A Tearful Reunion: Catching Up With Birhane After an Unimaginable Few Years

Now, in schools where our meals are served in Tigray, young learners have the chance to engage with education again, and spend time with their friends, safe in the knowledge that they will receive a much-needed meal every day they attend classes.

Back to all stories | Posted on 4 June 24 in NewsBlogChildren's stories

Birhane received meals before the war (in the same school) and Mary’s Meals first met him in 2019. Much has happened in the intervening years and it’s clear by looking at him that Birhane has suffered the physical effects of a lack of food. 

His family life is still disrupted, with his mother traveling to a nearby town three days every week to try to find work in order to feed the family. His family was ready to migrate, but when he saw that meals had returned to the school he convinced them to stay. Birhane is very glad to be back at school, seeing his friends and receiving a reliable meal.

Shona Shea from our Communications team shares her reflections on meeting Birhane.

“When I first met Birhane he was in his first few years of school; a young boy with a shy smile who cuddled into his father as they posed for a photograph together. That was at the end of 2019. Back then, it would have been impossible to imagine the horrors young Birhane was to endure in the years that followed. 

I recognize his smile first, but it takes me a while longer to identify the face that holds it – he has grown so much in these intervening years. Years when he saw his school close – first because of the Covid-19 pandemic, then a devastating and brutal civil war that threatened to tear his country apart. And for two years, it did. Officially there is peace in Tigray now, but many marks of the war remain. And now a drought has hit the region and left its already bruised and battered people struggling to survive.”

Birhane and his family are no exception. He says: “I should be in Grade 6 but for the last two to three years I was out of school, there was severe instability and hunger. We migrated to Wukro (a nearby town) during the war, we came back when school opened, but my mother is still there a lot of the time. She doesn’t regularly live in our home. She goes three days a week to work in Wukro and then she brings me food when she comes home."

Other family members try to earn what little they can. Birhane’s eldest brother looks for work excavating stones and his father works as a security guard for the school. But it’s his mother who is the biggest earner. The sacrifices she makes to feed her family can be difficult for the children, but the impact of her not finding work is even worse and sadly Birhane knows this from experience. He says: “There’s not enough for a full meal at home when my mum can’t bring any money. If that happens, we all just try to sleep the whole day. We don’t have a choice.”

At this point in our conversation, Birhane’s beautiful smile cracks and he begins to cry. It’s clear that the stress of hunger, the prolonged absence from school, and the worries he has about his mother have taken their toll on him. After such a cruel few years, this is the reality for children living in Tigray right now. It’s no wonder they feel scared about the future. What is remarkable, though, is their resilience in the face of such trauma, because it’s clear all hope is not lost.

“…thank all of you; we are standing here because of Mary’s Meals.”

For Birhane and his friends, that hope comes from the return of Mary’s Meals at his school. It comes from the smoke rising from the school kitchen and the shouts of children playing in the school yard – it comes from the promise of a nutritious meal every day he attends school.

Those meals represent so much more than an easing of his hunger. Being back in school gives him some return to ‘normality’, where he gets to play and talk with his friends. The consistent promise of our meals served in school gives him the opportunity to focus on his education once more, which means he is able to work towards a very different future.

He tells me: “Now I am very happy at school, I am learning and understanding my subjects more and more. If you are properly educated, you can be a doctor, a teacher, you can get whatever you want."