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There are selfless people doing incredible work in the world; putting their time, talent, money and energy to make a difference for those less fortunate. Dr. Zelalem Kebede is one such individual who believes that ‘if everyone works together, share their knowledge and expertise, a lot can be achieved’. He spent the last 11 years serving the community in London and elsewhere. In the UK, he has personally helped over 250 Black and Ethnic Minority voluntary organizations to improve their systems so that they can apply themselves effectively.
Dr. Zelalem Kebede is the first Ethiopian to be recommended by the Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameroon, to become a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).
Fernandes Emmanuel interviewed him about his life’s work, his selfless services and dedication to help others, his investiture held at the Buckingham Palace on February 8, 2013, and his views on the medical service in Ethiopia. Excerpts:
Capital: Tell us about your work.
Dr. Zelalem Kebede: In 1993, the number of suicides committed among the Ethiopian refugee community was enormous. I gave up pursuing my medical profession to devote all my time to making sure those people got proper support and assistance from medical professionals and local health authorities.
While working for Black Orchid in Bristol, I worked hard to stop the conflict between medical professionals and the predominantly African-Caribbean community members with mental health problems by facilitating workshops, seminars and open discussions on how to address the ethno-specific issues of the Black and Ethnic Minority members.
For the past 11 years, I personally helped over 250 Black and Ethnic Minority voluntary organizations to have all effective systems in place to make them adequate and fit for purpose. As a result, most of them have been able to secure funding and contracts from charitable trust funds, local and national funding bodies.
I was also involved in creating the Ethiopian Medical Doctors Association in the UK (EMDUK), the first of its kind, to bring together all Ethiopian medical doctors currently working here. The association was established to assist newly arriving doctors on how to register to practice in the UK; for those registered doctors to assist Ethiopians and other refugee community members in their spare time by giving free advice and consultation. I currently working on how those experienced doctors can dedicate some of there holidays by going back to Ethiopia and other parts of Africa to work voluntarily were there specialization can be put to good use for poor African people.
I was Regional Director for London & Southeast for a national organisation which was funded by the cabinet office in the UK for 8 years. Under my leadership, from 2004 to 2011, I had been able to set up the Pan-London Capacity building Network, which have over 250 voluntary organisations and between 2008 and 2010 over 50 organisations in the network have been assisted in securing over £3.4million. From 1993 to 2011, I helped a number of community based organisations and other Black and Ethnic minority groups in London & Southeast. Nationally, as the final report showed in May 2012, we have raised over £20million for over 1,000 organisations across England, Wales and Scotland.
Currently, I have been working with a number of non-profit organisations across the UK as a consultant. Also, I and my two partners have set up a private company in Brussels to work across Africa which will be funded by the EU and other contracts. The areas of interest of our company will be working on projects like clinical leadership, capacity building, clinical excellence etc. The main geographical areas where we will be operating are North, West & East Africa, Madagascar, Latin America and some projects will be within Europe. The company will be fully operational starting from October 2013.
Capital: You recently received the Medal of the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). How did that make you feel?
Dr. Zelalem: I feel great as I became the first Ethiopian to be recommended by the UK Prime Minister David Cameroon to be honored as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Her Majesty the Queen and to receive the honors from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace. It was interesting to be acknowledged by Prince Charles as the first and only Ethiopian so far to receive an MBE and also to speak about Ethiopia. I think, and believe, that this was a privilege, but my main message is representing my country of origin, Ethiopia, although I am a British subject now.
Capital: How did you help young Ethiopian refugees in Britain who had mental health problems?
Dr. Zelalem: I have managed to reduce the number of suicides committed every day in increasing numbers within the Ethiopian community in Britain. I have been, and still am, supporting and assisting Ethiopian community members who suffer from mental health problems. I worked for the Ethiopian Mental Health Support Project which is now known as the Ethiopian Health Support Association in the period between 1993 and 1995 as a volunteer project coordinator. During that time, although the project’s running costs was only covered, I worked seven days a week for 2 and half years visiting Ethiopians with mental health problems in hospitals, accompanying them to GP surgeries and other social affairs agencies without being paid a salary for all the work I did. After 1995, I have been supporting the project and the community in a different capacity and I believe my hard work and dedication have reduced the number of suicides, which was escalating in our community prior to my involvement in the project.
Capital: Would you consider returning to do similar work in Ethiopia in the future?
Dr. Zelalem: I will at any time. I have had a number of discussions with Ethiopian Health Ministry advisors and Ethiopian doctors based in Ethiopia. I will be more than happy to help on short-term contract basis to share my knowledge and expertise, which I believe will be a valuable asset and added-value for the Ethiopian Ministry of Health.
Capital: What sort of example are you hoping to set for other Ethiopian doctors?
Dr. Zelalem: My answer will be short; if we work collectively, sharing our knowledge and expertise, we can do a lot of good to achieve quality health care, education and formulate a specialized approach in every medical profession we are practicing on.
Capital: What is the state of medical education in Ethiopia?
Dr. Zelalem: I have very limited knowledge about the education level of medicine in Ethiopia. But I can tell you one thing though; almost all medical doctors qualified in Ethiopia have the highest respect from any western graduate medical doctor as they have outstanding expertise, theoretical knowledge and best first-line of management of any illness. Some of us here in the UK call Ethiopian medical doctors, who qualified in Ethiopia but are now practicing in the UK, the “Walking Harrison”. This is a medical book which is very important for most doctors to know well. Not only the contents of the book, but how to use all the procedures, which teaches all doctors how to treat patients.
Capital: Why did you choose to leave Ethiopia and study in the former USSR?
Dr. Zelalem: Simple; I received a government scholarship to study medicine.
Capital: Capital recently reported on the fact that thousands of Ethiopians leave the country every year, spending huge amounts of money on foreign treatment, which is often unsuccessful. How can this problem be addressed?
Dr. Zelalem: Encouraging more Ethiopian doctors with a wealth of experience and expertise, who are living in North America or Europe, to come and open specialized clinics. Spending huge amounts of money does not mean patients can get 100% treatment for the pathology which the patients have, but getting more options of treatment or medical care with up-to-date medication. But if this can be accessed in Ethiopia, I think most patients will prefer to have the treatment in Ethiopia. I know that the Ethiopian Ministry of Health are doing a great job to develop more strategies on how this can be facilitated and I hope this can be achieved if all of us in Europe or America take some responsibility to help by sharing some of the work in making quality health care develop more in Ethiopia.
The support provided can be, for example;
These are just summarized ideas, but we need to remember it is everyone’s responsibility and obligation to make this happen.