has been making strides with the help of foreign investment, privatization of some industries, and the government allowing people to start up their own businesses. In a country that once boasted only one university there are now over twenty, representing at least one in each of the major cities in Ethiopia. One work that looks to prepare children for those universities has a decided London connection.

Mesfin Atlaye, Director of the Panafric International Academy (PIA) in Hawassa, Ethiopia, is a quiet, introverted man with a quick smile and kind eyes. Those kind eyes, though, flash with the fire of an old school evangelist when he talks about poverty, especially in Ethiopia.

"Poverty is the enemy, it is so dehumanizing," says Mesfin. "A quality education is the only device to break the cycle of generational poverty."

Born in Ethiopia, he moved to Canada while young and received his undergraduate, graduate, and PhD. degrees. As an educator his teaching resume includes schools in Toronto and here in London at Kings College University. A trip home to Ethiopia in 2007, though, changed the direction of his and his family’s lives as he saw the destitute and homeless children wandering around Hawassa.

Returning to London with the beginning of a vision for a school, he started the Panafric coffeehouse on Dundas Street here in London to generate conversation and interest, formed a committee of like-minded individuals, and returned to Ethiopia in 2011 with missionary Roy Wallace to scout for land. In 2012 he and his family moved to Ethiopia, and in 2014 the Academy opened.

"We have 70 children at kindergarten level," says Mesfin. "Some children are from families who are able to pay tuition, but our commitment is to enrol at least 10 destitute children every year, who would have no other chance of gaining an education." This fall will see grades 1-4 open up at the school, and within five years the vision is to go all the way through high school. This ambitious plan is going on as enrolment is doubling to 140 students next school year.

Part of the difficulty in breaking the cycle of generational poverty is that while the children spend eight hours a day at the school many return to shacks and homes that have no income outside of begging. Reaching the parents with help is vitally important as well. To that end, the PIA has a program to provide micro loans to parents to start small businesses to support their family.

One such example is the story of a beautiful young girl at the school named Tinsae. When Tinsae's mother was evicted from the shack they shared she gave the six-year-old girl away to be a dishwasher. When the daughter stopped showing up to school Mesfin went to investigate and was able to get the daughter back. With a loan from the school Tinsae's mother was able to start her own business crushing, mixing, packaging, and selling spices.

"Groups can come in and feed the starving, which is of course good, but education will make them self supportive," says Mesfin. "If the children are not in school they will beg."

The Panafric International Academy receives no government funding, and is supported through the tuition of some students and the fundraising efforts of the London Panafric team. One way to help is to support the "Bucks for Books" campaign: People can "buy" a box of books for $50, which is the cost of shipping the box to Ethiopia (each box averages around 150 books depending on the type). The goal is to open a resource library in Hawassa; there are over 12,000 books, catalogued, boxed, and ready to be shipped in a container.

Another way to support PIA is through the fundraising dinner that is being held on May 16 at St. Georges Parish in Byron. At the dinner you will be able to meet Mesfin Atlaye and the London Panafric team, experience the vision, and enjoy a wonderful multi-ethnic meal. While tickets are available at the door, reservations should be made with Martha Cole at 519.471.1897 or via email at Mesfin can be reached at