Meet Freweini Mebrahtu, the 2019 CNN Hero of the Year. A native of the Tigray region of Ethiopia, Freweini leveraged her university degree to change the lives of women in her home country. She obtained a patent, took out a loan and opened a factory manufacturing sanitary pads. She employed women who had never held a job. She offered day care for her workers so they could continue to earn a wage to support their families. All of this hard work came to a halt when a civil war erupted in Ethiopia in November 2020. Freweini educates us on the dire situation in her homeland that includes destruction, brutalization of women, and famine for a half million people. Freweini wants to use the platform afforded her by the CNN award to bring resolution to the conflict and resume her work in support of women at home. While much of the content of this episode is uplifting, there is some disturbing discussion of the horrors of this war.
What Happens When You are Named CNN Hero of the Year with Freweini Mebrahtu
IN THIS EPISODE
Ethiopia, Prairie View A&M University, sanitary pads, Mekelle, Tigray region, patent, business loan, Mariam Seba Sanitary Products Factory, famine, women and children.
Tigray Development Association of North America, https://tdana.org/
Health Professionals Network for Tigray, https://hpn4tigray.org/
Prairie View A&M University, https://www.pvamu.edu/
We are Sew Powerful, How a Global Community of Seamstresses Is Changing Zambia One Girl at A Time, 2nd edition. By Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, © 2016 & 2020 Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, all rights reserved.
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Host: Jan Cancila
Guest: Freweini Mebrahtu
Jan Cancila 00:04
Welcome to the Sew Powerful podcast. This is your host, Jan Cancila. You know the sound of my sewing machine means it's time for another episode. So let's get started. Today we are going to speak with the 2019 CNN Hero of the Year Freweini Mebrahtu leveraged her education and passion for helping women to win a patent and secure a loan to produce reusable feminine hygiene supplies in her home country of Ethiopia. She established a factory there and employs women in a model very similar to that of Sew Powerful in Zambia. We are going to learn Freweini's backstory and how the civil unrest in Ethiopia has disrupted her important work. Please join me in welcoming Freweini Mebrahtu to the Sew Powerful podcast. Hello for Freweini. How are you today?
Freweini Mebrahtu, Guest 01:05
Pretty good. How are you? Thanks for having me.
Oh, we are so excited to have you. Where are we speaking to you from? Where are you today?
I'm back living in the US.
All right, for nearly 20 years.
Tell us a little bit about your home country. It's Ethiopia, correct? And help those of us who are geographically challenged. Where would we find it on the map in Africa?
Well, it is on East Africa. And we're so proud. We were heading to the right direction. But now situations are completely different, going downhill.
Yeah. And I'm going to ask you a little bit more about that. In my introduction, I gave our listeners a brief overview of your background. But we want to learn more, of course. Let's start with your childhood. Where did you grow up? And how would you describe your family life?
Well, I grew up in a small town called Adigrat, which is in Tigray. A large family. There were eight of us. My father worked hard. He drove a truck for a while. And he then opened a small hotel. My mother was a homemaker. We were your typical Tigrayan family. We were town kids; we had a little bit more than the families in the village. And it didn't seem relevant in the past, when I was telling my story. Because war, it was something we were supposed to have put behind us. Never again, only look forward. When I was a child for a huge chunk of it, the Tigray region was in war. When I was a young adult in 1983, to '86, there was a terrible famine. We lost so many lives; so many relatives. They starved to death. And now it's happening again. And God knows how many relatives we will lose now. So it is really, really troubling. You know. So the experience of childhood up to now it's been very challenging. At the same time, you know, we were hopeful and going the right way. But now it's just going downhill.
Oh, gosh, I'm so sorry. In your biography that I read online, you've been pretty open about your first experience with menstruation for both you and your classmates. Can you tell us about that and how that experience may have shaped your desire to help other girls and women in Ethiopia?
Well, when faced with a challenge, you have two choices. You can do something or you can do nothing. The damage is there. There may not be a physical scars. So you take that and you decide what to do with it. You can do something or nothing. We grew up in Tigray in Ethiopia facing so many challenges: war, conflict, malnutrition, everything. So this work with menstruation, making reusable pads available, this was something doable. It addressed an immediate need. It made an impact on people's lives and livelihoods. With what it is happening in Tigray now, we have no chance. We have no choice, but to do something. But we can't do it alone. We need everyone. We need all human beings to be involved. And to do something. I can't do it alone. Tigray cannot do it alone. We got to do it. And we got to do it now.
