Each year, Rotarians from the United States and Canada visit Ethiopia as part of the Polio Plus program. Besides participating in the National Immunization Day, they also visit projects throughout the country. Team leader Ezra Teshome who is Past District Governor for Rotary District 5030 in Seattle, USA, came with 35 Rotarians to help boost the polio eradication efforts undertaken by the Ministry of Health and partners. Capital’s Eskedar Kifle spoke to him about his work as a Rotary member and the Rotarians’ trip this year.
Capital: Tell us about your background.
Ezra Teshome: I was born in Ethiopia and after finishing 12th grade, I moved to Seattle in the US. I studied at Seattle University and then, after graduation I started working in the insurance business. It was around that time that I joined Rotary. Now I have my own insurance and real estate business in Seattle.
Every year, I bring over a team of Rotarians with me from the US and Canada. And for over a year I served Rotary as a District Governor in Seattle.
Capital: So how did you get involved in Rotary?
Ezra: When I started my own business over 30 years ago I didn’t just want to work for a profit, I wanted to help other people too and I liked what Rotary stood for, so I became a member to work with like-minded people and to help those in need.
Capital: Were you the first person of African descent to serve as 5030 District Governor?
Ezra: I was the first person that was a black African in 100 years since Rotary was established which is especially significant when you consider that around our area, there are 52 clubs.
Capital: How did that make you feel?
Ezra: It is something that made me very proud; It’s an accomplishment for Ethiopians living in the US and the African American community. I was very happy to be elected and serve in that position.
Capital: You oversaw one of Rotary’s most successful fundraising events during your time as District Governor, tell us about that.
Ezra: One of the major duties of the District Governor is to raise funds so we can serve people. During my term, many clubs were extremely supportive and we were able to hold a very successful event for the Rotary Foundation.
We also have a district conference that is held once a year and a lot of people also participated in that. I was able to get William H. Gates, who is the father of Bill Gates, to be the main speaker for the conference. I was very happy about that.
Capital: When you bring a delegation of Rotarians to Ethiopia, are they a bit reluctant to come and do you think they tend to be misinformed about the country?
Ezra: We recruit Rotarians from the US and Canada, we register the names of those that are interested, and we explain to them the goal of the trip. This time around I brought a delegation of 35 people, before I would bring 60 to 80 people, but this time the numbers have gone down.
The people that come are really passionate about the work and projects that we do. To them it is important to do more than just give money, they want to come and get involved, for example the National Immunization Day for Polio, or digging a water well for a community, building schools, they all like getting involved in these types of things.
For many of them it is their first time in Africa, we explain to them what they can expect. Many people wanted to come this year but some of them canceled due to misinformation regarding Ebola. In general, they are all excited to come here because they have a passion for helping.
Capital: Tell us how this visit has been going so far?
Ezra: So far so good. We visited Cheshire home; it is a big rehabilitation center for children and young people with disabilities and we wanted to provide some help, we also visited the Hamlin Fistula Hospital. We show the Rotarians that come with us, not only things that need to be done but also things that are already being done and the progress being made. Seeing all this inspires them and they want to do more to help.
Capital: You’ve been bringing a delegation of Rotarians to Ethiopia for quite some time, do you think this tradition will continue?
Ezra: Changing a person’s life or a community is a very big deal. As long as I have the ability and capacity to do that, I will continue to do so. It really is my biggest joy in life.
Capital: Many say that we are one mile away from eradicating polio from the world. When you work towards this, do you do it only in Ethiopia or do you also focus on other countries?
Ezra: We work in Ethiopia, in the neighboring countries as well as the world. One of Rotary’s main goals is to eradicate polio from the world. Currently, there are only three countries left, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are called endemic countries and to eradicate polio from those countries, we will continue with routine vaccinations.
The most difficult thing is not starting something but finishing it, we are working very hard and the goal is to finish by 2018. In Africa, the disease may be eradicated before then, so far Nigeria is the only one left and the number of cases there has been decreasing. When the number of cases decreases, the possibility of the disease transferring to other countries also decreases.
In Ethiopia in the Somali region and in refugee camp areas, there is a lot of effort to carry out vaccinations. The people there are nomadic, today they are here, and tomorrow they are somewhere else, which is a problem especially because the vaccine needs to be in a cold container. These have been some of the challenges we have been facing. But now, there has been encouraging progress and things are going very well. Polio was actually eradicated from Ethiopia but came back in the refugee camp areas.
There is progress, and I have high hopes that we will be successful and we will end it soon.