And so what what kind of help are you looking for?
We need to open our eyes. We need to be voice for the voiceless. Not only just voice, but we need to act. The people who have power, they need to lead and so important not to lose one child is too many. It's almost a year now, since the war started. So we gotta act; we got to work together; we need to be human again. I mean, right now I'm so heartbroken. I am so upset. I'm numb.
And is humanitarian aid coming or is it blocked or what's the story?
It is blocked. We are under siege at the moment. Nothing is going in. The basic medications are not getting in. They're blocking.
If somebody wants to get involved and help what would be the best thing that they could do, Freweini?
There's a lot of ways to help. There is the Tigray Development Association, which is TDA. They can help out, whether it's donating money, donating medical equipment. You know, we need everything. We have absolutely nothing. I mean, the sky's the limit. We are talking about people are starting to eat leaves. Kids are eating leaves at the moment to stay alive. What I'm trying to say is, you know, we have women who are being raped and psychologically tormented. And on top of it, they have nothing to eat. And it's just on the verge of famine, there is almost like close to half million Tigrayans are in the famine condition at the moment.
There is Health Professional Network for Tigray, who are really looking into helping women and children's health. So I urge you, HPN4Tigray, please do help so that when it is possible to get into Tigray so they can help. At the moment they are helping the displaced women and people in general in Sudan, and they're they're doing whatever the best they can but we need everyone to be involved and help out to save lives. We got to get help as quickly as possible. Otherwise, we will see a famine that we have not seen in decades.
Freweini, thank you very much for that. Why don't we take a quick break and when we come back we're going to talk a little bit about the work that you did to establish your factory and hopefully be able to return to that so let's take a quick break and when we come back we'll continue our conversation with Freweini Mebrahtu. Thank you so much.
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Welcome back. We have been speaking with Freweini Mebrahtu. Freweini been sharing with us the dire circumstances in her home country of Ethiopia specifically in the Tigray region. There is a conflict that's been going on for almost a year resulting in near famine conditions for a very large segment of the population. And Freweini is asking and pleading with all of us to get involved to help her family who's still there and friends and workers that were in her business. Can you give us the name of the organization? Again, the HTN for Tigray? What does that stand for again, please?
It's Health Professionals For Tigray (HPN4Tigray).
And I presume there's a website there where people could make make donations to help this cause?
Okay. All right. Well, good. Well, thank you. If we can go back a little bit so that we can get more of your background. I surprisingly learned that a woman from Ethiopia went to university in the United States, 30 minutes from my home. Where did you go to university? And what did you study?
I went to school Prairie View A&M, which is, as you know, it's just on the outskirts of Houston. And I did study chemical engineering.
And why did you choose that major?
Well, it's interesting. Actually, I was introduced to Prairie View A&M through a friend of mine, and has been telling me how great engineering technology is, there was in, in Prairie View A&M. So I went for a tour one day and starting touring all the departments. And finally I landed to the chemical engineering department and I, I seriously remember the the dean that I met, his name was Dr. Patu. And he was from Egypt. Then I told him, I was in Ethiopia, he said, we're the same people; we drink the same water. And that to me, was like, oh, my goodness, he's one of my brothers. You know, that's how I really felt. So I had a great GPA at community college. I was mainly focusing on math and science. You know, international students tend to study engineering or medical. You want to better your life. So I was hoping to study the pharmacy or even go to medical school and some sort of engineering. So when I met Dr. Fatu, he's like a very nice man. I was too young and he was trying to mentor me and convince me to study chemical engineering after spending the whole day with other departments like electrical, civil and what have you. So I finally convinced to do a chemical engineering degree with Prairie View A&M, and I was also awarded some scholarships. So I'm just glad I made that decision and grateful for Prairie View education. It was just an enjoyable memory that I had with Prairie View A&M.
So after you graduated, you went back to Ethiopia. What were you doing at first when you came back home?
Well, you see, I had a wonderful life here in the US. And I was just like any ordinary citizen. And it's been wonderful. But my heart is always been back home. And if I ever decided to go back home, I want to do something good to better the lives of the underprivileged. And again, the subject of menstruation was always in my heart, because it was very horrifying experience as far as having my first period and how I suffered like any other girls. And we didn't have access to sanitary pads. So as soon as I got home, I was wondering if things have been changed. So I started looking into that. And to my horror, nothing has changed. And this is 20 years later, and me was like, You know what, I got to do something about this. When I was trying to interview women in the villages in the outskirts of where I grew up, they telling me that use any any rags, they can find around if they can or any grass. Hard to believe that after 20 years, nothing has changed. So my focus was like, Okay, I've got to do something. That was it. So I started researching and looking into different options on what would be the best product for for the underprivileged women. And also, the one thing I was not going to compromise, however, is the effectiveness of the product. So based on that, that's when I started doing my research in those first two, three years.
And then in 2005, and 2006, you did something remarkable. What transpired during those two years?
I mean, those two, three years, I was just going to a different material analysis, you know, and the one thing I had to consider was the effectiveness of the product, but the same has to be affordable, it has to be environmental friendly product. So putting those all in into consideration, I came up with the product that I think it would work. Then I started, you know, testing it, and the ladies that who had, you know, tried my product, they just were so pleased to in fact, someone like myself who has been in the US or learned stuff, and then they could have a good life here, but decided to go back and do something about it that was pleasing for them. You know, in Ethiopia, especially in Tigray, we wear white clothes at very happy moments. You know, festivals and what have you. So wearing white clothes during your period is is not something new, even here in the US. So they the way they describe it is You made us wear our white clothes, every day.
It's a turning point; it was a worthwhile of a cause to to pursue. So then once I developed that product, then I got to apply for a patent here in the Ethiopian Science and Technologies. I was granted a patent after that. Of course, is the bigger step, you know, how do we really get this product, you know, to produce and so that we can get it to the people who needs it so.
Well then in 2009, you were awarded a loan of $150,000. And you started the factory to produce the sanitary pads, right?
Yes. So tell us about all of that, what would happen then.
So like any other business, you do apply for loan. And however, since this product is so new, and also at the same time, we're not sure who is going to afford to use it, it's new. We're talking about people who have very little money, so it was hard for me to get that loan. However, after so many tries, and one guy was a vice president at that time, he was nice enough to hear me out and understand what I was trying to do. After two years of trying, I was granted the loan to build a factory and buy machineries. And of course, to start the factory. So that was the challenging part to convince them. But there were times that I wanted to give up. But it was not an option for me to give up.
And you named your factory after your daughter. What is the name of the factory?
It is Mariam Seba Sanitary Products factory. I only have one daughter. It's also named after my grandmother who was dear to me. And basically that's why I named it. And I want every daughter to feel like as lucky as my daughter. So it's just a significant name for me and for the rest of women in Ethiopia as a whole.
Now I've seen actually a short video of your factory when it was operational. How many women did you employ? And what kind of equipment were they using?
We started with 10. And we're now about 60 women. Yes, we hire women around the community. And basically why we do that is because we really wanted to give an opportunity to women who never held job before. All they needed to be 18 years old, and also at least some education. So we train them for a month. And this is an intense training with various sewing machines to make sure that, you know, they understand these are semi automated. It is pretty intense training. So we never turn down anybody we trained. It's a paid training. And once they are finished with their training, we just basically put them where they can fit in with the maximum of efficiency that they could do.
And women who had these jobs, did you see the difference in their confidence, the way they were able to live their lives as a result of the job that you gave them, Freweini?
My goodness, the confidence is just day and night. You know, they come in and they just shrinking you know, and then by the end of the week, they're like ready to operate a sewing machine and producing pads that they could use and they could also take home and to be used by their families and they're so proud. You wouldn't believe, right now we have women who's been with me since the very beginning and they have their children. They're like almost like I have grandchildren basically and that's exactly how I feel. So the one thing that we also do is that we never hire manager from outside. We basically get them to grow within the company. So the production managers, the supervisors are always come from the factory workers. So they're always have have hope to grow. So there's always room for improvement. So basically, the confidence level is amazing. And we're the first company in Ethiopia to provide a daycare center. The reason being that is because, you know, they're young, they tend to get married, young, which is customary, especially in the villages in Ethiopia, all over and of course, then the Tigray region. So when they have their children, they tend to stay home because they have no nobody to take care of their children. So that means they're losing their income, they're losing their confidence and what have you. So we decided to start a daycare center in the factory. And that's been amazing add on to their confidence, and also to, to keep them hopeful to better their lives.
So you have supervisors and managers, but you also have daycare workers, I presume, right?
Wow. Oh, that's amazing. That's fantastic. So now, unfortunately, we have to talk about the war again. So a year ago, the war happened. And at that point, how long was the factory opened after the war started? What point did you have to close down?
Wow, I was there when the war erupted. And it was a nightmare. There was a bombardment and it was a shock. So everybody has to stay at home. And we basically had to shut down for a good two months. And of course, that really made a shook up to everyone. And of course, we had to continue to help our workers to make sure that they get their salaries and make sure that they are feeding their families. And it was quite a shocking experience. And then we had to open it again, after the the Ethiopian government took over the capital city of Mekelle, where the factory is at, and start operating very slowly, but it was not safe at all. So we had to close it again. So basically, it's been closed. And the other thing is also we cannot get any raw materials, in and out even to ship out our products to other parts of Ethiopia. So this happened, you know, a while back, and of course, even before the war started, the transportation was blockedade from the Amhara region to Tigray. So we were going through Darfur [in Sudan]. So it was already a problem in the last three years. And of course, it's been a year now since we have not done much of anything. And all we've been trying to sustain with what we've got and try to help as much as we possibly can to, to make sure the workers are are eating and being taking care of. But at the same time, there were a lot of workers they had to go away from Mekelle so that they can look for other family members that they have lost in various parts of Tigray. So that was quite devastating. So basically, the factory is not, you know, operational.
Is the building still in good condition? Is the equipment still inside?
I would hope so. Because from what I hear, Mekelle is not a place that they damaged so much. And our factory is not that big. So I'm hoping that it's still intact. But the point remains is if you have no workers, or...
You're not doing your job, what good will it do? So, of course, as you know, factories have been looted all over Tigray. The big factories who were providing jobs, they no longer there. This was purposefully done. They have looted and destroyed everything. And on the top of it, women been raped and this is what's been happening. So that's the reason that the workers, they had to go look for their loved one, so I'm not quite even sure if all of them are alive, or you know, how they're doing in fact, at this point. So it's really, really troubling.
Sure. You were awarded the 2019 Hero of the Year Award by CNN. Has that brought awareness to the plight of women? Did that advance your cause?
It was such a hopeful moment. The fact that you have invited me to talk to you today, in 2021 is the testament the effect that award has had. We're still talking about menstruation and the needs of women in the developing world. So by any measure, this is a great thing. So we are talking about it, then we use it to inform our planning and decision making around intervention services that we offer in the developing world. So yes, the award has been wonderful, but my whole hope is shattered.
Okay, I know that you're a friend of Torey Elwell. Tory is a volunteer for Sew Powerful. Shall we end the podcast here by you saying hello to Torey just so that she'll get her name here in the podcast?
Well, Torey, I can't believe it's been almost six years since we started conversing. And of course meeting you was a great pleasure. And I can't believe how much difference you're making going across the continent and helping out girls. And you certainly exemplified the humanity way of doing things, you know. And that's the reason we are all involved in this noble causes to help out women and children in need. And I seriously think that Torey exemplifies humanity. So I truly, truly appreciate her friendship and the difference that she's making in Ethiopia.
Well, very, very well said, Freweini. Thank you so much for your time. And you, and all of Ethiopia, especially the Tigray region, will be in our prayers and we will look for Health Professionals for Tigray as a way that we here in the West might be able to make a difference to help those in need in Ethiopia. So thank you.
Thank you. Bye-bye.
If what you've heard today inspires you to want to make a difference, I urge you to explore the Sew Powerful website at www.sewpowerful.org. That's SEW POWERFUL dot ORG. The website has great information about the organization, is where you can download the free purse patterns, or even make a donation. We hope you will join us again next week when we bring you another Sew Powerful story. Thanks for listening. Now, go out and have a Sew Powerful day.
ABOUT THE HOST
Jan Cancila has been making purses for Sew Powerful since 2014. She serves the organization as Director, Global Volunteerism, the Area Manager for Shows and Events-Mid/South USA and as the Houston Regional Coordinator. She was a public speaking major at Hanover College and holds an MBA from Our Lady of the Lake University. Jan had a 25-year career with The Coca-Cola Company before owning and operating a linen and party rental business in Houston. She is married with two grown sons, a lovely daughter-in-law and two remarkable granddaughters. Jan’s published work includes more than 100 online articles for Examiner.com. Reach Jan with comments or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.